Why prostitution should never be legalised

Decriminalisation of the sex trade benefits pimps and brothel-owners, not women. Abolition is the only progressive solution.

Ask the question “What should we do about prostitution?” anywhere in the world, and you are increasingly likely to get the answer: “Legalise it.” This view is based on a belief that there will always be men who pay for sex and women who sell it. Decriminalising all aspects of prostitution – including brothel-owning and sex-buying – will, according to this argument, make life safer for these women, and also make it easier to root out abuse.

Those in favour of decriminalisation, including many liberals and some feminists, consider prostitution to be work, and argue that “sex workers” can be protected by unions and health and safety measures. Decriminalising the selling of sex – so that only buyers are breaking the law – means prostitutes themselves are not penalised. But even where only the buying of sex is a criminal offence, it is argued, prostituted women are forced to take risks.

In recent years this argument has made big advances. In 2000 the Netherlands made formal what had already been acceptable for some years, and lifted the ban on brothels, in effect legalising the sex trade. Three years later the New Zealand government passed, by one vote, the New Zealand Prostitution Reform Act which decriminalised street-based prostitution and brothel-keeping.

The opposite, abolitionist position – favoured by feminists including myself, and every sex trade survivor I have interviewed – is: prostitution is inherently abusive, and a cause and a consequence of women’s inequality. There is no way to make it safe, and it should be possible to eradicate it. Abolitionists reject the sanitising description of “sex worker”, and regard prostitution as a form of violence in a neoliberal world in which human flesh has come to be viewed as a commodity, like a burger.

Abolitionists do not consider prostitution to be about sex or sexual identity, but rather a one-sided exploitative exchange rooted in male power. They believe the progressive solution to the sex trade is to assist women to exit, and criminalise those who drive the demand. In Sweden, where the law criminalising demand and decriminalising those selling sex has been in place since 1999, there has been a sea change in attitudes among citizens, with around 80% supporting their government’s approach.

What I have discovered, while researching campaigns for the legalisation or decriminalisation of prostitution in the Netherlands, Ireland and the UK, is that sex industry bosses have an influential voice in such campaigns, often providing funding; and that groups claiming to represent “sex workers” are just as likely to be a voice for pimps as they are to represent the women who earn their living selling sex.

If prostitution is framed as work, it stands to reason that the workers require rights. The problem is that the term “sex worker”, coined in the 1980s and increasingly used by police, health workers and the media, includes pornographers, strippers and pimps, as well as those directly selling sex.

In Nevada, where brothels are legal, I interviewed a brothel owner who was pimping out a severely learning-disabled young women who had been sold to the brothel by her boyfriend’s father. The fact that the brothel this young woman was being sold from was legally sanctioned and seen as a business – no different from a restaurant – meant that the pimp was able to present herself as doing her employee a favour by giving her a job.

In the UK the argument in favour of decriminalisation has won support from trade unions. The GMB set up an adult entertainment branch in 2002, which held speaking gigs at political party conferences, the Royal College of Nursing and the Women’s Institute.

In 2010, having observed the growing influence of the International Union of Sex Workers, I decided to look into its background and membership. Launched in London in 2000, the union calls itself a “grassroots organisation” standing up for the rights of all those working in the sex trade. I discovered that its modest membership appeared mainly to consist of academics studying the sex trade, men who buy sex, and the odd person running specialist services – hardly representative of Britain’s sex trade.

One of its members, and a spokesman, was Douglas Fox, who has been active in the Conservative party and Amnesty UK, and co-owner of a large escort agency. He proposed a motion for blanket decriminalisation of the sex trade at the Amnesty International annual general meeting in 2008. Seven years later, this became Amnesty policy.

Elsewhere a similar pattern can be seen. Almost immediately after an umbrella movement aimed at criminalising the buying of sex – Turn Off the Red Light – was formed in Ireland, a counter-campaign named Turn Off the Blue Light was up and running. It turned out a convicted pimp, Peter McCormick, was bankrolling it.

Another activist is John Davies, currently serving 12 years in prison for charity fraud. Prior to his conviction for scamming at least £5.5m from British taxpayers, Davies travelled the world speaking at conferences, arguing that trafficking is a myth created by feminists, and that decriminalisation is the only answer.

What happens when the legalisation argument wins is shown in the Netherlands over the past decade. Just three years after the law there was changed, the government began closing down street prostitution zones and restricting the number of “window brothel” licences. In 2004 I interviewed the leader of the government-funded Red Thread union. She told me it had only 100 members and most of those were “erotic dancers” and not in prostitution at all. Karina Schaapman, Amsterdam councillor and sex trade survivor, said in 2005 that legalisation came out of the notion that women were actively choosing to be prostitutes. “But that image is incorrect,” she said. “Two-thirds of prostitutes are foreign, most often illegal, and nobody is registering them.” The former Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen said legalisation had failed to remove organised crime from the sex trade, and that he hoped to “partially reverse” the legislation.

Meanwhile, the links between organised crime, violence and prostitution in New Zealand have not been severed. Views differ as to whether decriminalisation has made the situation better or worse. One report, published five years after decriminalisation, claimed it had little impact on the number of people working in the sex trade but had offered some safeguards to children and others. But the personal testimony of women who have been prostituted provides evidence that brothel owners and punters have benefited more than the women have.

The good news is that the pimps don’t always win. New laws criminalising the buying of sex, and decriminalising the selling of it, came into force in Northern Ireland in 2015 and in the Republic of Ireland this year. A legal challenge to the law in Northern Ireland is being led by Laura Lee, a “sex workers’ rights” campaigner – whose backers include the pimp Peter McCormick.

I hope Lee loses. I completely understand why some people, on hearing that decriminalisation offers some protection to prostitutes, support it. But hardly anyone, including abolitionists, is arguing that the women and men who sell sex should be treated as criminals. Our argument is that pimps and sex-buyers definitely should be.

What those who oppose us fail to realise is that decriminalisation, as it is most commonly used and understood, also means allowing pimping, sex-buying and brothel-owning. And this is not the way forward – unless we want to make it easier for the men who run the global sex trade to make more money out of women’s bodies.