Prostitution: the only answer is legalisation

by Stephen Tall on January 30, 2005

[Please note: owing to the nature of the subject matter this article contains some explicit material.]

If you turn to page 30 of Saturday’s Oxford Mail, there are 13 adverts for what this family newspaper euphemistically terms ‘Adult services’. Maybe I’m cynical, or have a nasty turn of mind, but little seems to be left to the imagination by phrases such as ‘Late night escort and massage service’, ‘2 beautiful girls daily’, and ‘Massage for men strictly by appointment’. Yes, the sex trade in Oxford is alive and thrives. Is there anything that can be done about it? Should we even try?

I first became aware of the problem in Headington back in December 2001, when “two robbers were jailed for holding up a string of massage parlours in Oxford using a fake shotgun. … Oxford Crown Court heard sexual services were performed at the parlours and the men targeted them in the belief that the masseuses would be reluctant to contact police.” (Oxford Mail, 13 December, 2001).

Just before Christmas, I was contacted by an elderly lady living in one of the central Headington streets where just such a parlour plies its trade. She was, understandably, upset by the number of unannounced male callers who knocked on her door at all times of the day and night, having mistaken her flat for the ‘Kitten Club’ (“New girls welcome” – Oxford Mail).

Her pragmatic view was that there was no point politicians or the police trying to clamp down on illegally operating brothels. Rather, she wanted the ‘club’ to be able to put a clearly visible sign in its window so she would not be disturbed in the future. (Quite what the reaction of her neighbours would be to such a suggestion, and the impact it might have on their house prices, I cannot state for certain. I could hazard a guess, though.)

But are these isolated incidents? Of course not. If you search on ‘Oxford’ via a website called, in which customers rate prostitutes operating in their area, the city of dreaming spires can boast 285 user comments. A typical report is as follows:

Name: Barnet Cabman
Date: Thur, 22nd July, 2004. Time of day: 2.45 pm. Time spent: 1 hour.
Cost: £125
Her place: Good location in Headington. Limited street parking but a cheap pay and display less than 5 mins walk away. Immaculate house, extremely clean. About as safe and welcoming a location as you could hope for.
Description: Slim and dark haired with a fantastic pair of boobs. Lovely smile. Stated a size 12 37 year old on the website – more like a size 10 early 30s. No complaints whatsoever.
Comments: A quite delightful hour with a delightful lady. Fantastic 69 to start (WO), followed by great sex and then finally a CIM. Utterly excellent.
Recommended? Yes
Would you return? Yes

Such utilitarian profiles may be depressingly sordid and mechanistic, but they are a fact of life. Do we really believe that simply declaring such activities illegal will stop the oldest profession in the world from existing? Or is it simply our vague way of gesturing moral disapproval without ever summoning the willpower to launch a systematic crackdown on the sex trade?

That current policies are failing is not controversial. Puritans will argue this is because the law needs to go further. Liberals like me believe the law is an inadequate vehicle to change personal behaviour. It is the individual’s choice to pay for or provide sex, but society’s duty to ensure no-one is compelled into such a trade against their free will, either by poverty or brute force.

Even if society did decide ‘Enough is enough!’, what would be the effects of increased police activity? Well, those prostitutes who were arrested and fined would have to go back to the streets (or massage parlours) to earn the money to pay up. And it’s hard to see how jailing them will make them more legitimately employable in the future. Medical checks would be much more difficult to carry out, while the serious crimes associated with the sex trade – such as child prostitution and trafficking – would be driven even further underground, well hidden from view. This would play into the hands of pimps, who often double-up as drug-dealers. Prohibition is always a boon for those who stand to profit from the increased prices that illegal trading commands.

There is some evidence that Britain is developing a more mature approach to prostitution. Last year the Government produced a readable and considered consultation document, ‘Paying The Price’, though it’s clear legalisation is the last thing on Labour’s mind.

Yet local pressure for common-sense and the law to link-up is growing. This week Liverpool City Council became the first local authority to give the green light to a red-light zone. Between 8 pm and 2 am, sanctioned sex will be for sale in a move designed to make the streets safer for prostitutes, and to confine such activities to managed vice districts. Research from the local John Moores University indicates up to 83% of residents are in favour of the move, though we can expect a lot of understandably ‘Nimby’ responses once the exact locations of the proposed zones are known.

The case against shutting our eyes to the continuing problems of prostitution are three-fold:
* Brothels operating in residential areas cause nuisance and worry to neighbours;
* They divert the police from focusing on real criminal activity in our communities;
* And those who work there are frequently exploited.

Conversely, there are clear benefits to be derived from legalising the sex trade:
* Legalisation would bring it into the open, making it much easier to tackle serious abuses such as trafficking and under-age prostitution.
* Access to regular medical checks would improve. This is vital to protect both the workers, many of whom unknowingly carry and spread disease, and their customers.
* Brothels would develop reputations worth protecting. It’s obvious: would you prefer to visit a clean, secure, monitored establishment; or risk exposure to crime, drugs and disease in an unregulated environment?

We may often believe, like Mr Bumble in ‘Oliver Twist’, that the law is an ass. That does not excuse us from being complicit in its continuing blind refusal to recognise that prohibition does not work, has never worked, will never work. Nowhere is this more true than the sex trade.

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