The merits of a managed approach to prostitution

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The Independent Online

Liverpool's plans to introduce Britain's first officially sanctioned red light areas will draw predictable disapproval from those who want to see this as official encouragement for soliciting, pimping and kerb-crawling. But while few would view street prostitution as desirable, it is already endemic in most of our cities. That Liverpool city council should be tackling the social problems that accompany it with such a common-sense approach is laudable.

Liverpool's plans to introduce Britain's first officially sanctioned red light areas will draw predictable disapproval from those who want to see this as official encouragement for soliciting, pimping and kerb-crawling. But while few would view street prostitution as desirable, it is already endemic in most of our cities. That Liverpool city council should be tackling the social problems that accompany it with such a common-sense approach is laudable.

True, the five proposed zones, to be patrolled, lit, and located in industrial areas, will allow the city's sex workers to go about their business untroubled by the police. But most prostitutes are drawn into this unfortunate and dangerous profession at a young age and remain in it only because they are addicted to drugs or alcohol. These vulnerable women (four out of five British prostitutes are women) deserve an opportunity to improve their lives and address the problems that force them to earn a living by selling their bodies for sex.

Provided the "tolerance zones" are properly designed and managed, they should offer prostitutes a degree of safety from violent pimps, clients or drug traffickers, which they do not enjoy at present. The women will also gain access to drug and sexual health units, and perhaps a permanent escape route via career counselling and advice centres. And even residents who campaigned against the zones may come to see the benefits of a reduction in violence, drug trafficking and the other forms of anti-social behaviour. This, certainly, has been the experience in Dutch cities such as Utrecht, where this approach was pioneered.

Liverpool's plan will do nothing to combat the links between prostitution and organised crime, in particular that modern form of slavery which sees thousands of women and young girls illegally trafficked into Britain each year for enforced labour in the sex industry. But managed zones, which other local authorities should be considering, may help to lift some of the stigma and silence surrounding street prostitution.

If that were a first step towards breaking the grip of the gangmasters, who rely for their profits on ignorance and official myopia about the problem, it would be welcome.

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