Tackling prostitution

Parliament has passed a number of laws dealing with prostitution.  I did a post about the most recent change – now a section of the Policing and Crime Act 2009 – some months ago on Lords of the Blog.  The overwhelming majority of readers felt that the change was inadequate and didn’t really get to the heart of the issue.  In many respects, it is a subject that the parties prefer to avoid.  There is an unwillingness to consider whether a radical change is necessary. 

In response to my earlier post on issues for the new Parliament, Carl.H raised the subject and wrote:

“Prostitution will not go away as some would like, it can be driven underground putting far more girls and boys at risk. It needs legalising, not a blind eye turned to businesses that are prepared to pay tax and be above board. There is a myriad of things that can be done once the industry is legal such as health certification and ensuring girls and boys can legitimately work in the UK.”

Is this the way to go?  Would legalising it and, in effect, being able to police it address the issue of forced prostitution and, if based on specified premises, remove some of the problems faced in residential areas?  Should we go down the same route as New Zealand, as recommended by some readers on Lords of the Blog? Or should we go to the other extreme and introduce much tougher legislation?


About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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16 Responses to Tackling prostitution

  1. Carl.H says:

    First and foremost I must declare an interest, I am in IT and part of that is running sites and avertising for the businesses and working girls. The advertising is legal as far as I`m aware and I do not make great profit from it.

    Part of my brief does bring me into contact with a number of working girls, very few are drug addicts to my knowledge unlike the TV portrayal of street workers. These are ordinary girls doing a job of work, no different to others, they can of course earn substantially more in this profession without qualifications of any kind, though some do have them. Most enjoy their work, that is to say they enjoy sex though punters will differ and so will likes and dislikes. There is also a large gay prostitute community.

    Politicians find the subject extremely hard because they will be judged by wives and girlfriends who see the trade as a direct threat. However the legislation needs putting right one way or the other. The Police in most areas will turn a blind eye to small illegal brothels, in the south 2 working girls, in the north it appears more however they are still illegal and a complaint by the public does result in prosecutions. Most complaints are neighbour complaints which WILL result in closure. A small brothel does not attract much attention and the comings and goings will be unnoticed. Most of these smaller brothels pay tax as a business and ensure the girls are fully legal to work. Some have regular visits from the taxman and the police who do advise on safety and what they are prepared to allow, this may vary. The variations will include what can be advertised and the fact that these places are illegal means they have no choice but to comply.

    In recent months in the South East a number of brothels in a certain area were raided for illegals and closed. The girls who were working legally have mostly now had no choice but to go it alone which in most cases means working from home which is perfectly legal, prostitution itself is not illegal. Doing so means great risk to themselves, the odd punter is not a nice guy but most are very gentlemanly. Because they setup on their own there is no cctv or other protection a business may have such a maid who is always able to call for help. Some of these girls will, in working from home also draw benefits and not pay taxes.

    Prostitution will not go away, there is a demand for it greater than you think and although some may find it distasteful it is possibly better than alot of girls who give it away free after a night at the club. It is after all a natural act, in most cases professional done with emphasis on customer satisfaction.

    I cannot think of a point in history when brothels and prostitution hasn`t existed and to drive it away from where it can be controlled back to the back alleys would be madness. Where these places advertise quite openly on the internet and such they are in the public eye and well aware. The Police do know who, where, why and when and this must be advantageous to them rather than a criminal underground who will deal in forced girls with the possibility of drug involvement.

    The main complaint against brothels as I stated is neighbour complaints, not in my road attitude and this is probably not wrong. Brothels unlike shops do not have a mainstay in the highstreet so are ordinary houses in the suburbs where few will notice.

    The advantages of legalising would be they could be licensed, similar to lap dancing clubs which provides income to Council this means they can be regulated and the possibility of each girl having a medical certificate which is updated regularly. Regulation will mean girls are unlikely ever to be forced ( something I have not come across) , the business will pay full taxes including business rates and the consumer will have some protection.

    Making something illegal does not make it go away, this can be seen with many things. Prostitution and Brothels are not a risk to society, they are a form of adult entertainment that is more widespread than most people realise. The girls and boys who work in illegal brothels have some layers of protection as do the consumers, the legal girls who work alone do not have that benefit.

    It is a very grey area at the moment with the Police seeming to condone some brothels one minute and then closing and prosecuting the owners who have to pay substantial fines.

    The choice seems to be between a controlled industry in full view of the authorities or one that is illegal controlled by the criminal gangs.

    We have to be adult in this subject and accept that it is a consensual business transaction that is a natural act that 99% of the population take part in regularly. Paying for sex may seem distasteful but perhaps no more than the teenager who pays for the rest of his life for his unsafe action in getting a girl pregnant.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Carl.H: Thanks for a very thoughtful response, which has given me much to think about. You raise, in my mind, some very salient points and some which I find it difficult to disagree with.

  2. Troika21 says:

    Legalise it, regulate it, tax it.

    I can see nothing wrong with this as a line of work, if its made safe for everyone. And its not just abuse of sex workers, this could also help contain the spread of sexually transmitted infections.

    Making it safe and legal is the best way forward. I don’t think that you can get rid of it, but frankly a defined policy one way or the other is the best possible solution, the confused mess that we have at the moment is the worst of all worlds.

  3. Frank W. Summers III says:

    There is some protection in criminality. It does not usually outweigh the risk but there is such thing. Remember the Bordellos run in death camps by the Third Reich and the gang-raping of women about to be slaughtered in several instances in the ancient world and in several instances of Islamic conquest were technical legalities in the latter case and open legal acts in the former. When crime is involved the more powerful customer can be hurt and thus the prostitutes have some leverage.

    However, I think it is the case that a legal industry that was not too awful could punish its worst illegal competitors and offer protections that did not involve blackmailing clients. The right answers would have to be slow and careful I think. Nevada has many illegal prostitutes that are only less policed since the licensing of a few legal brothels. That makes me think they have miscarried there. Louisiana is world famous for prostitution. When it was run by the old networks it was quasi-legal and also fostered the arts, music, dance and had a web of proprieities joining it to the economy as a whole. A single man really led the destruction of the major red-light districts. In the last century it has been less than half legal. Some things are much worse. But nobody here in this region known for sex-related industries thinks that it is like making paper cups.

    One thing the past had over us was the capacity to recognize good baddies and bad baddies…

    • Lord Norton says:

      Frank W. Summers III: Your comments on practice in different states in the USA are revealing. Indeed, I would welcome comments from readers on practive overseas. In the post, I have touched upon the situation in New Zealand. Are there other countries from which we can learn?

      • Frank W. Summers III says:

        Lord Norton,

        I neglected responding fro so long because I rely on e-mail alerts and never rreceived one. I just occasionaly go and check to make sure I have no other comments I’ve missed.

        I think that it may seem more like archaeology to most in parliament but in an old discussion we had on LOTB I mentioned some referents in Chaucer and in that spirit would recommend a very thoughtful review of British history by a group of Peers who are capable of fine ideals and looking all things in the eye. If you do this I think you will find many better and worse countries than your own in the life of your own –a process that may lead to wisdom. For me this is a very sad topic because it brings up an acute awareness of how great a complex of behaviors and institutions are lost to the world and the new one does not suit me so well. In Medieval Catholicism throughout the UK and elsewhere marrying and reforming a prostitute brought a plenary indulgence, mistresses were recognized as were their children in many forms of quasi legality and homosexuality was permitted in a forest of well defined and discreet clerical regimes. I feel that in an era with contraception (which the CoE made the best efforts to really understand in humane terms for a while), better and cheaper hygiene and so much to aplly in other technologies this should be a golden age of opportunity for a new humanism that extends to sexual issues. But — oops– as a society of societies and people we have lost our soul and spirit. Nonetheless, studies of Japanese Geisha, the Dutch experiment and other places cannot be amiss. Prostituion is “bad” I think. But it is in that vast realm of the slightly wicked to the wholly vile which is so malleable over centuires. I have read a lot about sex from Karol Wotija to Michel Foucault and even the rather lame, in my opinion, “Queen Elizabeth II: A Woman who is not Amused” by Nicholas Davies is not without value in getting a sense of all the sexual rhythyms noted by those Your Lordship governs. But if you mean can I recommend a country whose sex trade laws are really accessible for their insights which a legislator can use — well I am no expert. I think Tahiti had some interesting legal work at one time but have lost touch of where they stand now. Arriving in a Los Angeles newstand or bus station four years ago I might have judged from a free papers many pages of advertisements that prostitution was the main industry there. But I do not believe it is particularly legal. So that is my national frame of reference.

  4. Jack says:

    The recent very good drama on BBC about the horrendous murders of the 5 young women who plied their trade on the streets, underscores the Government has learned absolutely nothing from this awful crime in the paid sex scene. The recent vindictive legislation in The Policing and Crime Act 2009, a bad law formed by pressure from extreme feminists within the Labour Party, will force MORE girls onto the streets. Closure orders, harrassment of the “punter”; these measures inhibit a safe working environment for prostitutes, “Brothels” or as they are known Massage Parlours will close through lack of trade because of the punter’s fear of being falsely accused of a crime when this new bad law is abused at the behest of the police, closures because someone makes a trivial comment to the police. WHERE DOES THE TRADE END UP…..on the Street. A backward looking set of measures which provides no positive way forward for peostitution, it will not dissappear, it was here yesterday, it is here today and will be here tomorrow, address this with reality instead of “pussy footing” around with measures that give local law enforcement open season to tailor a bad law to their own agenda and criminising innocent people who need the release of visiting a prostitute; the disabled, those who find it impossible to form a loving relationship and in the extreme stopping someone who has rape in mind being able to let out their sexual anger with a prostitute who offers this type service.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Jack: I agree that the provisions of the Policing and Crime Act constitute bad law. I am wary in any event of strict liability provisions. I think it constitutes a knee-jerk reaction which has not been properly thought through.

  5. Carl.H says:

    Well worth reading and I have heard rumour the jury went against the judges direction in this case.

    ” In court, Miss Finch said police had known for years she was running a massage parlour and even warned her about problem punters.

    But she was arrested in November 2008 after officers from the Bedfordshire’s Economic Crime Unit started looking into the proceeds of her crime.

    She said when they realised she was conducting the business properly by declaring her income and paying taxes, they went ahead with the charge of running a brothel.”


  6. Senex says:

    CH: Your revelation about working in IT and your knowledge of the world’s oldest profession gives me the opportunity to have a rant about our security services.

    You see spies, sex and espionage go hand in hand, take Mata Hari for example. However, what you may not be aware of is an anecdotal rebranding of the domestic intelligence arm as ‘Management Information Services’ or MI5.


    This on account of some internal restructuring, out with the old and in with the new; they are recruiting IT professionals and it’s a credit to them. Note the use of a secure hyper text transfer protocol or https in their site URL.

    The other rebranding is to the SIS. They are to be called the ‘Men In Black’ or MIb tasked with seeking out ‘Unidentified Foreign Operators’ or UFO’s. Para usted Gary!


    Note the use of an insecure hyper text transfer protocol in their case or http.

    There is another not so secret branch of intelligence gathering called investigative journalism. Its purpose is to reveal threats that the other two do not cover. Now I find this very strange indeed. The banks have gone tits up. Our world is in upheaval caused by some very secret activities in the board room. Were ministers made aware of this threat? I would argue they were and they did nothing.

    The SIS certainly made the government aware of the German threat in 1909 and the HoL wanted to rearm in preparation for a war, the Commons did not. Again the same scenario played out with the ‘1907 bankers panic’. Were ministers aware of what was happening? Again I like to think they were and they did nothing.


    In either case if the security services were not aware of these threats then perhaps they need to reflect on their ability to forewarn of such threats. Unidentified Financial Operators are just as much a threat as foreign ones.

  7. The key from a harm minimisation perspective lies in decriminalisation, as distinct from legalisation.

    Many of the problems associated with prostitution result from its legal status. This concerns not only statute, but also common and civil law. Many other problems result from the stigma with which sex work is associated, but there are limits to the degree to which one can legislate stigma away.

    The answer to many problems lies in greater transparency. The higher the barriers created by a regulationist approach, the higher the costs, the greater the bureaucracy, the less compliance will result and the less transparency will be possible.

    Neither decriminalisation nor regulation will produce an end to sex trafficking, violence, STI transmission, drug addiction and other harms often associated with sex work. This includes marginalised minorities, such as illegal migrants prohibited from other work, seeking sex work. However, a decriminalised approach would offer an atmosphere best suited to the tackling of these important issues.

    There are indeed many countries, Lord N, from whose experience we might learn. The German experience, for example, teaches us that mandatory testing of sex workers for STIs is counter-productive: more sex workers were tested more frequently after the system became voluntary.

    Comparisons of approaches are to be found here:

    However, in few if any other fields are the legal niceties observed so infrequently, and there are generally huge gaps between the law and practice, irrespective of regime, eg the Greeks, and some other countries, register prostitutes but I’m told hardly anyone registers.

    Why does prostitution require ‘tackling’? Why does a consensual decision by adults to have sex – merely because money or other benefit changes hands as part of the transaction – occupy scare criminal justice resources, if it does not interfere in the lives of other people?

    If not a problem itself, there are undoubtedly occasions when prostitution might be seen as a symptom of other problems, such as drug addiction, in which case it is the addiction that needs addressing.

    Upon what basis is it in the interest of society to intervene in prostitution, and through what agencies should any such interventions take place?

    I would suggest the following as legitimate reasons for intervention:
    – To deal with violence and to minimise the risk of violence
    – To minimise the risk of infection
    – To prevent the involvement of minors or of other persons incapable of exercising choice
    – To address coercion of the parties involved

    In addition to these, the question of locale arises, and there has been talk of ‘managed areas’ or ‘tolerance zones’ for street prostitution, for example, while brothels in New Zealand require planning permission (the distinction between ‘decriminalised‘ and ‘regulated’ not always being clear-cut), generating debates very similar to those on lap dancing clubs in small but unduly influential parts of the UK. Prof. Phil Hubbard at Loughborough is a national expert on such matters.

    After 125 years of outlawing brothels, the Home Office, of course, has lost all traction over where such premises are located, as a result of which the Pentameter anti-trafficking inquisitions discovered them largely in residential areas in houses and flats. However, if they cause nuisance in these locations, there are laws other than the brothel laws to bring those concerned to book.

    My own reading of brothel court cases suggests that neighbour complaints arise in part from the law itself, with clients knocking on the wrong doors in the vicinity due to the legal difficulties in signposting. Other complaints often feature noise and difficulties parking, though the ‘scandalous’ nature of the activity and the perceived affect on house prices may play their parts.

    Mediation might resolve some of these issues. Some sex workers, for example, only take bookings of an hour or more to reduce comings and goings, choose locations with off-street parking, try to keep the noise down, stop work after a given time, and/or take steps to make the house or flat clearly identifiable.

    Brothels have never been defined in statute. The very wide definition in common law, as any premises at which more than one sex worker works, whether simultaneously or not, promotes unsafe practice as it requires them to work alone or with the aid of a non-sex worker, and the latter – if affordable – is prone to charges of controlling for gain or other Home Office mischiefs.

    The RCN has recommended a minimum number of sex workers (four, they argue) who should be allowed to work together without external sanction for safety’s sake, and this might be taken as a starting point for a new, more relaxed, statutory definition of ‘brothel’.

    Outside the field of sex work, it is clear that large numbers of persons require the managing that ‘controlling for gain’ seeks to prohibit in the field of sex work. Not everyone is born for self-employment. Sex workers are undoubtedly safer as part of some form of benign organisation than if operating solo.

    The case for health and safety training is also overwhelming, but of course anyone involved in training persons to be prostitutes is prone to falling foul of procurement law.

    There is a case for screening persons who work with sex workers to ensure, insofar as possible, they are not violent or dishonest. NZ licences them, not the sex workers.

    Our current laws seeking to proscribe the sex industry are both ineffective and dangerous.

  8. swoplv says:

    Stephen Paterson has made some excellent points.

    In addition, I will add some insight to the Nevada legal situation. We have legal prostitution in several counties here in Nevada, and the rule is that any county can have brothels if it chooses so long as the population does not exceed 400K people. The result is that you have very remote and rural brothels. Ladies who work there must sign up for a minimum amount of time (in most cases, two weeks), and while there, they cannot leave the premises (although a very few counties permit “out-dates” in which ladies may leave with clients to have dinner in town or join him in his hotel). They are not permitted to go shopping, out to eat, or have do any other activities outside the brothel premises. They give up 50% of their earnings to the house. They are required to be tested before they begin their time at the brothel- but only are tested for HIV/AIDS, chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhea. Hepatitis, HPV, and herpes are not tested for even though they are arguably more common. Ostensibly ladies are permitted to decide with whom to engage and for how much, but in practice, many feel pressured to take clients no matter what and for how much.

    The system works for many ladies, but in reality, there are approximately 300 workers working in the brothels, while many, many more work illegally in Las Vegas and other more urban areas. The reasons are that very few people wish to put their name on a record that forever says they have been prostitutes, and the brothels are so remote and the time commitment so great that many workers prefer to risk arrest in order to have access to a greater client base, work where they live, and keep 100% of their earnings.

    Testing is seen as a solution, when, in fact, it is not at all. Required testing should never be seen as a prophylactic, which in practice it often becomes. Just because someone is tested for something today doesn’t mean they don’t have something that is incubating and may show up on a test if given tomorrow. And it takes two people to exchange a virus or infection, so if one party is tested, it should only be logical that the other be tested. Not to mention the fact that it is far more likely that a man will give something to a woman due to her physiology (far more exposed mucous membranes). And a US CDC report found that only 3% of STIs were associated with sex work, while the majority were associated with young adults between the ages of 18 and 25. It makes sense- you have thousands of people every night in Vegas at the night clubs making alcohol-influenced decisions about sex, while sex workers are known to be very strict about their safer sex practices (as well as educating their clients, aka the public, about safer sex practices).

    In Australia a public health study was done comparing NSW (Sydney), which is a decriminalised setting, to Victoria (Melbourne), which is a regulated setting. The presumption was that there would be far more issues in NSW, as there are over 400 brothels and nobody has to register or have mandatory testing, while there are only 25 brothels in Victoria, and everyone working has to register and get tested mandatorily. The reality of the findings was that there were far fewer issues with NSW. According to Stephen Paterson above, this is also the case in Germany.

    New Zealand’s system is by far the best we have so far anywhere.

    Just some food for thought.

  9. swoplv says:

    Also, prostitution has been illegal in the US for nearly 100 years and yet we still have a thriving sex industry. Just check out Craiglsit’s erotic services section, as well as any number of advertising locations for escorts online (Eros-guide, Adult directory, etc. ), and any phone book in the US (which will have up to 30 pages of escort ads). The laws prohibiting prostitution have no real benefit- they do not prevent prostitution, they cost the city valuable resources in police manpower and money (average of $3695/arrest across a several city study), and they endanger sex workers who do not feel safe in reporting crimes committed against them. There is also inevitably a huge amount of graft- police are known to extort money and sex from sex workers.

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