Should Britain legalise brothels?

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For as long as there have have been prostitutes, there have been attempts to regulate the practise of selling sex for money.

In medieval England prostitution was not illegal but was regulated by local authorities. There were limited prostitution zones, such as in Southwark, south London. Even in those days, however, Britain tended to lag behind some other European countries in its attitudes towards the oldest profession.

The same holds true today. Prostitution is technically illegal in the Netherlands but is widely tolerated. And in Germany and Sweden, brothels are legal.

While prostitution in England and Wales itself is not illegal, there are a clutch of unlawful activities surrounding prostitution. Thus the Street Offences Act 1959 outlaws loitering or soliciting in the street or other public place. The Sexual Offences Act 1956 makes it an offence to live off the earnings of another person's prostitution or to control a prostitute. The first attempt to control the prostitute's customers was the Sexual Offences Act 1985, which made kerb-crawling an offence.

These laws were originally introduced to protect neighbourhoods from being intimidated by prostitutes and their customers.

In the United States, prostitution is only legal in licensed brothels in Nevada. Had Hugh Grant been in one of these, all would have been legal, but having oral sex with a prostitute in a car in public is illegal even in liberal Nevada.

He would have been prosecuted for public sexual activity in virtually every country in Europe. In England and Wales, it is unlawful for a couple to engage in sexual activities in public under a common law offence of outraging public decency.

Over the past two years, the Criminal Law Revision Committee has considered the argument in favour of decriminalising offences associated with prostitution but has rejected this course of action on the grounds that there is no evidence that it would reduce the problems experienced by local residents. Nor does the committee want to increase the demand for the services of prostitutes or encourage more young girls to enter the profession.

At the same time as the committee has been pondering decriminalisation, an all-party parliamentary working group under the chairmanship of Diane Abbott, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, has been considering the whole question of prostitution. It is thought that the group is particularly anxious to do something to curb child and under-age prostitution.

Today there is growing pressure from international prostitute collectives to decriminalise prostitution. In countries where there are legalised brothels, prostitutes are calling for deregulation and freedom from restrictive laws governing where and how they should conduct their trade. In countries such as Britain where there are a number of offences associated with prostitution, prostitutes are calling for decriminalisation.

In Britain, Maggie O'Neill, a senior lecturer in sociology at Staffordshire University who has been studying prostitution, says that while there are no reliable statistics for the total number of prostitutes in the UK, 10,017 prostitutes were sentenced in magistrates' courts in England and Wales in 1990.

The way prostitutes are treated by local authorities and the police also varies widely. Some cities like Edinburgh and Bristol appear to be turning a blind eye on them by allowing prostitution to take place in sauna and health clubs, while others such as Birmingham are considering setting up zones of tolerance to put an end to kerb-crawling.

Attitudes towards prostitution in Britain do seem to be relaxing in some quarters - the Mothers' Union has moderated its traditional strongly hostile attitude to prostitution and a Liberal Democrat policy paper has proposed that there should be legalised prostitution.

Most recently in May this year, the Royal College of Nursing voted overwhelmingly to ban laws outlawing prostitition. The nurses said that they did not wish to make the world's oldest profession respectable, but they did want to remove the "shame, stigma and victimisation" that went with it and minimise the danger to young women, men and children who are driven to sell sex for money.

Cari Mitchell of the English Collective of Prostitutes says the collective wants to abolish the prostitution laws and for prostitutes to be subject to the same laws as everyone else. This would get rid of red-light areas and remove the stigma attached to prostitution. "It's only sex you know, consenting sex," she said yesterday. Tonight the collective is staging a forum in Kentish Town, north London, to debate "Sex Work, Sexual Violence and Sexual Choices" to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its foundation.

She says that the collective is opposed to legalising brothels because this would involve more laws, leaving some women working in parlours and brothels, and others working from home and, in other areas, subject to the full weight of the law.

"It would be a two-tier system," she says. "Those who are white, the right shape and appearance would be able to work inside the law, while others would have to work outside the law."

Simon Midgley