Tim Lott: One law for prostitutes, another for their clients

Can it be equitable to prosecute one of two people in a transaction and not the other?
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The Independent Online

The idea mooted by senior members of the Government that men should be prosecuted for buying sex feels better than a walk on a windy beach in Skegness. Moral purity is so bracing.

Now we have established that not only are Fiona MacTaggart MP and Dennis MacShane MP – inescapably christened in my mind as the dirty mac brigade – good people, but in signing up for their project that we are good people too, we need not give ourselves the burden of thinking any further about the subject. Except to ask – does it make any sense? Is it, in fact, akin to trying to abolish heads without abolishing tails? Can it really be equitable to prosecute one of two people involved in a transaction and not the other? Of course it is logically absurd that prostitutes in the past have been prosecuted for solicitation while men have got off scot free – but to replace one absurdity with another is simply a matter of swapping a historical prejudice for a contemporary one.

It is argued that prostitutes are not free agents in the way that purchasers of sex (men) are. In the case of the evil of sex trafficking, this is undoubtedly true. The criminals in this case, though, are the traffickers, not the prostitutes, or the men. Leaving those cases aside – and no one knows how much prostitution is actually performed under compulsion – it is automatically assumed by many of those who campaign against prostitution that women cannot choose prostitution freely. Surely they must be compelled, if not by sex traffickers, then by drug addiction , pimps or poverty. Thus they are victims, and the moral circle can be squared by prosecuting men rather than women.

But to make this argument is to enter a hall of mirrors. If a woman is selling her body to buy drugs, is she responsible for being addicted to drugs, and is she responsible for choosing to sell her body to pay for her habit? If she is simply poor, is it likewise a matter of circumstance or a matter of choice? It is a kind of infinite regression – how much did she choose to have her choice taken away? And is it really true that an ordinary woman couldn't make a rational choice to provide occasional sexual favours to customers of her choosing rather than spend 40 hours behind the tills at Tesco for a similar renumeration? (Not, of course, that all prostitutes are working-class.)

The questions behind these facts are unanswerable, even if we were to devote all our resources to pursuing that sort of causal relationship. And even if we were to reach the consensus that prostitutes were "victims" of poverty or drug addiction, could one not make equally credibly an argument that the men who used prostitutes were "victims" of their environment? Say, being ugly, or lonely, or abused as children, or simply men? Circumstantial explanations are not the prerogative of one gender.

Given that these matters are destined to remain mysterious, the Government should tread carefully beyond the question of establishing that sex traffickers should be pursued with absolute ruthlessness. But their tread is customarily heavy because of the politicians' drive towards moral exhibitionism – if you prefer, the theatre of disgust. This fuels the urge to make someone or other to "blame" for prostitution beyond foreign traffickers.

This is a special area of the theatre of disgust – that is, sexual disgust – which remains with us and demands an outlet. The liberal conscience is no longer allowed to be disgusted – for instance – by gays, and clearly we must support prostitutes themselves since they are, apparently, so universally "victims" (not necessarily the way most prostitutes will see themselves, incidentally).

Men who use prostitutes constitute a group of people we can all agree are pretty scummy without fear of contradiction. According to Fiona MacTaggart, using prostitutes is much the same as the relationship between the murderer and the murdered. Asked if it wasn't true that prostitution was an inevitable part of society, she responded by saying, "So is murder – that doesn't make it right."

If you made sex more difficult to buy through making it illegal for the purchaser, you have to wonder whether it wouldn't actually empower the illegal traffickers, in the way the criminalisation of drugs makes drug dealers larger profits? And has anyone asked prostitutes themselves if they want their job to be designated illegal, even on a single side of the equation?

Surely the only realistic answer to illegal sexual exploitation is to either make it legal – through state-controlled and licensed prostitution – or ban it altogether. But the one wouldn't play so well with the Daily Mail, and the other with prostitutes themselves, who would be driven further into backstreets and danger.

Thus caught on the horns of a moral dilemma, we are left as ever with posturing from impotent politicians. Perhaps the dirty mac brigade are as much victims of moral panic as prostitutes themselves. And let's just say – in the interest of politeness – that the resemblance ends there.