Don’t ‘end demand’ for prostitution. Make it safer instead

Women in prostitution don’t have it easy. The majority have been raped and / or sexually assaulted, probably entered into the trade as a minor, and are likely to have a serious substance abuse problem. There’s little guarantee that they’re selling sex voluntarily, and a substantial chance that they suffer from harassment and emotional blackmail on a daily basis. In short, there’s no debate to be had about whether new action is needed; it’s clear to all that women in prostitution currently face explicit exploitation. The problem, however, is that current legislative attempts to rescue these women – such as the ‘Sex Buyer Law’, the bill aiming to criminalise the purchasing of sex that recently passed in Northern Ireland – are proposals driven by morality, not sustainable policy, and ones that offer neither a feasible nor an effective solution to the problem of female exploitation. As a society, we must learn from the battles waged in drug policy: eradicating the desire to engage in social practices that we disagree with is impossible, and the simplest way to help people sure to be indulging in them is to craft an adequate framework of support and protection. If we ignore these lessons – and persist with the naive hope that we can scare the world’s oldest industry into submission – we condemn prostitutes to the whims of the violent, underground, unregulated sexual free market.

The ‘Sex Buyer Law’ has a strong international pedigree. For a self-ascribed liberal, hearing that it has the Scandinavian stamp of approval (it is heavily modeled on a Swedish law implemented in 1999), and that the Council of Europe has called the law ‘the most effective tool for preventing and combating trafficking in human beings’, is truly heartening. The new law would shift the weight of scrutiny from the sellers of sex onto those that purchase it. It is currently legal in the UK to pay somebody to have sex with you, and legal to sell your body to someone else, but illegal to ‘work’ as a prostitute and solicit sex. The law change would force a change here – ostensibly to push society in a direction in which women don’t have to sell their body to survive, or put up with the traumatic emotional and physical baggage all too commonly attached to purchased sex, because the stringent laws would make would-be punters too scared to pay for it in the first place.

The sentiments at the heart of the ‘Sex Buyer Law’ are, of course, to be applauded. In order to eradicate exploitation, we must prevent women under the age of 18 being involved in prostitution; we must prevent women who do not want to be prostitutes from being involved in prostitution; and we must prevent women who choose to engage with clients from being mentally or physically harmed. We can’t continue to stand by whilst the realities for sex workers are so distressing. However, despite the bill’s best intentions, a central question remains: is the zero-tolerance policy towards those purchasing sex the most effective manner in which to achieve these goals?

Given the clandestine nature of the industry, it’s difficult to give an accurate answer. Nevertheless, a 2010 study commissioned by the Swedish government to investigate the impact of their prohibition on the purchasing of sex found that in the ten years since adopting their equivalent of the ‘Sex Buyer Law’, street prostitution had halved. The study found no reason to suggest that there had been a greater increase in prostitution via the internet than in comparable countries, implying that the prohibition had not led to street prostitution shifting to different arenas. And – perhaps the greatest success – ‘according to the National Criminal Police [in Sweden], it is clear that the prohibition of the purchase of sexual services acts as a barrier to human traffickers and procurers considering establishing themselves in Sweden.’

But this doesn’t tell us the whole story. To return to the criterion for eradicating exploitation above, does cracking down on the buyer prevent women under the age of 18 from being prostituted? Does it help women who want to leave the industry leave? And does it safeguard those engaging in prostitution from harm?

Again, there’s no clear answer. Results on trafficking have been heartening, but the rest of the positives to be gleaned from the law’s model are based on a reduction in desire to indulge in prostitution. There is no proof that this can continue to an absolute zero either in country or globally – and, even it were to happen, it would take a person beyond optimistic to believe that a culture of zero demand could occur within the working career of the some 80,000 prostitutes working in the UK today. Law-making therefore has to work on the assumption that demand for prostitution will continue for the foreseeable future – and to focus solely on finding the safest way of protecting those functioning in the industry.

Once this is accepted, morality has to be pushed aside. Questioning whether it is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ for somebody to pay someone else to let them entwine genitals must be left out of the debate. Questioning whether sex as the ultimate expression of intimacy will be diluted must be left out of the debate. And more contentiously, questioning whether prostitution ultimately contributes to a culture in which men treat women and girls as sexual objects must be left out of the debate. Instead, we have to focus on the undeniable fact that there is incredible demand for the product, and that unless we act to legitimise the supply, the vicious and unregulated free market will continue to fill the void.

So what’s the alternative approach to increased criminalisation? Consistent and regulated decriminalisation.

Internationally notorious for its approach to cannabis and sex, the most obvious precedent for decriminalisation would be the Netherlands. Approximately 20,000 prostitutes work the streets in the country. Prostitution has been legal since 1830, with a series of successive laws transforming the practice into a legal profession with a series of safeguards put in place: there are municipal regulations about the organisation and practice of business; any sex business must obtain a license; prostitutes must pay the same rate of tax as other independent workers; cameras must be installed in front of the shop windows.

And again we face the same questions: does this regulated approach lower the number of prostitutes under 18? Does it help prostitutes who want to leave the industry leave? And does it protect those who willingly choose to engage in prostitution from harm?

In the Netherlands, the answer is… you guessed it, difficult to select conclusively. But the approach can be boiled down to a simple fact, highlighted by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a publication about their policy towards prostitutes:

‘…abuses are easier to detect when sex workers operate publicly and legally rather than in a clandestine subculture.’

All of the ‘research’ surrounding the industry is difficult to corroborate, but what we can do is stick to the point above. If prostitutes are forced and encouraged to work in monitored areas, if these areas and brothels are visited regularly by local law enforcement agencies, if panic buttons are installed in every room, if consistent health checks and a constant supply of condoms are provided, if cameras are installed in the buildings housing prostitutes, and if businesses that want to enter into the industry are forced to obtain a license before functioning, women stand a much better chance of being protected than if they weren’t there.

Decriminalisation alone is not an adequate answer to the requirements of ending exploitation – New Zealand, a country that decriminalised prostitution in 2003, has actually seemed to experience an increase in trafficking since relaxing its laws – but it is the right jumping off point.

It’s common knowledge that removing legitimate access to something does not decrease the desire to consume it – instead, people end up chasing a twisted, broken and dangerous version of it; we need only look at the failure of prohibition. The key to improving the welfare of all touched by a particular ill is to bring the fallout under public scrutiny. The best way to do this is to bring it under state control. Phase out the private sellers and initiate national regulation and oversight. Have a constant line of communication between the government and consumers, knowing that doing otherwise would simply be wilful ignorance.

And it’s from here that the lessons for prostitution policy must come. We must accept that prostitution is here to stay, and welcome both the punters and the sellers into our arms – using national oversight and regulation to protect the health and well being of those that choose to enter into prostitution, and the weight of public morality and police enforcement to crack down on hideous traffickers. Focusing upon ending demand is a political imperative driven by morality, not long-term policy. So to those debating the ‘Sex Buyer Law’, I say this: to truly eradicate exploitation via prostitution – to save the women brutalised by a culture of violent pimping – we should embrace the industry, safeguarding it, instead of blindly hoping that we can somehow squash the most versatile of underground industries via increased punishments.

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