Banning prostitution is not the answer — but fining the clients might be

BBC NEWS | Politics | UK should outlaw paying for sex

After endless amounts of backwards and forwards discussion, Harriet Harman is considering “banning” prostitution. Her reasons are something I applaud – to reduce the sex market, thereby decreasing the profits of sex-trafficking, and moving towards eliminating the modern slave-trade.

Actually, though, ‘banning’ is something that patently does not work as far as what is generally referred to as ‘vice’ is concerned. The American experiment with Prohibition of Alcohol is invariably cited as the case in point. On the other hand, the solution recommended by the English Collective of Prostitutes – to legalise building-based prostitution, as has been done in New Zealand – has also been proven not to work. In Amsterdam and across Belgium, building-based prostitution has been shown as the best of all worlds for people-traffickers. Their victims are out of sight, easy to control.

This sounds like the counsel of despair. If banning doesn’t work, and if legalisation doesn’t work, we are almost at the point of saying that we are living in the best of all possible worlds – and what a terrible world that is.

Some solutions, have yet to be tried. It has been hinted at in radio interviews, but the best solution is to target the clients. Any kind of restrictions on sex-workers invariably results in more pressure by pimps and traffickers on illegal immigrants. The threat of law is used against the victims. What’s more, those involved in semi-consensual sex, which is most prostitutes, can only pay the fines that are currently dished out to them in magistrates’ courts by engaging in more prostitution. Targeting the clients, on the other hand, goes (as the Inland Revenue say) ‘where the money is’. There are at least three kinds of prostitutes: trafficked women, semi-consensual prostitutes, and (most often heard on the radio) prostitutes who choose to do what they do. There is only one kind of client: men who want sex, and are prepared to pay for it. The experience of research in Belgium is that men are unwilling to distinguish between the three kinds. Target the clients, and the market reduces.

However, this approach can only be pursued if routes are created out of prostitution for those who want to exit the trade. This is not only for trafficked women. There are plenty of semi-consensual prostitutes, working to pay for drug-habits, or because their economic situation is one for which they cannot find another solution. We don’t (as yet) have sufficiently integrated paths out of drug-use. Any way out needs to be carefully constructed at a local level to provide drug rehabilitation, dental treatment (almost always essential for drug users), training for employment, social housing, and more. This can only happen if we commit to it as a society: far too often initiatives of this kind are held back because ‘ordinary’ people (or their local political representatives) say that they don’t want public money to go on helping people out of their own bad choices to this extent. It’s the same argument that says that teenage girls get pregnant in order to get housing benefit. True, or not? Hard to say. But irrelevant. In a civilised society, we need to invest in people’s lives to bring them back into mainstream society, no matter how they fell out of it. If we are not willing to pay the price, then we must accept that we will never approach an answer to human trafficking.

Which makes all of us guilty.

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