Parliament, follow Nevada’s lead and make legal, licensed brothels a thing

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By Peter Baker on

Prostitutes are entitled to a safe workplace


Hookers, prostitutes — there are many names, but one activity.

It’s an awkward topic to discuss, shied away from by most people. However, for the one in ten men who pay for sex — or, more importantly, the victims of sexual exploitation or those willingly working as sex workers — it’s something that deserves a full and frank discussion.

Theoretically, prostitution in the United Kingdom is legal. What is not is soliciting, brothel running (which means having two or more prostitutes in the same premises) and other associated activities. What this does is criminalise the prostitute. It seems strange to arrest who many would consider the victim in all this, and I believe this is because prostitutes aren’t victims.

The exact numbers of those exploited can never be determined, however the numbers are most probably small. In 2009, a large scale policing operation and inquiry failed to find a single person forced into prostitution. This looked for those traditionally viewed as victims: addicts, victims of violence and human trafficking. Of course this was a limited exercise — people may have been coursed into silence — but the failure to find a single victim suggests that the numbers will be exceptionally small.

It could be, and frequently is, argued that every prostitute is a victim. Perhaps you can argue that some or most are forced into this position by economic circumstance, and I would be sympathetic to that argument, however to categorise all prostitutes as being forced is patronising. Simply because people make decisions that you and I would not does not mean that they must have been coerced into it. Even if it did the current law that punishes the ‘victim’ is counterproductive.

Now I expect there will be much moral outrage at the suggestion prostitutes aren’t victims. Horror stories, references to tragic cases of exploitation where they were victims, and the standard dubious statistics and quotes that pervade any discussion of these ‘moralistic’ topics. Of course there will be tragic events that no sane, moral or halfway human person would wish on anyone — and to anyone who has had that experience I would extend my heartfelt sympathy and support. Though, to those of you keen to rely on statistics in the comments section — I would direct you here.

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These tragedies don’t change the fact the majority of prostitutes are not victims (well, not until the criminal justice system is involved). The severe punishment of the very people these laws are apparently there to protect is hypocritical.

The Street Offences Act 1959 makes it an offence to loiter for the purposes of offering services as a prostitute. Ss 33-35 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 criminalise brothel keeping, though this requires more than one woman to be present. There are also offences for advertising in phone boxes, though strangely not in newspapers. All of these provisions penalise the prostitute directly, and also indirectly as any attempt to organise for safety is branded as a crime. It does not do anyone any good to expose prostitutes to further risk, and the government agrees. There has been a public policy shift towards the Swedish model, criminalising the purchaser. While all these laws still remain, and are frequently used to penalise prostitutes, the government has made “kerb crawling” and paying for sex an offence.

This model is based on the best thinking: harm reduction. Not hurting the prostitute, but penalising those who take advantage of them. The nature of prostitution makes it risky, with the increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases and physical and sexual violence.

The problem is this model actually increases the risk prostitutes face. In a classic example of the law of unintended consequences, forcing prostitutes to work in more secluded locations, with less access to harm reduction services, has put them at greater risk.

Some may argue that this is a moral stance, a stance to protect prostitutes from their abusers. I don’t agree — how can you put someone at greater risk, and claim to be protecting them at the same time?

I prefer the Nevada system. Brothels are legal and regulated. We could adopt, and I think we should adopt, a similar system that allows legal, licensed prostitution as a method of self-employment in licensed premises. This allows people to work for themselves, which would reduce harm by allowing security, and give the public and the government some control over the sex industry. It would force out organised crime, to the extent organise crime can be forced out of any market. Requiring the licensee to undergo a physiological evaluation and be over the age of 18, while criminalising those who do go to unlicensed prostitutes, will protect those with mental health issue or suffering abuse. It will move the industry into the daylight and protect the most vulnerable.

I’m not naive enough to believe that unlicensed prostitution will disappear as a result. However, criminalising those who pay for sex will help here — few will risk years in prison for the prospect of saving money by using an unlicensed prostitute if there is a brothel a few minutes’ drive away.

Though, given that around 40% of those in prostitution are there partly as a result of benefit sanctions, I’m not sure we can be regarded as caring about the people involved. These statistics are, and have been, readily available to policy makers for years, and yet nothing has changed.

Perhaps this is an unconformable argument — but if we actually care about the people involved in the way we claim to, don’t they deserve a safe place to work? Don’t they deserve the protection not the persecution of the police? Shouldn’t we at least consider it?

Peter Baker is a graduate from Aberystwyth University. He completed the GDL this year at BPP University and hopes to study the LPC.

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