Prostitution: to legalise or not?

The legal status of prostitution seems to once again have come up for discussion in the UK. It is a subject, living in Dubai and taking an interest in all things Central Asian, of which I know a little.

I used to have clear views on whether prostitution should be legal, but now I’m not so sure.

Opening up prostitution as a legal way of earning a living is going to come with a mountain of problems, I suspect from the girls themselves. When you give girls an opportunity to earn money this way, they will take it, and in large numbers.

When the Soviet Union was still in existence, the girls there did not have the opportunity to practice prostitution (the need was there all right, life was crap for the residents of Bishkek then as it is now, although probably not to the same extent). When they were given the opportunity to become prostitutes, by allowing them to travel, thousands of them took it. Many girls did not do so out of desperation, as is commonly believed to be the sole reason for a girl turning to prostititution, but just because it was an option which would lead to them making a lot of money (similar to why some people turn to crime when they are not desperate). In short, it was a career choice.

As a libertarian, I cannot say they should not have been allowed to do it. But I will say that somebody should have discouraged it. The mental health of somebody working as a prostitute, especially those who get into it in their late teens, deteriorates rapidly. My Russian teacher, who taught loads of these girls English, has educated me pretty well on the subject, and she has yet to meet a prostitute who has worked for more than 2 months or so who does not have some sort of mental problem. Paranoia, and extreme swings between elation and depression are the normal ones (without the aid of drugs, mind). This happens, but to a lesser extent, even if they have been treated well in their jobs and the evidence seems to be that even if everything goes swimmingly well, the effect on them is the same. Quite what the former Soviet Union is going to do with these girls when they get too old to work and return home, I don’t know. In my opinion, it is a time bomb which will go largely unnoticed, as thousands of girls turn to suicide or die lonely deaths somewhere. Still, it is their choice and I generally don’t judge them either way.

But do we really want to be encouraging girls to take up the profession? If brothels are legalised, then the number of girls practising will increase dramatically, as many will take an opportunity previously not open to them. This has happened in the former Soviet Union and will almost certainly happen in the UK, and we will be faced with a situation where there are thousands of prostitutes working. From what I’ve seen, most girls who go into it don’t consider the long term impact of what it does to them until it’s too late. I’m all for individual freedom, but if we are going to allow girls to practice, then we have to expect there to be an enormous number of prostitutes in the country, most of whom have serious mental health issues. At the moment, only the very strong or very weak are going into prositution, and in small numbers – so it isn’t much of a problem. If the profession becomes legal and open to more “mainstream” girls, it will be. And I’m not sure that those who advocate legalising prostitution will be prepared for the enormous number of people who will be practising it (and there will be many) and the subsequent problem of having to pick up the tab for caring for what will be a serious number of very mentally sick girls (and thanks to the joys of socialised healthcare, this burden falls to Johnny taxpayer).

Also, if we are going to open up brothels in the UK, it will be law that any EU citizen can work there without a visa. It is pretty much given that Eastern Europeans will be willing to work in the trade for a lot less than the Western girls, so if brothels are allowed then they will be filled with Eastern Europeans and the British girls will have to go elsewhere. Also, there is little reason why ex-Soviet and Central Asian girls cannot come to the UK to work as prostitutes under such a system, especially as there will be plenty of companies willing to give them sponsorhip for employment. So licensing brothels in the UK would not help British girls much without breaking EU law.

My own view on this is mixed, and I’m not sure if legalisation is a good or bad idea. But one thing I do know is that when prostitution is allowed to be practised, the number of women practising far exceeds expectations; the mental health effects of the women will be the same as they are now (support systems and worker protection brought in with legalisation will help, but only to a degree) but there will be far far more cases; and that generally, places with a large number of prostitutes are far from pleasant.

In short, any benefits to be gained by legalisation (better protection for women, etc.) must be weighed against the enormous impact it will have in other areas. Thinking it through, I think the legislation governing where and how they can work would have to be so rigid as to make little difference to the status quo, as the women would simply carry on doing what they are doing now. Would they be banned from picking up men in shops, bars, and clubs for example? Just as when brothels are banned, brothels exist; if brothels were legalised, women would be working in the clubs; if working in clubs was legalised, women would be touting their wares in shops and shopping centres. This is something that actually happens, it is not just theory. Dubai is witnessing this very occurence as the number of girls coming in increases and the law turns more of a blind eye to what’s going on.

My final thought is that if prostitution is made legal, an enormous effort must be made to discourage girls from actually doing it (which sounds a bit contradictory). For many, as with crime, prostitution looks like an easy way to make a lot of money and looks more attractive than earning a living another way. It is anything but, and a huge effort should be made to discourage anyone from taking up this work unless they absolutely have to.

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6 Responses to Prostitution: to legalise or not?

  1. Mark Holland says:

    Good post. It’s a tricky area alright I don’t know what to think about it. Aren’t there legal brothels in some Australian states (Victoria possibly) and Nevada of course, where the place and the girls are certified and checked for disease? An establishment could be “AA rated”, possibly by that bloke that does the “massage parlour guide”. At least the punter will know, or is more likely to know, that the girls haven’t been brought in from Albania in a container and chained to the bed like plenty are.

  2. Jacob says:

    The same argument goes for drugs: “if you legalize them a great number of additional people are going to do drugs; all drug addicts finish up either dead or with grave health and mental health problems … etc..”

    Libertarians are all for drug legalization. Me too.
    There are problems either way, the legal ban doesn’t help – neither with drugs, nor with prostitution.

  3. Andy says:

    Interesting post, and I completely agree with your primary conclusion about stepping up attempts to dissuade people from taking up a legal but (probably) unhappy profession.

    A couple of things that I disagree on slightly:

    The move to legality will not necessarily increase the numbers of women choosing prostitution in and of itself. Increased supply, not matched by demand will probably eventually result in a similar number of women working in the trade as currently. (Unless, of course, an increased number of punters arrive, emboldened by legalisation, which is very possible).

    Second, I don’t think legalising brothels will hurt British girls as much as you think, as Eastern Europeans take up legal brothel spots. On the contrary, I’d imagine that British girls would be better aware of their rights, and better able to take advantages of the opportunities of legalisation than immigrants who will, as usualy, be pushed into taking the crappiest semi-legal (or even illegal) jobs.

  4. Alexei says:

    I was waiting for somebody to say what you said, Tim — poverty is a lame excuse here. Prostitution seems to be a career choice (made possible by the girls’ moral dizziness and/or shortsightedness/stupidity) or the trade that girls are tricked into, often because of their irresponsible choice-making and/or ignorance. For some reason, some girls choose selling their bodies while others try their best to get an education or/and a husband. The trouble is, post-Soviets have to learn to live in the new, no less cruel world first, and it takes much more time than optimists thought twenty years ago. Libertarian principles can only work for well-prepared societies. (I don’t think Britain could easily move away from semi-socialism now, either.) Legalizing prostitution would send a rather odd signal to the public.

  5. Devon says:

    It’s all well and good to be concerned about the well-being of a particular segment of society but shouldn’t law be based in a concept of some kind of social morality that transends gender or who buys and who sells?

    “Slavery” is a practice that existed in the sweat shops of 19th and 20th century garment manufacturing. It is a current practice in the U.S. where illegal aliens are threated with deportation as basis to work extreme hours for less than minimum wage and with no rights to workplace safety, etc.

    The “sale” of children to work for either sustanance only or for very little pay exists in Nepal and other nations in that region. Is ther any difference in social morality here?

    If a man sells sex, does the social morality change? If the woman makes a “career” choice, is emotionally well, lives happily and makes a positive contribution to her community does the justice change?

    I am not promoting legalisation or illegalisation but I find the arguments of gender, nationality or economic class to be classic “bandage” mentality legal knee-jerk reactions that lack a fundamental, universal social basis in justice.

    Criminalisation in Sweden has led to a reduction in at least reported prostitution. Heavy penalties for violent crime have led to a reduction in homocides and armed roberies in New York City. But has there been any fundamental change in society or simply a shift in behaviour?

    Sustainable, substantive change will only be achieved upon the basis of principles adopted and practiced by the majority of members of a given society and there are very few examples where this measure of success has been brought about through legislation of human behaviour.

  6. Gareth says:

    Interesting Mark. I am not a model citizen of any society but do try and hold to my principles of Truth.

    I agree if there were any other way I would encourage ladies not to even think about entering the profession, but sometimes, where needs must…

    I have paid for numerous course for girls to do something else but in various different countries. We as individual citizens are not responsible and by doing such, are just making ourselves feel better for the moment.

    I returned to Dubai for my second time recently, but could not handle the opulence and did not fit-in. I left my new job after 1 week (Technology Partners, Thuriya Tower MediaCity) and having to admit that I am much happier living with poorer people in poorer loctions than with what was in Dubai. Whether I return to Brasil to be with my wife, her decision not mine, or Maputo to see my hooker friends is unclear.

    We all have to live our lives how we can just to get through it. I like you am not willing to judge, just offer and accept advice when required.

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