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Safety first: Should we decriminalise prostitution?

Safety first: Should we decriminalise prostitution?

By Connor Sturges

On 3 November the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) is having an evidence-gathering symposium in the House of Commons, the topic being the decriminalisation of prostitution.

As always there are two sides to the argument and copious viewpoints on the situation. One side is clearly backed by the Guardian, who printed an editorial arguing strongly against Amnesty International’s thoughts on decriminalising prostitution. The anti-decriminalisation gang has also been joined by a number of well-known celebrities, including Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. On the other hand, there are a similar range of people, politicians and prostitutes amongst them, who are in favour of decriminalisation.

Indeed, there are valid reasons for individuals and particular groups to feel strongly against the decriminalisation of sex work. If prostitution was to be legalised, as it has been to varying degrees in other European countries, sex tourism may become a big issue in Britain, and bring groups of people to large cities such as London and Manchester simply in search of sex. There have been a number of articles and documentaries, one presented by BBC3’s Stacey Dooley, that show the effect on areas that are notorious for brothels and sex workers, such as Prague. The main criticism seems to be the concern that decriminalisation would lead to an increase in sex tourism and furthermore human trafficking in order to keep up with the demand.

However, despite the problems put forward, I am undoubtedly on the side of the ECP. Firstly, yes, there may well be an increase in sex tourism, but if sex work was decriminalised, it would surely be more visible, and consequently easier for the law enforcers to control. One argument put forward is that decriminalisation would also remove the heavy stigma attached to prostitution. This is one thing that would take a long time due to the history behind the trade of selling sex, but could over time be accomplished and allow those who choose to enter prostitution to live more normal lives.

Map of European prostitution laws. | Photo by: Kroum
Green: Prostitution legal and regulated
Blue: Prostitution legal but not regulated; organised activities such as brothels are illegal
Red: Illegal to buy sex, illegal to sell sex
Orange: Illegal to buy sex, legal to sell sex

There is a distinction though. Don’t think I am arguing that all types of prostitution should be allowed. There are fine lines on what I believe should be acceptable. Quite obviously, the type I am referring to is consensual and voluntary, not forced in any way. Although it may not always be the case, some women do choose to enter prostitution, particularly when it comes to ‘high-class escorts’. Many who enter the trade however have to for financial reasons. Either way, decriminalisation would mean that prostitutes are accounted for, and don’t have to hide in the murky shadows which have become a stereotype for the world of sex workers in the red light districts of large cities. Instead of feeling constantly vulnerable and alone due to brothels, or communities of sex workers, being illegal, they could feel safe and have protection. It would make it easier for prostitutes to report crimes and wrongdoings against them too, as many most likely feel like they cannot approach law enforcers.

So yes, there are distinctions to be made over what should technically be allowed under new laws, and there have to be strict guidelines to ensure sex tourism and trafficking don’t become bigger issues. But decriminalising prostitution would, all in all, give sex workers more visibility, more rights, more protection and, most importantly, more safety.

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