Imagine a "profession" which involves no training or promotion, but offers dreadful pay and huge health risks; consider the fact that it is staffed by the poorest people in society, many from deprived backgrounds and dependent on drugs; ponder the imbalance in power and resources between the people who work in it and the clients who benefit from its services. Does this sound like a career you'd want for yourself or your children?
Actually, with a handful of exceptions, the question applies only if you are a woman or have daughters. The "profession" I'm talking about, which provides none of the status and rewards normally associated with that word, is prostitution. And the point of this exercise is to demonstrate the lazy thinking associated with just about every aspect of this emotive subject.
Take Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, for instance. Responding to the announcement by a Home Office minister, Fiona Mactaggart, of a zero-tolerance campaign against kerb crawlers and street prostitution, Oaten opined: "Prostitution is likely to remain Britain's oldest profession and the most effective approach to the problem will require managing it rather than attempting to completely end it."
Prostitution is neither a profession nor the oldest one in Britain, that distinction surely belonging either to hunting or agriculture. Mactaggart challenged centuries of received wisdom in an interview: "I'm not tolerant of the view that prostitution is the oldest profession in the world and there's nothing we can do to reduce it," she declared.
This is not a pedantic point. The claim that selling sex is humanity's most basic instinct is essential to the notion that prostitution is natural and ineradicable. It lies at the heart of the storm created by Mactaggart's remarks, which have been interpreted as a U-turn on proposals announced by the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, 18 months ago.
Blunkett floated plans to give local authorities discretion to set up tolerance zones, small licensed brothels and a register of prostitutes. Cities such as Liverpool, where the city council wants to set up "managed zones" for prostitutes, based on unofficial tolerance zones in Edinburgh and Glasgow, have been asking the Government for such powers for some time. Councillors in Liverpool defended their plans this week, arguing that attempting to eradicate prostitution would cost millions and drive women to new areas.
It is true that helping women to get out of prostitution will require generous provision of resources. The Home Office estimates that 95 per cent of street prostitutes are using heroin or crack cocaine, and they are likely to have other problems, such as poor housing, little access to child care and few skills for other types of work. Mactaggart has signalled that she would like to see these problems addressed, and the police are expected to be encouraged to set up safe houses and other schemes to help women out of the sex trade.
She is also articulating something other than a "crackdown on prostitution", which is how her initiative has been interpreted this week. Mactaggart is clear about the need to tackle demand, arguing that men who choose to use prostitutes are "indirectly supporting drug dealers and abusers". Hence, she would like the police to make more use of their existing power to confiscate driving licences from kerb crawlers.
The change in focus from women who sell sex to men who buy it is long overdue. For centuries, prostitution was regarded as a form of vice promoted by women; in the second half of the 19th century, the Contagious Diseases Acts overtly characterised women who sold sex as agents of corruption and carriers of disease. Such misogynist assumptions lay behind a situation in which prostitutes were arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned, while the men who paid them for sex faced no penalties at all.
In response to such injustice, there have been calls over the years to decriminalise prostitution and set up licensed brothels in which women could sell sex safely without coming under the domination of pimps. This approach, which seemed until this week to be the direction in which ministers were moving, is superficially attractive; it moves the argument about prostitution away from misogynist notions of morality into the area of health and safety, resting on the proposition that buying sex is OK as long as the women's working conditions are reasonable.
I am no longer convinced by this proposition. If prostitution is a job like any other, why do so many prostitutes use hard drugs? Why do most of them come from poor families in which they suffered abuse? Why do so many women from eastern Europe and South-east Asia have to be forced into prostitution by traffickers? And why is it permissible for men who buy sex - 4.3 per cent admit to buying it in the past five years - to ignore all these deeply unpleasant facts?
Prostitution is, in my view, as much an abuse of human rights as paedophilia. It is based on men's superior economic power, driven by demand rather than supply; it exists not because women have an inescapable biological need to sell their bodies but because a minority of men believe they have a right to sex whenever they want it. Nothing could demonstrate this more dramatically than the fact that so many punters are willing to have sex with trafficked women, not caring that they have been coerced into prostitution.
This belief isn't universal but it is widespread, as we can see from estimates that three million football fans will visit a prostitute during the World Cup in Germany next year. Forty thousand prostitutes are expected to arrive in German cities in advance of the tournament and, according to NGOs who work in the field, substantial numbers will have been trafficked.
This is a horrifying insight into a certain kind of male sexuality, but I don't find it easy to discern the difference between a football fan who has sex with a trafficked woman and one who buys it from a desperately poor mother who is dependent on crack. Does either woman have a real choice?
In reality, both are victims of abuse and people who campaign for tolerance zones in this country, no matter how well-intentioned, are ensuring that the abuse will continue. Many men want to have sex with children, judging by the popularity of paedophile sites on the internet, but would anyone seriously suggest tolerance zones for paedophiles? As long as they follow through on promises to help women escape from prostitution, Home Office ministers are quite right to declare that the Government is not in the business of colluding in the sexual exploitation of vulnerable people.Reuse content