While we’re tackling taboo subjects, perhaps it’s time to give prostitution another airing. It’s never been made totally illegal to be a prostitute but it’s illegal to solicit, illegal to kerb-crawl, illegal to pimp and run brothels (“living off immoral earnings”), and has various other restrictions.
Why has it never been made totally illegal? The standard argument is that it has always gone on and always will go on – driving prostitution underground will simply make it less safe for punter and prostitute alike. There will always be a demand from men who want sex without commitment of any sort, sometimes to satisfy their particular peccadilloes, and who are willing to pay for that privilege, and a lack of police and court resources to stop it happening. If prostitutes were routinely arrested and imprisoned, the jails, already full to overflowing as it is, would burst at the seams.
Equally, then, why not legalise prostitution at certain secure licensed premises, as happens in some US states? The girls would be clean and tested at regular intervals (condoms de rigeur – though on the streets some men pay extra for no condoms and a higher risk factor), and the premises would pay tax (would that mean the state is living off immoral earnings?!) In the UK, where deserts miles from anywhere are in short supply, it’s unlikely anyone would want legalised brothels in their vicinity, though illegal ones operate in residential areas in most cities, quite apart from girls on the street after nightfall and drivers stopping to enquire the price. Not the sort of location to bring kids up in, nor comfortable for anyone, particularly with the strong association between prostitution and drugs, violence, trafficking, child abuse and other criminal activity – though arguably that is the result of the uncomfortable legal position we now have.
One argument is that women going on the game to fuel drug habits would not happen if prostitution were legal, just as other crime caused by drug addictions would be controlled if the drugs concerned were legal and dispensed, though that is unproven. But no UK government would ever have the guts to legalise prostitution on its own doorstep anyway, just as none seem to have an appetite for legalising drugs. They evidently take the view that it would be one form of electoral suicide.
Voters would prefer to turn a blind eye and pretend that it did not go on at all, for the most part, though you can bet that a proportion of men in particular will fulfil their desires, possibly from an unfulfilling relationship, by visiting prostitutes (though not this guy!) Very few, however, will own up to the fact, and just maybe they prefer the current situation where nobody will talk openly. Would legalised brothels make it more socially acceptable to have sex with somebody hired by the hour?
Just as a passing thought, how many women use prostitutes, male or female, to compensate for their own lousy men? Comparatively few, I suspect, since women generally prefer the warmth and intimacy of a relationship with someone they know well, not anonymity. An affair may be a more female response?
There is not a lot of sympathy for working girls in the media, though the issues are escalated in the press in cases where the risks are brought home, and maybe some sympathy for the working girls is evident when the public realises the dangers they face when doing their work. Many will have been beaten up and raped, but occasionally serial killers such as Peter Sutcliffe, the so-called Yorkshire Ripper, and Steve Wright in Ipswich, grab front-page headlines. I noticed after Wright’s murders that representatives of the Prostitutes Collective were interviewed on TV and radio about the Ipswich killings and the risks to sex workers, when at all other times their campaign seems to be ignored.
What has also been publicised are the issues of prostitution imported from or exported to other areas. Maybe sex trafficking into prostitution is now the most worrying trend, and since it is illegal and kept hidden, cases reported and prosecuted are probably the tip of the iceberg. The previous trend to be addressed was child sex tourism in Thailand and many other poorer parts of the world, where children could be bought or enticed from their families into prostitution for the benefit of wealthy clients from the west who could not otherwise take advantage of a taste for paedophilia – and luckily, a number have been caught, notably Gary Glitter (aka Paul Gadd), for possessing photographs and child sex tourism.
Whatever form it takes, it seems certain that this very uneasy status quo between the law and the working girls will continue, since nobody looks to have the guts to change anything. Being a sex-worker is not an easy option, and for many the would not do so if they had any choice – but the lure of potentially big money makes it justifiable for a time. Some may be lured by legit jobs back into the rat race, but return since they are never in control of their lives to the same degree as when they are on the game – sad truth is that this is, for some women, a way to gain power over men. The sex is mechanical, they never have to get hurt emotionally, their services are being sought and it is the punters who are desperate for sex. The prostitutes may need money badly, but not the sex.
A friend believes that the rise of Internet dating as a means of finding sexual partners may have reduced the incidence of men (or women) paying for the privilege, though I am not convinced. Arguably, if you are married and visit prostitutes you do so to buy silence. A casual liaison with someone via the net (and don’t forget that escorts are frequently procured in that way – high-class girls would not street-walk nowadays, and would surely prefer the greater safety and traceability of clients online, not to mention fixing times and venues so somebody always knows where they are) could result in “bunny boiler” syndrome and in any case demands more involvement than just a sexual transaction. There is plenty of research on why men pay for sex (see here and here for example, and for the prostitute’s view try here) – though the consensus is that no conversation, no wining and dining, just sex is what they are after.
So if women have been selling their bodies since time began, will they always continue to do so? While there is a demand, almost certainly so, but is it right that it should be a furtive and secretive business? Surely sex is something all of us need, so is there anything to be ashamed of if you take advantage of a service, particularly if it is safe and clean?