Skip to comments.Sex for sale, legally
Posted on 07/14/2003 1:12:06 AM PDT by optik_b
Sex for sale, legally
From The Economist Global Agenda
Though some governments are still trying to crack down on prostitution, others are realising that it is better to legalise and license it than to suffer the ill effects of driving it underground. New Zealand has just done so; Belgium looks set to be next
An honest Dutch taxpayer at work
THE selling of sex has been widely practised, and roundly condemned, throughout history. The Bible constantly rails against whores and whoremongers, from Genesis through to Revelation, and the book of Leviticus gives the stern injunction: “Do not prostitute thy daughter, to cause her to be a whore; lest the land fall to whoredom, and the land become full of wickedness.” But these days, many in the world’s more liberal countries doubt if the exchange of sex for money between consenting adults really does threaten the fabric of society, and ask if the state really has any right to stop them doing so. Even some who still disapprove of prostitution wonder, given the authorities’ constant failure to curb it, whether it might be less bad to legalise and license the profession. This would help to get it off the streets, take it out of the hands of organised crime, control the spread of disease and curb sex slavery and underage prostitution.
Such reasons were given by parliamentarians from Belgium’s new Socialist-Liberal coalition when, on Thursday July 10th, they promised a bill to legalise brothels. At the moment, self-employed prostitutes are legal in Belgium but brothels are not. By proposing to legalise and regulate them, the country is following its neighbour, the Netherlands, which did so three years ago. Since Dutch brothel girls are now legitimate workers, they have had to start paying income tax, boosting the government’s coffers. Patsy Sorensen, a Belgian member of the European Parliament, who founded a shelter for prostitutes, reckons her country’s legalisation of brothels could raise more than euro50m ($57m) a year in revenues. The wages of sin is tax, not death, it seems.
Romania’s parliament is already debating similar legislation, while New Zealand passed a law to legalise brothels last month. After years of heated debate, its parliament approved the measure by just one vote. As a result, the illicit “massage parlours” that are said to employ around 7,000 prostitutes will now become legal businesses but, as in other liberalising countries, will have to obey strict health, safety and employment-rights regulations. In neighbouring Australia, the situation is more confused: Sydney has legalised brothels and Tasmania is planning to follow suit; but this month the state government of Western Australia abandoned its plans for liberalisation after concluding they would not pass in the state assembly.
Worried about the rising numbers of foreign prostitutes on the streets, Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, last year raised the possibility of bringing back licensed brothels, which were common in Italy until they were banned in 1958. Some of the country’s recent efforts to repress street prostitution have had absurd consequences: when Milan banned “kerb-crawling” (ie, motorists stopping to pick up prostitutes) in 1998, the prostitutes responded by putting on running shoes and jogging alongside prospective punters’ cars, negotiating their prices. Britain recently brought in tougher laws against street prostitution but many cities and their local police forces have bowed to the inevitable and introduced zones of tolerance, where the authorities turn a blind eye to soliciting. The London-based International Union of Sex Workers, which recently affiliated to the GMB, one of Britain’s largest trade unions, is campaigning for changes in the law, arguing that the prohibition of soliciting increases the risk of violence, forcing prostitutes to rely on pimps for protection.
Though the case for liberalisation seems to be making headway in most liberal democracies, there are still many who oppose, on moral grounds, anything that smacks of official sanctioning of sex for money. Of course, the Catholic church immediately condemned Mr Berlusconi’s talk of liberalisation. And one of the New Zealand parliamentarians who voted against legalisation last month, Nick Smith of the conservative National Party, said: “Sex should not be for sale. Prostitution is nothing more than paid rape.”
Church leaders and other opponents of legalisation point to Sweden—which, despite its reputation for being sexually liberated, tightened its laws against prostitution in 1999, to make it illegal to try to buy sex (though not to sell it). Men caught soliciting prostitutes now face up to six months’ jail. The Swedish government claims its measure has been a success and is urging other countries to follow suit. The Russian parliament is expected soon to debate a proposal to do just that.
Whatever the Swedish government claims, social workers who deal with prostitutes say the law has simply driven the sex trade underground, thereby making it harder to clamp down on trafficking in foreign women, one of the law’s main aims. A survey, after the law changed, by the National Board of Health and Welfare, seemed to contradict the government’s claims of success: most police districts surveyed found either that levels of street prostitution had not changed, or had only fallen temporarily. Nevertheless, the government continues its crusade: earlier this month it wrote to the Greek authorities expressing outrage at their plans to increase the number of licensed brothels in Athens while the city is hosting next year’s Olympics.
Sex has always been a big business, but usually a shady one
Sex has always been a big business, but usually a shady one, dominated by criminal gangs. But in a few liberated places, such as the American state of Nevada, professionally run brothels have made great strides in ensuring their working girls are safe from violence and disease. British television viewers have recently been seeing this for themselves in “Love for Sale”, a BBC documentary series about two Nevadan brothels whose owner is seeking to bring his trade into the mainstream consumer market. In May, Daily Planet, a bordello in the Australian city of Melbourne, was floated on the stockmarket. “Everyone knows sex is a smart investment,” said Heidi Fleiss, a legendary Hollywood madam, who was brought over to publicise the launch. The firm now plans a sexual leisure park in Sydney and branches in America, Brazil and Colombia.
Few cities have gone quite so far as Cape Town in South Africa, which decided in 1999 to publicise its brothels as a tourist attraction. But many parts of the world are taking a more relaxed attitude and either liberalising for the first time or returning to the tradition of allowing a limited number of what the French call maisons closes: officially sanctioned but discreet brothels. Increasingly, governments are realising that paid sex is impossible to eradicate, and that it is better to concentrate on keeping the business clean, safe and inconspicuous.
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Personally I come down on the side of the libertarians on this issue. I think I should be allowed to do what I have the faculty and skills for and I should be allowed to charge for that service if I can find people willing to pay. I don't see any specific reason to prevent women from doing the same. In theory, it all looks fine. Unfortunately in practice, prostitution is one of those things that is often chosen instead of death by starvation or at the hands of a facilitator.
I've spent a great deal of time in southeast asia, and I'm telling you, not one of the girls who engage in this trade would be doing what they are doing if they had any choice. The girls I've seen range in age from their 30's down to as young as 11, and none of them have made what we would call a choice. For them, and many others in the third world, it is a great deal more like slavery than anything else.
I can't really say that I find a 28 year old Dutch girl reprehensible for making a decision about her work that I disagree with. I don't respect her, but I don't think she's responsible for the downfall of western civilization. But when minors are involved (and they too often are) then we should find a way to stop it.
I don't think anyone debates whether or not it is morally wrong. It is. The question is whether we should use the power of the state to prevent it. In the case of women of majority (and men for that matter if they can get someone to pay) I think there are more practical means to deal with the issue than criminalizing it. But for those who push minors into this, I think our legal system lacks a punishment severe enough.
Public execution of the facilitators (slavers) would probably be a good start, but we should consider more severe punishment as well.
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