The Oldest Profession

Sex Work: The Pros and Cons of Legalisation

The legalisation of sex work and associated acts is a controversial subject. In many countries (including New Zealand, Austria, Belgium and parts of Australia) work and other associated acts such as owning a brothel have been decriminalised. There are also laws in place to control and monitor activities surrounding sex work, which are justified on the basis that it is beneficial to the workers’ safety. For example, in Austria sex workers must be over 19, registered, pay taxes and undergo regular health checks. There are similar rules in Greece and Germany. In Scotland, the career of sex worker itself-selling sexual services for money-is legal, but unlike the countries mentioned previously, Scotland has not decriminalised other associated acts such as owning a brothel, soliciting and pimping. The Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982, the Prostitution (Public Places) (Scotland) Act 2007 and the Criminal Law (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act 1995 all provide the legal framework for the offences associated with sex work. Section 46 of the Civic Government Act deals with street prostitution making it an offence to loiter or solicit in a public place for the purposes of sex work. Similar acts are also criminal offences under the Prostitution (Public Places) Act, setting a maximum penalty fine if any offence is committed. This act includes public transport like buses and trains under the scope of a ‘public place’. Furthermore, operating or owning a brothel and trading in sex work are illegal under section 11 of the Criminal Law (Consolidation) Act.

The question of how best to deal with the ‘oldest profession in the world’ has been met with a range of different answers throughout time, as well as in different countries and cultures. Originally the criminalisation of sex workers was introduced to prevent a further increase in the various social problems which arose or were heavily connected with the trade. These included the transmission of sexual diseases; the problems of violence; drug use; exploitation of vulnerable women; human trafficking and public disorder.

More recently however, there has been a shift in attitudes towards supporting the decriminalisation of acts associated with sex work. This can be attributed in part to the fact that despite attempts by the previous Labour Government to reduce the problems surrounding sex work in the UK (for example, establishing legal controls and making available £850,000 to tackle prostitution related crime), no significant impact was felt. However, shocking events such as the murder of five sex workers in Ipswich in 2006 reignited a call for a new approach to address the issue. Emphasis was placed decriminalisation as a solution. A number of reasons for such an approach were cited, one of these being that it would allow better protection and monitoring of the sexual health and general wellbeing of the 70,000 or so sex workers in the UK. A study by the Home Office in 2004 found that more than half of UK women who are sex workers have been raped or sexually assaulted. Therefore, if decriminalised, sex workers may feel more empowered to seek help if in danger or if they were facing problems with clients, without the fear they too could be found guilty of an offence. One potential consequence flowing on from a potential increase in prosecutions involving assaults or crime towards sex workers could be a deterrence effect, reducing the prevalence of violence and abuse against sex workers. Furthermore, a new study presented at the international Aids conference signified that the transmission of HIV amongst sex workers could be reduced by 40% if sex work was decriminalized, due to more women feeling comfortable to seek healthcare without facing stigma or fear of being criminally sanctioned for their work.

Additionally, in a society with the protection of human rights at its core, many believe that that sex work should be made a legal employment to entitle sex workers to enjoy rights and protections afforded by various international treaties and national laws. Multiple charities such as Amnesty International are in support of this. Through publishing an article, this charitable body clearly highlighted that sex workers should be entitled to the same rights as other workers. They state the criminalisation of sex work ‘threatens the rights to health, non-discrimination, equality, privacy and security’, which every working individual should enjoy.

Furthermore, increased and improved regulation of the trade by legalizing sex work would likely offer victims of human trafficking more confidence to come forward. This statement can be evidenced by the fact that following the legalization of sex work in Germany, it was found that human trafficking significantly decreased by 10 % from 2001 to 2011. This demonstrates that legalization could help deter sex traffickers from operating in highly monitored environments, along with granting victims of trafficking the opportunity to seek protection under the law.

Although decriminalisation may be able to limit sex work and make it safer, particularly for those trafficked or forced into it, it will never lead to its eradication from society. There will always be an individual willing to pay another to gain sexual pleasure. Thus, instead of criminalising this act and rendering sex workers vulnerable; many believe for the reasons set out above that it is best to instead empower those who actively choose this profession by granting them more legal protection. However, it can be contended that there are a few reasons why the trade itself, not just the career of sex worker should not be made completely legal. The first is the long-standing question of ethics. It could be argued that this trade encourages the view of women as nothing more than sex objects for men to play with rather than actual human beings. Furthermore, though there are some who will have actively and autonomously made the decision to work as a prostitute, many do so as they see no other suitable alternative to meet their economic needs. This has the potential to negate the argument of consent as although there is not direct coercion, it is hypothetically a result of circumstantial pressure often caused by poverty and drug addiction. In the case of R v Terence Kirk in 2008, a young homeless girl of 14 years old prostituted herself to an older man so that she could earn money for some food. The court interpreted s74 of the Sexual Offences Act concluding that a person cannot be said to have a free choice when there are no other options available to that individual.

If a trade such as prostitution which monetises on the economic deprivation of vulnerable people becomes a legally recognised form of employment, the workers would have to give up some of their wages and pay income tax. This raises an ethics issue of making money from those who have resorted to the trade because they could see no better alternative to earn money. It is not a type of work which requires qualifications or a considerable skill. Furthermore, this could encourage more people to enter the trade. Rather than seeking to fully legalise the trade including soliciting, owning of a brothel and other related activities, perhaps more focus should be made to resolve the underlying problems related to why people enter the trade in the first place.

The lack of extensive research into sex work by the UK government is a major drawback in finding not only ways to deal with the other issues surrounding the trade but also in how best to maximise the protection of the workers and enforcement of their rights. For example, legalising and regulation of brothels could mean sex workers are safer, as they can work in numbers in the same location whilst also cutting down on the nuisance caused by pimps and kerb crawlers, which would benefit the general public. However, it could potentially encourage more people into the trade which could be seen as a negative. Britain’s first legal red light zone, Holbeck provided an insight into what effects legalising could bring, such as a safer working environment. It also showed the drawbacks legalisation could have on the surrounding community. Further research would help the government to better decide on alternatives to legalisation or whether legalizing all or some related activities would be beneficial.

In conclusion, the question of decriminalising or legalising sex work and its associated acts is not a simple one to answer. Clearly, the current legislation is not perfect, and the associated acts which are currently illegal still happen. However their illegality means they are driven underground and this results in a far more dangerous environment for those involved. Decriminalising or legalising them may solve this problem and provide a safer environment but would require very strict regulations and monitoring. This would of course be huge task and require a lot of in depth research, and it is of course not a guarantee it would provide a perfect solution as it hasn’t in other countries. The answer then is that far more research is necessary and the advantages and disadvantages must be properly weighed up before any change can be made in the law.

This article was published in The Gaudie in October 2017.