Thomas Sutcliffe: Buying sex is not just a business transaction

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The Independent Online

I imagine there are men out there Independent readers, too who are contemplating giving themselves an extra little treat for Christmas. They're planning to sidle through the doors of some inconspicuous massage parlour (Peterborough now has no fewer than 48 of them, we're told) and pay one of its employees to have sex with them.

There's unlikely to be small talk, because quite a few of the women won't speak much English, but then conversation isn't really what the punters have come for. Nor are they likely to ask many questions about the motives of the women who are about to scratch their sexual itch.

And since a recent BMA survey found that the proportion of men prepared to admit they've had sex with a prostitute has doubled in the last 10 years from one in 20 to one in 10 there really are quite a lot of them out there. Look around the bus, or the Tube, or the office right now and you can almost certainly see one. It's highly unlikely that any of them would think of themselves as criminals.

In most cases they aren't, of course. At present it isn't illegal to pay for sex in this country. But that this state of affairs might be long overdue for change was brought home by the report at the weekend that four women, trafficked for sex and subjected to sustained abuse, were to be given criminal injury payments totalling around 140,000. That news underlined the extraordinary muddle of our current legislation on prostitution.

These women, it seemed, were indisputably victims of a crime their "profession" imposed on them by brutal sex traffickers. At the same time we learn that prostitutes and pole dancers are joining trades unions, identifying themselves squarely as ordinary workers. And this week, as in all other weeks, prostitutes up and down the country will be fined as criminals fines they will immediately go back on to the streets to pay. Given the lack of communication between state agencies, it is not entirely inconceivable that the same woman might end up paying a fine for her part in a criminal enterprise in one month and receiving compensation in another for having been damaged by it.

The customers, though, can be reasonably confident that the law will not be very interested in them, provided they don't kerb-crawl. And this seems decidedly odd when you think about it. We rightly accept that the purchasing of paedophiliac images is inextricably connected to their manufacture and that the consumer is morally implicated in that crime. More debatably, we have long accepted that someone who buys crack cocaine is guilty of a crime along with the person who sells it. But with prostitution there is a distinct imbalance. The law bears disproportionately on women and scarcely at all on the men who perpetuate the trade.

One country has attempted to redress this. In 1999 Sweden passed legislation which criminalised the buying of sex and decriminalised its sale. In effect it enshrined in law the principle that in this matter men and women are not equal that prostitution is not a business transaction between seller and buyer, but overwhelmingly an exploitation of women by men.

As a result, levels of trafficking and street prostitution appear to have dropped significantly which signally isn't the case in countries that have gone the route of legalisation. It's time we considered something similar here. Without that bloke across the way who isn't ashamed of using women as a commodity and doesn't fear a conviction the violence and crime that accompany prostitution would be profitless.

Hirst and the Tate: how cosy

Interesting to see that Damien Hirst has selflessly gifted four important works to Tate Modern though both the words "selflessly" and "important" are open to question in this context since his inclusion in the collection will inevitably seal his reputation and his future sale room prices.

The Tate is understandably grateful for the donation, and states that it wouldn't have been able to afford the works otherwise.

On the other hand, could Hirst really afford not to be represented in the gallery's modern holdings? It would have been very intriguing, anyway, to see what would have happened to his prices if the Tate had simply declined his offer and let the fact be widely known.

* The BBC has recently been running a series of adverts for digital radio a pitch for the new technology which takes the form of little doggerel poems about unwanted Christmas presents, followed by the suggestion that you should go out and buy someone a DAB radio instead.

Since the corporation began as a company a consortium of radio manufacturers who realised they wouldn't sell many sets if there wasn't anything to tune them into there is a certain historical neatness to this promotion.

But I think truly devoted radio listeners ought to be warned of one drawback, which is that digital transmission lags some two seconds behind analogue. If, like me, you are one of those people who has a set on in more than one room so as not to miss anything you will have to convert en masse, or live with a curiously infuriating babble as the digital radio says it all over again. And if you want your pips precisely on time, forget it.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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