Prostitution: The pros and cons of decriminalisation

Jul 1, 2016

MPs back proposals for radical changes to laws surrounding sex work

Charles McQuillan/Getty

Politicians have called for reforms to the prostitution laws in England and Wales to give greater protection for sex workers and bring legislation in line with reforms in other countries.

In an interim report, presented today, the home affairs select committee of MPs said the Home Office should immediately introduce legislation to allow for solicitation by sex workers and to change brothel-keeping laws to allow workers to share premises.

"Treating soliciting as a criminal offence is having an adverse effect and it is wrong that sex workers, who are predominantly women, should be penalised and stigmatised in this way," said Labour MP Keith Vaz, the committee chair. "The criminalisation of sex workers should therefore end."

However, there must continue to be "zero tolerance" of exploitation of sex workers by organised criminals, he added.

Other recommendations in the report call for previous convictions and cautions for prostitution to be deleted from sex workers' records to help them move into other lines of work.

A spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes welcomed the report. The proposed changes "will make a massive difference to women in our group who at the moment are living with a massive burden of criminality which really makes it much more dangerous to work", she said.

BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw says the current instability in government means "the chances of the recommendations being acted on are slim". However, the MPs on the committee have nonetheless been "bold", marking a major step towards the decriminalisation of sex work.

Decriminalisation: the pros and cons

Con: Prostitution exploits women

Many feminists argue that prostitution is rooted in the patriarchal oppression of women and is an affront to gender equality. The Right of Women organisation says current legislation "enshrines men's right to buy women" and fuels sex trafficking by criminal gangs.

Their statement on prostitution quotes the former UN special rapporteur on trafficking, Sigma Huda, who says: "It is rare that one finds a case in which the path to prostitution and/or a person's experience does not involve, at the very least, an abuse of power and/or an abuse of vulnerability."

Pro: Sex work is a choice and empowers women

Sex workers' rights groups argue that many sex workers enter the industry voluntarily. The International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) argues that current legislation "treats our consent to sex as less valid than that of other women".

"Neither having sex nor getting paid [for it] is inherently degrading, abusive, exploitative or harmful", says the IUSW.

Pro: Human rights and medical experts support it

Earlier this year Amnesty International published a draft policy arguing in favour of decriminalisation, saying sex workers should be entitled to the same rights as other workers. It argues that the criminalisation of prostitution "threatens the rights to health, non-discrimination, equality, privacy, and security" of a sex worker.

The World Health Organisation also condemns the criminalisation of sex work, and backs the new research by The Lancet which shows that decriminalising prostitution would help lower rates of sexually transmitted infections, particularly HIV/Aids. 

Con: Prostitution is dangerous

Many campaigners and feminists argue that prostitution, whether voluntary or not, is a form of violence against women. Care, a Christian charity argues that physical abuse and rape is commonplace in prostitution and campaigns for the criminalisation of all purchases of sexual services. In London, sex workers suffer a mortality rate that is "12 times higher than average", according to their research.

Pro: Decriminalisation will actually make sex workers safer

Rights groups argue that criminalising prostitution means that sex workers are less likely to contact the police to report abuse. The laws in the UK also takes sex workers' right to work together. If sex workers are allowed to work together in one building, they will be safer, says IUSW.

"If I decided I was too nervous to work alone, I would not be allowed to have a friend over to work in a pair for safety: it would technically mean I was running a brothel," one sex worker told The Independent.

UK laws "make life harder for those it purports to protect by precluding the possibility of establishing informal networks of self-regulation and protection" argues Luke Gittos, law editor for Spiked Online.

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