The media coverage of the terrible murders of young women who worked as prostitutes in Ipswich has brought the issue of how to deal with prostitution back into the public arena. Not surprisingly, calls for it’s legalisation* have been made, or alternatively, tolerance zones, in which women (or men) could work with some degree of protection both from prosecution and the threat of assault or worse. While I can understand why these ideas seem to have some merit, I think those who support them are missing a very important point. If we legalise, or turn a blind eye to prostitution, we are in effect, legitimising the exploitation of vulnerable people, and effectively locking them into a cycle which, in all too many cases, will lead to them suffering an early death along with a great deal of misery on the way.
There is a widely believed myth that women who work in the so called ‘sex industry’ are either hard up mums who need to earn enough to feed their families, or do so because they are sexually liberated and enjoy their work. Neither of these stereotypes is true. Between 95 and 97% of prostitutes are working to support a drug habit. Of the remaining 3 - 5% many are women who have been illegally trafficked into this country and forced to sell their bodies. Others are the victims of violent partners who pimp them to the highest bidder. By lending an air of legitimacy to the trade we would not be helping it’s victims at all. We would simply be making it easier for men (and it usually is men who are the pimps regardless of the gender of the prostitute) to exploit them.
Tolerance zones and legalised brothels are not the answer. In order to work in such a place a woman/man would need to be both over the age of legal consent, and healthy. Many prostitutes would fail in one or both categories. Sadly, there is a market for under-age girls and boys, and legalisation would do nothing to protect young runaways who find themselves first addicted to drugs, and then forced out onto the streets by older people who initially claimed they wished to help them. The same is true of those who are HIV+, they would end up on the fringes, with even less protection than they now have, selling themselves even more cheaply because they are proven to be ‘damaged goods’.
Prostitution may be the oldest profession, but that does not mean it is an acceptable one. Not because of any kind of morality, but because it is something people only do out of sheer desperation. If the only people who did this kind of work did so through choice and a desire to provide a service, then it would be perfectly acceptable - it is not up to me to tell anyone how they should earn a living - however, those people are very, very few, and far between. Lets face it, ask any ten year what they want to be when they grow up, and I’m pretty sure a drug addict and prostitute won’t be responses you will hear.
Most prostitutes are in that situation because they feel they have no other choice, and if we really wish to help them we need to give them an alternative. Drug treatment programmes, safe havens for those fearing violence, education and training would be of far more use, especially when coupled with much tougher treatment of the real problem - those who choose to exploit others. We no longer allow small children to work 12 hour days in factories, and anyone found to be administering such a practice would, rightly, be imprisoned and become a social pariah. Yet, we have a situation where vulnerable young people are being exploited for profit, ruining both their own lives and those of their families, and some people say we should legalise this.
* Technically, prostitution is legal, it is soliciting which is against the law.