SHOULD PROSTITUTION BE LEGALISED IN THE UK?
Whether or not the practice of prostitution should be legalised in the United Kingdom is dependent entirely on what specific practices should or should not be legalised in the UK. To legalise a practice is to make it permissible by law and constitution (Definition of Legal 2009). Therefore, in considering the given theme, the primary focus should be on the spirit as well as the practice of the law in the United Kingdom, and to its unwritten constitution, to which every legal or legalised practice necessarily ideally conforms.
The above question can therefore be modified thus: Does prostitution conform to the spirit of the constitution of the United Kingdom? If it does conform, to what extent does it does so?
Because the British constitution is a peculiarly complex one (Wicks 2009), its spirit or essence cannot be so easily be captured and defined. However, the essence of this constitution cannot contradict the values and principles of the various regulatory and sanitising intergovernmental organisations to which the United Kingdom belongs. Prominent among such organisations are the United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organisation (WHO), but the EU especially affects UK law with legislative developments such as The Human Rights Act. If the United Kingdom does belong to these organisations as an established and a settled member, working steadily and harmoniously with other members on a more or less permanent basis, then its constitution must correspond in essence with the values and principles upheld by these organisations.
Fortunately, these values and principles are clearly defined in respect of every practice the organisations are set up to regulate for each member state, and they can therefore be used as yardsticks for determining the UK-constitutionality of the practice of prostitution.
Thus, to determine whether or not prostitution conforms to the spirit of the UK constitution, the argument set out in this paper weighs the basic dimensions and implications of prostitution in the UK against aspects of these values and principles that relate to prostitution.
2.0. PROSTITUTION IN THE UNITED KINGDOM: DIMENSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS
The UK Prostitution industry provides sexual gratification “in exchange for money, housing or other goods and services.”(Canter et al. 2009, p. 1). About 80,000 men and women are said to be in the UK prostitution industry, a greater proportion of this number being women – though it is extremely difficult to accurately estimate numbers, and certain pressure groups (e.g. The Fawcett Society) may well have a vested interested in exaggerating numbers.
For most sex workers, the primary motivation for prostitution in the United Kingdom and elsewhere is economical (Munro and Giusta 2008). This fact provides us with at least four dimensions to UK prostitution —the economic, the physical, the social and the psychological. What real implications do these four dimensions hold for the sex-trader and his or her clients?
2.1. THE ECONOMIC: For female prostitutes, one possible motivation for prostitution is the financial insecurity resulting from gender discrimination in employment opportunities and in the inaccessibility to the essential social amenities that goes with this discrimination (Munro and Giusta 2008). But all prostitutes, male and female, have economic compulsions basically from poverty and very low living standards, as well as drug abuse, which is an expensive habit. Some prostitutes, however, are ‘high class’ so perhaps choose this way of life for the high earning potential; most, however, would seem to need the money and being a prostitute is – or at least seems like – ‘easy’ cash.
For the clients, it is conceivable that the availability of such sexual services increases the probability of their augmenting their means of income to conveniently or tolerably accommodate their sexual expenses within their budget. Though many such clients might choose to acquire the finances through illegitimate means, it is not impossible that a fraction of these clients do receive an incentive for greater economic activity and a contribution to the general economy of the UK.
2.2. THE PHYSICAL: If about 80,000 of the roughly 60, 000,000 people living in the UK (National Statistics Online, 2009) are sexual traders, then a great many more than 80, 000 people (traders and clients) are part of the UK sexual trade. This deduction suggests that a considerable fraction of the UK population have some connection with the sex industry; anecdotally, according to ‘Woman’s Hour’ (BBC), one in ten British men have visited a prostitute, though how this number was estimated is unclear. Of course, the chances of contracting sexually transmitted diseases and HIV are higher for both the client and the sex worker – but especially the latter as one sex worker may have many hundreds of clients in a year or two.
In spite of these negative consequences, it must still be acknowledged that these services increase the opportunity for the satisfaction of natural and legitimate sexual urges whose fulfilment at the right time would be impossible without the prostitution industry. After all, feminists once claimed that ‘marriage was prostitution’, and prostitution has long been called ‘the oldest profession’ for good reason: it cannot be stopped because there will always be a demand and supply of sec as a basic commodity. If a woman – or man – chooses to sell sex, then that is empowering and not oppressive perhaps – and what is oppressive is other women prudishly and puritanically attempting to stop other women making choices about their lives; a similar argument is made by some women who work in the porn industry.
2.3. THE SOCIAL: Sex workers in the UK are generally from poor family backgrounds and severely disadvantaged social conditions (Canter et al. 2009; Minichiello and Kottler 2009). A good number of them practise their trade itinerantly, thus changing their social environment and, in a way perhaps, raising their social status and exposure. This change can be claimed to be a form of social emancipation and advancement.
On the other hand, records show that, through such exposure, prostitutes in the United Kingdom, especially female ones, have a very high likelihood of having been molested, victimised or assaulted when young, and also being treated in a similar way in the sex industry — sexually or otherwise (ibid.). For instance, they may engage in sexual transactions with total strangers, at times in totally strange environments open to all sorts of life-endangering risks; they may suffer violence from their clients; or they may inadvertently incite the sinister wrath of their sexually jealous current or ex- partners. For the clients, this fact implies a greater opportunity for them to vent their wild and arbitrary sexual or temperamental passions on the sex worker “offenders”, who may often not be confident enough to expose the entire truth of any assault to the police, who might just arrest and criminalise the prostitute anyway. This fear arguably allows those who wish to hurt or even murder prostitutes to be caught later than they otherwise would be (for example, the Ipswich murderer Stephen Wright).
Many UK prostitutes are foreign-born and especially East European; however, most are not thought to be trafficked but working in brothels through choice (The Fawcett Society’s figures alleging there were tens of thousands of trafficked prostitutes in the UK spuriously assumed that all foreign prostitutes working at brothels had been trafficked!)
2.4. THE PSYCHOLOGICAL: The psychological implications of the practice of prostitution in the UK can be inferred from the afore-examined dimensions. For the sex workers, there is the increased capacity for adventure and risk-taking – which is dangerous mentally and physically. The necessity to take drugs, which the trade often brings (Wicks 2009), may well damage sex workers psychologically – though many will be drug users and damaged mentally before starting on ‘the game’. For the clients, there may be an increased feeling of a sense of strong sexual prowess, which has the potential of urging them to more sexual excesses or even rape, but there may also be guilt and shame.
In addition, there is a great chance for both trader and client to further lose self-respect and to develop low self-esteem, an inferiority complex, and such ‘mental illnesses’ or hateful attitudes as misandry and misogyny that will alienate them from the world of normal man-woman or sexual relationships, considering the abnormal sexualities which such people have been shown to possess (Canter et al. 2009).
3.0. THE REGULATING INTER-GOVERNMENTAL ORGANISATIONS
The following values and principles of the United Nations and the World Health Organisation relate to the four implications of prostitution addressed above:
3.1. THE UNITED NATIONS (UN)
(1) Article 55, Chapter IX of the United Nation’s 29-chapter Charter suggests the United Nation’s economic and social values and principles:
“ b…the United Nations shall promote solutions of international economic, social, health, and related problems; and international cultural and educational cooperation;” and
“c . universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race , sex, language and religion.” (Charter of the United Nations , nd)
Since in promoting “solutions of economic [and]… health problems”, and in its “observance of,
human rights and fundamental freedoms for all”, the UN did not directly or indirectly offer, recommend or institute the UK prostitution industry, it is obvious that prostitution in the UK does not conform to the economic and social values and principles of the UN, and is therefore contradictory to the spirit of the UK constitution. To what extent UK prostitution is unconformable to the UN charter can be deduced from the repeated public campaigns of the UK government against prostitution (Wicks 2009) (These repeated campaigns are not however part of a process of illegalisation of UK prostitution). Such campaigns have not been shown to be absolutely illegal, they have not threatened the UK legal system, and can therefore be accorded considerable legality.
Consequently, in its economic and social dimensions, prostitution is considerably contradictory to the UN charter and therefore also to the spirit of the UK constitution.
3.2. THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANISATION (WHO)
With its definition of sexual health, the WHO offers a yardstick for assessing the physical dimensions of UK prostitution (described in the previous section):
‘“Sexual health is a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity” ( World Health organization 2007)” ’(Paterson 2007, p.1).
This definition suggests that for sexual health to exist, the four aspects—physical, emotional, mental and social—must all be in states of “well-being” (ibid.). Therefore, while sex traders and their clients might find physical, emotional, and perhaps mental gratification in their uncontrolled sexual indulgences, they definitely do not find corresponding social gratification in it—as section 2 states and implies. Therefore, given the deficiency in social fulfilment of sexual commerce, WHO consider all who belong to the UK prostitution industry to be sexually unhealthy.
The physical implications of UK prostitution therefore absolutely contradict WHO values and principles and are therefore also absolutely contradictory to the spirit of the UK constitution.
3.3 THE UN and the WHO
Section 2.4 suggests that the psychological implications of UK prostitution are a direct function of the economic, social and physical implications . Therefore if the economic and social implications are considerably against the spirit of the UK constitution, and the physical implications are absolutely against it, the psychological implications must be significantly against the spirit of the UK constitution.
4.0. LEGALISING UK PROSTITUTION
After acknowledging the above considerations, should prostitution in the UK not be
legalised? As these considerations indicate, are there not tangible economical, social, physical or psychological benefits to be derived not only by those who engage in it, but also by the UK government? After all, prostitution is not absolutely against the spirit of the UK constitution, implying that it agrees with the spirit of the UK constitution in a number of respects. Strictly, of course, it is soliciting rather than prostitution that is illegal in the UK, and authorities do seem to turn a blind eye to prostitution to a large extent.
Bourke (2007) suggests that legalising prostitution would not only reduce the public nuisance and dangers to sex workers of street prostitution, but would also regulate prostitution, according prostitutes rights of lawful recognition, social respect and healthy sexual practices – and mean the government could tax revenue from it. The more insalubrious and dangerous sex trade – and sex trafficking and underage prostitution – could be clamped down on if there were legalised brothels, as in New Zealand or some states of the US. However, this also takes place in the Netherlands where, officially, prostitution is illegal but tolerated. A state which accepts prostitution, however, could be said to be tolerating immorality and a trade which leads to a great deal of abuse, especially of vulnerable women.
In legalising prostitution, therefore, there are obvious benefits in more than one respect, for both the individual and for the government.
4.1. NOT LEGALISING UK PROSTITUTION
Suppose the above considerations led to not legalising or even to “illegalising” UK prostitution? The economic, physical, social and psychological benefits that would result from legalising prostitution would not be seen. However, some would argue that it would protect women – and male sex workers – and mean respect for women, and gender equality, would be more likely in wider society.
In addition to the reasons against legalising prostitution given above, Doctorforlife (2007) suggests that legalising the sex trade would not only promote child prostitution, but it might in time lead to a clamour for a reduction in the age of consent in order to accommodate child prostitution. Would such an eventuality be a significant negative development? Could state approval for prostitution be the thin end of the wedge, leading to state run brothels offering sex-menus?
To start with, the above considerations suggest that every UK sex trader has physical strength and a measure of intelligence (Both capacities are obviously required for prostitution.) Therefore, every prostitute could channel these capacities into two different types of occupations—the physical and the intellectual. If UK prostitution were declared illegal, and consequently prohibited, a greater potential for economic contribution would exist: many prostitutes would have to apply their prostituted physical and mental strengths differently and perhaps more creatively. Therefore, while there may be some economic benefits for the individuals and the government in legalising prostitution, greater economic benefits would arguably come from not legalising it – though prostitution will exist whether it is legal or not.
Moreover, if prostitution were to made illegal, violence against prostitutes – and women in particular – would arguably be reduced. Greater safety of women, children, and also of men would perhaps result, and the social conditions of the United Kingdom would be the better for it.
Since the social unhealthiness of prostitutes and their clients would reduce, the development of greater sexual health would be facilitated. Because sexual health would improve, there would be greater and better opportunities for the fulfilment of natural and legitimate sexual urges—without the risk, for instance, of contracting deadly sexual transmitted diseases or of being exposed to other physical dangers. Thus, in the physical sense both the sex traders and their clients would have opportunities to benefit more from not legalising prostitution in the UK.
If prostitution were to be legalised, however, similar arguments could be made: a regulated sex trade would be safer for workers and clients with regular health checks for sex workers; a more healthy attitude to sex would exist in wider society; drug addicts and abused prostitutes could be helped as all focus of the police could be given to this aspect of the sex trade; and the government could make many millions from the sex trade in order to help the most vulnerable instead of wasting billions in a pointless attempt of police and authorities to stop prostitution.
In conclusion, perhaps an attitude and situation based on the Dutch model – where prostitution is tolerated and sex workers not criminalised despite prostitution being strictly illegal – would work best, and then the clients who use sex workers abusively could be pursued rather than the sex workers themselves: this compromise might even get the support of some feminist organisations. So perhaps asking whether or not prostitution should be legalised is the wrong question; rather, the question should be how best to manage prostitution so as to promote the health and well-being of those involved in it and wider society too.
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CANTER, DV, IANNOU, M and YOUNGS, D (2009) Safer Sex in The City: The Experience and Management of Street Prostitution. Ashgate Publishing, Surrey, United Kingdom.
MINICHIELLO, V and KOTTLER , JA (2009).Qualitative Journeys: Student and Mentor Experiences with Research. SAGE Publications Inc.
MUNRO, V, GIUSTA, MD (2008). Demanding Sex: Critical Reflections on the Regulation of Prostitution. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., United Kingdom.
PATERSON, M F (2007) “Tackling Sexual Health Inequalities: Work in Progress with Young People at Risk”, International Journal of Health Promotion and Education. 45:3.1
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