>James Byrne looks into the dispute behind a profession surrounded by stigma and negative assumptions…
There has been intense debate over the last few years over whether to decriminalise, or even legalise the business of prostitution. On Monday 2nd April UWE held a debate on the issue between freelance journalist Julie Bindel and Women’s Institute representative Jean Johnson.
Julie Bindel favours the approach taken by Sweden, where the act of selling sex is decriminalised and the act of buying is clamped down on. Bindel argues that this has been better for sex workers than full legalisation. Johnson, on the other hand, accepts that prostitution will always exist and so consequently favours a system which involves registration of prostitutes and licensing of brothels. Johnson claims this is an approach that has been successfully implemented in countries such as Germany and The Netherlands.
When discussing legalisation, we should first decide what the purpose of prohibition is. If the intention is to wipe out all forms of prostitution entirely, it seems appropriate to target the buyers and not the sellers of sexual services. However, experience has shown that you cannot legislate against ‘problems’ such as prostitution to get them to go away and prostitution has existed in various forms for millennia. If we accept this as inevitable, the only option remaining is to make the sale of sex as safe a transaction as possible. The ill effects of prostitution are not intrinsic but associated with it, involving: violence, forms of slavery, illegal immigration and exploitation. These are against the law already, except for exploitation; when the prostitute is under paid for his or her work. Campaigners such as Johnson argue that a more comprehensive legalisation allows women to work in safe and secure conditions without fear of prosecution or abuse.
While it may be a difficult fact to stomach, sex workers cater to a consumer demand that has always existed. Based on this it would seem that simply shifting the target of criminalisation from seller to buyer will succeed only in depriving desperate women of a source of income.
There are no easy answers but if we ban prostitution on the grounds that it is immoral for someone to exploit their body for financial gain, then surely to avoid any inconsistency we must also make criminals of models, porn-stars, athletes, actors and soldiers? Legalisation and regulation will not protect all women or eliminate all criminal activity. Nothing can do that. Nevertheless, the lack of a perfect solution should not stop us from finding a better alternative to the status quo; leaving sex workers outside of the protection of the law.
No rational person will deny that it would be better if prostitution was not part of the fabric of human societies. However, equally, we must accept the fact that it looks like it’s here to stay instead of retreating to some sort of hypothetical paradise.