Nothing mentioned, nothing gained

Legalising Brothels: Why I changed my mind

The debate over whether prostitution should be legal or not is one I have become frustrated with.

Frustrated, because the focus of most such debates is on the morality of the sale of sex and whether it is acceptable, even inevitable, for sex to become freely available commercially. It’s a nice topic for politicians, or would-be’s, to print a nice little label for themselves – will they be “right-wing” “leftie” “progressive” or “conservative?” Actual conditions for sex workers may get a mention, but the issue of how many sex workers have been trafficked and/or are working against their will, and how best to protect them – is rarely even thought on.

For my part, I used to think that legalised, regulated brothels were the way forward into a society where we would all be more accepting of sexuality, and where forced sex slavery would diminish. I no longer do – in fact I now think that legalising prostitution could be one of the worst things we could possibly do.

I suppose I first turned away from the idea of legalising prostitution when I realised that advocates of “tightly regulated” brothels invariably fail to mention whom exactly will be responsible for the regulating, or put forward any detailed proposals as to how this “regulation” is to be carried out. Merely repeating the word “regulation” is not enough to give any realistic assurances that prostitutes – whether they are so by coercion or of their own free will – will have an acceptable quality of life. And who can be absolutely trusted to be both above corruption enough, tenacious enough and clever enough to ensure that every woman who works in a brothel is there of her own free will, and that every safeguard and regulation put in place is strictly applied?

To legalise something is bound to normalise it, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that to legalise the purchase of sex will increase the demand, and therefore the profitability. Sex traffickers are notoriously clever people, already finding ways around laws and regulations across international borders. It is hard to see an extra layer of regulation stopping them from redoubling their efforts if prostitution is normalised and the market suddenly increases.

And even if regulation does work as well as it is expected to, there are things that a legitimate establishment will not be able to provide – such as sex without a condom on punters positive for STI’s and HIV, and underage girls. These areas will be serviced by illicit trafficking and forced prostitution, and in this way, legalising prostitution will make an already unbearable situation even worse for trafficked women and girls.

And is there any convincing evidence that legalising brothels does anything to counteract trafficking, or indeed to improve conditions for women working in the sex industry?

Not really.

Amsterdam legalised brothels in 2000, and a decade on, underage girls are still pimped out. Trafficking actually increased following the ruling. Women in legal brothels do get free, regular health checks, but all a decade of these has shown is that regulating brothels does not seem to have decreased the incidence of HIV or any other STI’s. Not to mention that a beautiful, charming and fascinating city is now thought of worldwide as a sordid den where you go to get high on hash brownies and dump your soiled condoms on the streets.

Sexual slavery and human trafficking will continue for as long as they are profitable, and the clearest way to mitigate them, and the best way to protect more women and girls from horrendous lives, is to decrease profitability. And criminalising the purchase of sex will decrease profitability. Sweden, admirably progressive, did just that in 1999. In five years, trafficking fell 41%, and the price of sex fell – a sign that demand was dropping and profitability of exploitation was plummeting.

I admire the Swedes, but I do not think that this goes far enough. I don’t think that it’s enough to fine a man caught soliciting – in light of the fact that so many women are coerced into prostitution, I would have a man caught with prostitutes charged with rape as standard, although this could be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

Rape is complex, and viewed very differently across the gender divide.

Many feminist writings point to men as the source of all misogyny (and often all evil). It’s ridiculous to suggest, as some do, that all men, worldwide, are united in a single conspiracy to subjugate all women, but to be male is to have a power and privilege that most men are not even aware they possess. Most men feel that rape is wrong – many rightfully view it as abhorrent. But they are not conditioned to fear it in the way that women do, and I don’t think most men have any real sense of how damaging it truly is. Society has a long-standing tradition of trivialising sex for men and demonising (even medicating) it for women, and this shows. Sex is sex and not always a big deal for men, and most men also have a very narrow view of what rape is. If they’re not the stranger in an alley holding a razor blade to her throat, then it’s ok, right?

Wrong. Utterly wrong. Being forced into sex, howsoever it is done, is humiliating and degrading, and in the truest terrible meaning of the word, utterly violating. Having sex with a woman, very likely underage, who has more than likely been forced into having sex with you – even if you are not directly doing the forcing – is rape. And paying for both the privilege of abusing her and the privilege of not having to admit that that is what you are doing makes you an utterly disgusting creature – less than human. 

Trafficked girls and women forced into prostitution are extremely vulnerable and in need of protection. A decent society deserving of respect would protect them first and worry about “civil liberties” later. I don’t think that it is extreme to charge men who pay to abuse these women and provide the demand and profitability needed to keep this chain of exploitation going with rape. I think it is extreme not to. Since 2008, it has been illegal to buy sex from someone who has been trafficked – but with a handy loophole whereby the purchaser can claim that he didn’t know the person had been trafficked, it’s difficult to see this new regulation having any impact whatsoever.

There is no way to be absolutely sure that the woman truly consents when you pay for sex – if a girl is terrified into making herself look happy and eager, happy and eager she will seem. It is time that men who pay and ask no questions are made to confront what they may be doing. And it’s time things changed, and this change should be about ending exploitation and fear – and if we can’t do that, decreasing the profitability of exploitation will still make a difference we can be proud of.

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