Dealing with prostitution


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.

3 responses to “Dealing with prostitution

  1. Hey Dad,

    Just read this – great piece and interesting to read the other article you cited.

    I think you are making some good points, but I wanted to challenge your thoughts on the ‘choices’ of a sex worker. I truly believe that most sex workers you would meet or speak to would agree to some level that prostitution is still inherently a form of abuse and abuse of power. I suppose I shouldn’t generalise but also as a feminist it’s the abuse of a men’s power over a women.

    In terms of people making a choice to become a cleaner or a sex worker, is simplifying this… I don’t especially enjoy my job but I have to work as I have to pay bills. However I think for many, choosing to work as a prostitute is a means to an end, not a choice. There is research backing this as well.

    Which Is why I don’t think decriminalising prostitution works. It still means there is a trade in sex workers which means it’s still easy for an abuse of power to happen through the pimps and brothel owners (and even though the sex workers would be ‘protected’ by law… I don’t know how much that actually means in reality… )

    I think that the only way forward (which I know may not seem realistic) is to abolish this ‘trade’. I don’t think you can quite compare this to the drugs trade as this is quite a different kettle of fish.

    I also feel that trading drugs is slightly different to the trade of a human body.

    I know I am maybe being a little optimistic here but I think that the sex trade is inherently sexist and therefore should be stopped not accepted otherwise we are never going to properly move forward in equality for women and girls.

    This article really summed it up for me –

    Haha we are still debating even when I am in a different city!

    It’s very interesting though, we have a long way to go in all this! Jems xxx

    Sent from my Iphone



    • It’s a difficult one, that’s for sure! I do think there are parallels to be drawn with drugs and slavery, though. Both also involve criminal behaviour centred around hopeless and often blameless victims, and the record for abolition in these fields is not good.

      However I do feel there is another issue here, and that is the right of the woman (and of course the vast majority are women) to do what she wishes with her own body. We may not like the choices she makes, and question her motives for making those choices, but they are hers to make.

      That said, abolition – by which I assume you mean making it illegal to buy sex – may work, and I understand there is evidence to suggest it does, although it’s hard to discern through the fog of righteous indignation.

      On the face of it, abolition seems hard to enforce. As far as I can see no-one is calling for the abolition of the two ingredients involved – namely having sex and gifting/donating/’lending’ money – and it can be very hard to prove a link between the two, particularly in these days of the Internet. However my understanding is that such a move can instigate a sea-change in the atitudes of those who buy sex, even without a large number of convictions, and that in itself may reduce prostitution. If there is evidence it works then we should try it – after all, what we’re doing now sure isn’t working.


  2. I agree. I did a little prostitution many years ago and didn’t have the grit for it. It felt deeply disturbing to me to have sold temporary rights to my body. I’d rather make the buying illegal, otherwise we’re punishing the exploited. Many prostitutes wouldn’t agree that they are exploited however.


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