The Liberal Democrats overwhelmingly reaffirmed their call to decriminalise prostitution at their Autumn Conference in Glasglow this week. While sex work is technically legal across the UK, strict prohibitions on soliciting and brothel ownership remain on the books with sporadic enforcement — such as a major raid conducted in SoHo last December by the London Metropolitan Police.
Although they’re not exactly known for their business-friendly policies, the Lib Dems are leading the way on this important issue of commerce. Other parties should take note: sex work is a legitimate line of business like any other, and sex workers should be treated with dignity under the law by way of complete legalisation of their practice.
This is not to say that sex work is problem-free. Like any industry, there are bad actors. Some pimps may beat prostitutes for not obtaining enough business. Some brothels may purchase sex slaves from foreign traffickers. These practices should remain illegal and be rectified by rigorous enforcement, and still would under the Lib Dem’s proposal.
However, it’s high time that the UK confronts the fact that this snapshot of the abused hooker is a stereotype that does not fit the vast majority of sex workers who engage in the practice of their own consent. As Lib Dem member Sarah Noble explained at conference while introducing the proposal, “They’re moms and daughters, students and workers, rich and poor, and — yes — men and women. They are all human beings.”
This reality does not mean that citizens should not disapprove of the practice. Just as individuals have the choice to not patronize a business or even publicly disapprove of its services, so too will this always remain for prostitution. Personally, we are both uncomfortable with the notion of treating human intimacy as a commodity to be bought like a loaf of bread. However, public policy is no place for enforcing personal preferences upon others. Just as we have the right to steer clear of sex work, so too should other consenting adults have the right to seek such services in a safe and legal environment.
In fact, legality gives rise to safety, as endless examples prove well. New Zealand decriminalised prostitution in 2003 and, to its critics’ surprise, there has been no noticeable rise in the number of sex workers. The streets of Auckland are not overrun with ladies of the night; in fact, just the opposite. Thanks to the legalisation of brothels, most sex workers in the South Pacific island country operate in brothels, regulated for health and safety like any other business.
These positive effects have been seen over and over again across the world. The US state of Rhode Island, for example, unintentionally legalised prostitution in 1980 as the result of a legal loophole. After a criminal case brought the loophole to public attention in 2003, reports of rape declined by 31 per cent and gonorrhea infection among women plummeted by 39 per cent until the practice was re-criminalised six years later, according to a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
In short, the choice is simple. We can live in a world where sex workers practice their trade in safe, legal environments with access to police protection, labor unions, and employee benefits. Or, we can live in a world where sex workers are pushed onto the streets (as they are now) at the mercy of often dangerous pimps, punters, and metropolitan police. The question, is not if sex work should exist in society (it has and always will), but if sex workers should receive the same basic legal treatment as everyone else or be pushed into the fringes.
According to a new report from the Office for National Statistics, British households spend £12.4bn annually on drugs and prostitution. Mind you, the prevalence of the practice exists in a legal climate where solicitation and brothels are already outlawed. Obviously prostitution is not disappearing anytime soon. Instead of wishing the practice away, other parties in Parliament should join the Lib Dems’ lead in taking a real-world approach to tackling the dangers of sex work by taking it out of the hands of the black market.