In this post I’ll examine the pros and cons of decriminalising prostitution (I.E. the provision of sexual services in return for payment). Prior to considering the arguments concerning decriminalisation it is necessary to set out the law, as it pertains to prostitution in the UK.
In the UK it is illegal to pay for sex with a child (I.E. a person under the age of 18) however, it should be noted that the age of consent for sexual relations (not involving commercial sex) is 16 for both men and women.
It is illegal for a prostitute to solicit in a public place and “kerb crawling (driving around in search of commercial sex) is also prohibited under UK legislation.
It is legal for one person to work as a prostitute, from a flat or other premises, however where two or more individuals work together the premises is regarded as a brothel and, as such is illegal.
It is legal for a person to advertise their services as an escort, however where escort agencies “control” escorts this is prohibited by UK law.
In 2009 the law was changed to make paying for sex with a person who has been coerced into prostitution illegal. This is a “strict liability” offence which means that the person paying for the service does not need to be aware that the prostitute has been forced into prostitution for an offence to have been committed. It is not illegal to pay for the provision of sexual services, however a person may find themselves prosecuted if they are found to have had sex with a person forced into the sex industry irrespective of whether they where in fact cognisant that compulsion had occurred.
(For a summary of the legal position in the UK please see the following link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostitution_in_the_United_Kingdom).
ARGUMENTS IN FAVOUR OF DECRIMINALISING PROSTITUTION
1. Freedom of the individual – Men and women are soverign over their own bodies (I.E. we own ourselves), consequently neither the state, society, the community or any other individual has the right to tell consenting adults what they can or can not do with their own property. People who argue in favour of this position do not (necessarily) contend that prostitution does no harm. They may accept that prostitution causes psychological damage to those engaged in it, however they contend that we, as individuals have the right to take actions which are harmful to ourselves provided that we do not injure others in so doing. According to this perspective even if the person working as a prostitute is harmed by her employment, provided that he or she chose their occupation without coercion of any kind they should be left, unmolested to pursue their calling.
The above position does not assume that there should be no measures in place to regulate prostitution. Indeed proponents of the libertarian stance frequently contend that prostitution must be conducted so as to avoid the creation of a public nuisance. Consequently advocates of individual liberty will frequently argue in favour of confining prostitution to designated areas, zones separated from the wider community in order that those who find prostitution objectional need not be subjected to observing the industry in action.
2. Men/women should not be penalised for paying for sex – this is closely related to 1 (above). In essence the argument here is that it is wrong to penalise those who unknowingly pay for sexual services provided by a person who has been coerced into prostitution. According to this viewpoint criminal liability should rest fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the person who has compelled the prostitute into the industry rather than with the client. Some spokespeople for those engaged in prostitution have argued that by criminalising the purchasers of sexual services the state is deterring clients from reporting suspicions of coercion because, by so doing they are opening themselves up to prosecution for paying for sex with someone who has been coerced into working as a prostitute.
In Sweden it is an absolute offence to pay for sex irrespective of whether or not the person offering the service is acting of their own free will. Some opponents of the Swedish law contend that this has made the lives of prostitutes much more difficult as men are nervous and, as a consequence may treat prostitutes worse than was the case prior to the coming into effect of the legislation. In addition the law opens up the possibility of blackmail in that clients may be blackmailed by sex workers into paying monies due to threats of exposure (and prosecution) if they fail to comply).
3. Legalisation of brothels would protect prostitutes – At present a lady or man may offer sexual services from premises provided that he or she works alone. However if more than one person works the premises is classified as a brothel and is, as a consequence illegal. Many prostitutes and their advocates argue that single people, working alone are at much greater risk of violence than are those working in brothels (the safety in numbers argument if you like). Supporters of this position point to the Netherlands as an example of where brothels offer protection to both prostitutes and their clients.
ARGUMENTS AGAINST DECRIMINALISATION
1. Prostitution is the exploitation of women and children and should not be tolerated in any shape or form – Supporters of this perspective argue that very few of those working as prostitutes are doing so of their own free will. Many of them where abused (sexually and physically) as children which makes them easy prey for those intent on trapping them into prostitution. The clients are the problem as they create the demand for ever more prostitutes thereby driving the market to recruit ever more sex workers. The answer is to tackle the demand by following the example of Sweden and prohibiting the purchasing of sexual services while, at the same time not penalising the prostitutes themselves.
2. Creating legal brothels increases the demand for prostitution and enhances the opportunities for criminals – Proponents of this view believe that the legalisation of brothels would not decrease the availability of trafficked prostitutes. Indeed they contend that in the Netherlands the decriminalised sector exists alongside a thriving criminal market. In addition the legalisation of brothels would lead to an increase in drug trafficking and other criminal activity associated with prostitution.
FURTHER SOURCES OF INFORMATION
For arguments against the decriminalisation of prostitution please see the Prostitution Research and Education website which can be found at http://www.prostitutionresearch.com/.
For arguments in favour of decriminalising prostitution please see the Sexual Freedom Coalition’s website which can be accessed at http://www.sfc.org.uk/.