A common-sense approach to prostitution

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The consultation document on prostitution published by the Home Office yesterday contains some welcome signs that Britain could be about to see some common sense applied to this controversial area. Various ideas are floated in the document which would make the lives of Britain's estimated 80,000 prostitutes less fraught with danger.

The consultation document on prostitution published by the Home Office yesterday contains some welcome signs that Britain could be about to see some common sense applied to this controversial area. Various ideas are floated in the document which would make the lives of Britain's estimated 80,000 prostitutes less fraught with danger.

The so called "tolerance zones" in which prostitutes would be allowed to ply their trade without being harassed by the police would give sex workers a degree of safety which they have not hitherto enjoyed. It would also lessen the influence of pimps and drug dealers, whom prostitutes are often forced to rely on for protection. If the Government were to combine tolerance zones with walk-in health and financial advice centres for sex workers, this would be a welcome step forward.

But some of the suggestions in the Home Office document ought not to see the light of day - most notably the idea that Britain should follow the Swedish example and criminalise the act of paying for sex altogether. Even if this hard-line policy was introduced in conjunction with more liberal tolerance zones, it would be counterproductive. Clients usually have no choice but to go where the prostitutes are, and it is far better to encourage women into safe zones rather than to threaten them, or their customers.

The best way for the state to deal with prostitution is to regulate it as lightly as possible but, in so doing, protect those who work in the sex industry. As the Home Office correctly points out, many street prostitutes started working in their teens and most have a history of drug abuse. These are vulnerable people who deserve every opportunity to improve their lives. Stigmatising prostitution has failed to solve the problem; it is time for a more thoughtful approach.

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