I have just read Catherine Bennett’s piece in the Guardian (If paying for sex is wrong in Haiti, why do we still tolerate it in the UK?) in which she uses the recent Oxfam scandal to berate those who call for the legalisation of prostitution in the UK, and in particular Amnesty International for what she calls its “pimps’ charter”. Catherine certainly has a way with words, but I do think that in the process she is simplifying and misrepresenting a range of carefully considered views on a highly complex subject.
Of course I agree with Catherine that coercion, extortion, drug addiction, rape and slavery are wrong, and that we should do what we can to prevent such crimes and bring their perpetrators to justice. However from that point on I suspect our views would differ in two important respects.
Firstly, she fails to recognise that prostitution can take place without involving such atrocities. There are those who chose to have sex with a selected range of clients in exchange for several hundreds of pounds per hour. It may not have been their first career choice but, for some, it sure beats cleaning lavatories on minimum wage. Yes, I would join Catherine in wishing they had made a different choice, but the solution to that lies in creating a society where their alternatives extend beyond cleaning lavatories on minimum wage, not penalising them for having made such a choice. The important distinction here is that it’s their decision – they are in control of the transaction, and have every right to make that choice.
Secondly, she fails to recognise that Amnesty’s call for legalisation is not to promote prostitution, any more than a call to legalise drugs is to promote the use of heroin. The point is that the solutions we currently deploy in both these fields are failing us miserably, and that a more pragmatic approach might stand a better chance. Legalising heroin would remove the incentive for criminal involvement. Yes, it would involve state-sanctioned outlets supplying drugs to addicts, but the aim would be to wean them off the drug and support them into a better life, rather than extract as much money from them as possible. In much the same way, legalising prostitution would allow law enforcement to concentrate on the criminals that are currently in control, while allowing social services to work with the victims and steer them towards more fulfilling life-choices (all of which depends, of course, on appropriate funding being made available and applied intelligently).
However none of this is to condone the actions of those Oxfam employees in Haiti. Whatever opportunities the prostitutes may have had in the first place were severely curtailed by the earthquake, and the accompanying chaos must have provided fertile ground for coercion and exploitation. Our donations paid not only for the villas in which these activities took place, but also for the salaries of those who paid for them, and any suggestion that ‘aid’ be handed over in exchange for sexual services is obscene. That anyone within an organisation such as Oxfam can imagine they would ‘get away with it’ beggars belief, particularly given the fodder their actions have handed to the anti-aid lobby. They may not have broken any laws, but they do need to be named and shamed.