An episode of the final series of the superb Danish politico-drama Borgen concerned itself with the vexed subject of legalising prostitution. Like the legalisation of drugs, it’s a subject politicians shy away from debating in real life.
Most people labour under the illusion that prostitution is illegal in this country. It isn’t. Not quite. Exchanging money for sexual services is legal. However, soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling, pimping and owning or managing a brothel remain outside the law. Paying for sex with anyone who has been forced into it is also illegal and you can be prosecuted even if you weren’t aware of it. It is also illegal to buy sex from anyone under eighteen even though the age of consent is sixteen. So now you know.
Sex laws are always tricky to draft and usually tend to lag about twenty years behind the way society has progressed in its thinking or tolerance. Society still looks down on those who sell sex, and even more on those who buy it, but perhaps not as much as in previous ages. One explanation for this gradual acceptance of prostitution is that many women think nothing of paying men for sex nowadays, something which would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago. Also, gay prostitution is much more commonplace than it once was, and is seen by many in the gay community as much more acceptable, ‘normal’ and less shameful than in society more generally. The internet has a lot to answer for. Sites like Gaydar, Grindr and a multitude of others are quite happy to allow male escorts to play their wares.
I remember when I lived in Germany in 1980, I was driving past a building on the outskirts of town and asked my friend what it was. “Das ist ein Haesschen Bar,” he said and winked in a knowing way. “A bunny bar?” I thought to myself. “They eat baby rabbits there?” Well, I was eighteen and very naïve. Bear in mind that this was a rather conservative minded town of 25,000 people, in the middle of nowhere and it had its own licensed brothel.
These brothels are licensed by the local Bundesland, and are very far from being seedy and the women who work there do so entirely voluntarily. They work in a secure, clean and healthy environment and submit themselves to regular health checks. Their customers are closely monitored. That doesn’t mean that other forms of prostitution don’t take place in Germany; they clearly do. But the Germans have a far less puritanical approach to the sex industry than we do in this country and are none the worse for it. The thought of such an establishment outside Tunbridge Wells is a delicious thought, but frankly, it isn’t going to happen any time soon. More’s the pity.
Over the last ten years, the nature of prostitution in this country has changed, with a growing number of the women involved in it being trafficked into this country for the specific purpose of pimping them out for sex. On top of that, the need for drugs has encouraged more and more women (and young boys) into prostitution as the only way of feeding their habit. Often, pimps force their women to take drugs as a means of controlling them.
So we now have two very different types of prostitutes – those who are being controlled by others, and those who do it entirely voluntarily. I suppose it has always been so, but the proportions have changed dramatically in recent years.
The last government tried to address the problem by introducing a law which says that men to knowingly pay for sex with a trafficked girl would be charged with rape. In addition, men who have sex with a woman controlled by a pimp would be fined £1,000. I think they did it for the right reasons but it seems to me that a law which relies on the word “knowingly” is incredibly difficult to enforce.
A female Labour MP once told me she has always argued for the legalisation of prostitution as she thinks it would effectively make the trafficking of girls redundant. It seems on the surface that there are far fewer issues surrounding exploitation in the world of gay prostitution, but let’s not run away with the idea that there aren’t any problems. Research suggests that a large number of gay escorts use their income to fund a drug habit, which makes it less of a lifestyle choice, more of a means to an end. It may not be traffickers, or pimps who are exploiting gay escorts, but drug suppliers certainly are.
It is surely time we tried to have an adult debate about the legalisation and lawful regulation of prostitution. It has always seemed ironic to me that the very women who shout loudest on the abortion issue that it is a woman’s right to do with her body what she likes, are the very same women who would prevent her from selling her body for sex if that is what she chooses. They would ban prostitution altogether. If it were actually possible, they might have a point.
Sex is a commodity and always has been since time immemorial. If we accept that prostitution has always existed and always will, does it not make sense for it to be legalised and properly regulated – to the benefit of both the purveyor of sex and consumer of it?
This article first appeared in the March issue of Attitude Magazine.