Prostitution – like drugs – is an emotive issue. While some demand tougher laws and others the opposite, trying to chart a middle course looks a fool’s errand. It is good that a cross-party group of MPs studying the sex trade has done more than murmur the obvious – that the UK’s current laws on prostitution are not working – and float thought-provoking alternatives.
What the All Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution broadly proposes is Nordic-style reform, which is what the European Parliament also backed last week. This would shift the burden of prosecution from mostly women sellers to mostly male buyers and pimps. MPs are right to say that one of the root problems with Britain’s laws on the sex trade is that they send conflicting messages about who is in the wrong. If trafficked women, especially, are to be helped, they must be assured that the law is on their side. It is why the MPs want the mass of current legislation consolidated into a single Act, which makes it clear that only those who purchase sex will feel the rigours of the law.
Change along these lines will bitterly disappoint libertarians who want to see the sex trade fully legalised on Dutch or German lines. There is also an argument that it is illogical – another mixed message – to penalise the purchase of sex but not the sale. But, a counter-argument, which the authorities in Sweden, Norway and Iceland deploy with some justification, is that “redistributing guilt” over the sale of sex undoubtedly benefits women who have felt trapped into prostitution and makes life much harder for pimps and traffickers.
Attitudes to prostitution are always shifting. In medieval London, brothels operated under the license of the Church, ironically. The Puritans drove the sex trade underground, as did the Victorians. But prostitution, the “oldest profession”, always survives.
The MPs’ latest proposals are just another holding operation, and should be seen as such. Nevertheless, if the changes they advocate tip the balance against pimps, traffickers, blackmailers – and men who use violence against their clients – they would be a step in the right direction.