Decriminalize Prostitution Now Coalition
Your Tax Dollars Are Being Wasted Ruining Citizens Lives
Instead of fighting real crime

Paying for sex - what's so wrong with that?

59 per cent of people agree that prostitution is a reasonable choice of work (U.K.)

It is a truism of the arranged marriage - whether in Victorian times or today's ethnic communities - that negotiations focus on the wealth and prospects of the candidates. Virginity might come into it too. Times have changed, but we still get squeamish about how sex operates in the real world. Flagrant licentiousness exists side by side with a resurgent puritanism, pulling in opposite directions with the law struggling to sort out the contradictions. We can expect to see the sparks fly next week when Germaine Greer and Joan Smith confront each other in the IQ2 debate “It's Wrong to Pay for Sex”.

Right now there is a squall of proposals around laws relating to prostitution and to lap-dancing clubs. As a result of the Government's Licensing Act 2003 the latter can now be licensed under regulations no more stringent than those governing cafés. That's why there are suddenly so many more of them: around 300 today, compared with 150 in 2004...hardly enough to suggest that the nation's morals are on the skids. But it means a lot more stag-night rowdies and gawping men with their tongues hanging out at the sight of long-legged women in f**k-me shoes (Professor Greer's phrase) wrapping their sequined crotches round poles. Not tasteful, no, but no one gets hurt.

Apparently local residents often get upset and want such clubs to be licensed by local authorities as sex encounter establishments, lumping them with strip clubs and sex cinemas. That seems fair enough. But I wonder at the humourlessness of a phrase such as sex encounter establishments. Where does that leave pop concerts and clubs, to say nothing of the steps outside Tate Britain, I wonder? It proves we're squeamish about sex and want nothing so much as to see it tidied up, neatly ordered and out of sight. This is odd, because one of the great strides made in my lifetime has been the taking of “shame” out of all things sexual. At last we seem to recognise that sex is a spontaneous human drive with each individual free to make his or her own choices. It was a liberating moment in the early Sixties when the Pill gave women control over their own bodies. It wasn't quite so liberating in the heady days of feminism, when the sisterhood turned their attention to prostitution with the firm intent of bringing it to an end. They collided with the suddenly free and assertive ranks of prostitutes saying “thanks, but get off our patch and leave us to earn our living”. It wasn't going to be easy ending the objectification of women. It still isn't.

Today, according to the Government's own Mori poll, 59 per cent of people agree that prostitution is a perfectly reasonable choice of work; and 37 per cent would not be ashamed if a family member worked as a prostitute. It is surely time to decriminalise it. (Dave notes outcall already legal but incall limited to one worker per flat and of course no street hooking) Yet Jacqui Smith wants to criminalise kerb crawlers (street hookers) ever more severely and to give police and councils the power to close brothels, throwing women on the streets. There is rightly proper concern about the trafficking of young girls, and their exploitation and violent abuse by pimps and drug dealers. The spiral of such depravity is a scar on our cities. But pitching such interests in a war with the police can only aggravate matters.

There is, whether we like it or not, a compelling need for many men to have sex without strings, sex with a stranger that is over and done with once the cash has changed hands. Throughout history they have found ways of doing so, whether with sacred temple maidens or in the garrison brothels set up to serve fighting armies. We can chase it up and down the legal ladders, hound it down dark alleys and squalid bedsits, but its persistence tells us that we won't eradicate it. So let's face up to the fact and make paying for sex legal. That way we can site and inspect brothels where it suits the community, women can have their health and welfare monitored and their drug problems treated.

I once visited such an establishment in the Netherlands. It was on an industrial estate with a car park for the workers. They all paid their taxes: the nation's sex industry is part of its GDP. “Better than the streets,” they told me. “We all look out for each other.” These particular women - like those I met at a lap-dancing club - weren't the sad dregs of humanity. They had a robust attitude to their lives, a lively street intelligence and an eagerness to better themselves. One sent her daughter to a private school; another was saving up to open her own gym. To treat them as merely sex fodder is to ignore their often tough, individual stories.

I want to see a world where women have enough self-esteem to stand up for themselves against exploitation and abuse. They continue to do this - within marriage and without. Groups of women are resisting genital mutilation; women are increasingly encouraged to report rape. Slowly - not fast enough - police forces are being trained to listen and respond. Protection within the sex industry would be another step forward. But even as I write, I hear there is now a male lap-dancing club - women customers only. Is this some sort of equality?