Why I think prostitution should be decriminalised, but do not expect it will be

May 11, 2001

Sex work involves men and women from all walks of life. The stereotype of the street worker is misleading. Probably four out of five sex workers provide their services indoors - some work full time, some part time and others just when times are hard. Money may be the overwhelming motivation, but it is not the only one - some like the autonomy, and not all sex workers are victims.

Voluntary adult sex work is not illegal in England and Wales, just difficult. The Sexual Offences Act of 1956 was aimed at third parties, from procurers to exploitative landlords to those who "live off immoral earnings". The Street Offences Act of 1959, the one most commonly invoked, proscribes soliciting and "loitering with intent". The Sexual Offences Act of 1985 outlawed kerb crawling and was the first to target clients. Historical statutes such as the Disorderly Houses Act of 1751 are used against the running of brothels. But these laws are in disrepute; none is effective; they are full of anachronisms and inconsistencies; and they apply to female sex workers but not to men.

What should the legal position be? The first option would be to attempt to eliminate the sex industry altogether. Prostitution is illegal in most states in the United States. But making it illegal is not practical in the face of continuing supply and insistent demand.

The second option would be to maintain some form of regulation, the object being to contain sex work by making life troublesome for its practitioners and clients. This is the situation in England and Wales and many other countries. Rarely, however, are attempts to regulate the business successful or fair: they tend to punish and stigmatise sex workers while tacitly recognising the fallibility of their customers.

The third option would be to legalise prostitution using a system of licensing, either of brothels or workers, together with mandatory health checks. This is often what reformers have in mind. But many sex workers protest that this would be like providing controlled assembly-line sex: the state would become the pimp and sex workers would lose their autonomy. Wherever tried, it has been found that sex workers often refuse to work in state-administered brothels and continue - especially if rejected through sickness - to work illegally outside them.

The final option would be to decriminalise prostitution and to repeal all prostitution laws, the grounds being that it is inappropriate to have a special body of law for one group. Sex workers would remain liable to all the other laws - proscribing being a public nuisance, for instance - that constrain all citizens.

This would be the most satisfactory option, but it remains a political non-starter, because our career politicians would not risk unpopularity. Not that it would solve all the problems anyway. Sex workers could be just as exploited if employed legitimately by a fast-food-style brothel chain. But at least they would enjoy full citizenship rights, including liabilities such as the payment of taxes.

Graham Scrambler
Reader in sociology University College London

He is co-editor of Rethinking Prostitution , Routledge, £17.99.

* Interview by Helen Hague

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