Blinded by morality? Prostitution policy in the UK.

Author:Sanders, Teela

In July 2004, the Home Office published a document, 'Paying the Price: A Consultation on Prostitution', which sparked a four-month period of mild media interest. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, there was a flurry of discussion forums, working groups, draft responses, and outrage. The 'prostitution community'--and here I include those who are sex providers, purchasers, organisers and campaigners, as well as a range of policy makers, researchers and academics--has been waiting for this once-in-a lifetime chance to contribute to the legal status and practical management of an activity that never fails to provoke emotion and opinion.

This brief article summarises some of the content of and responses to the consultation paper. I suggest that the combination of a political doctrine of anti-social behaviour, Victorian morality and the continual scapegoating of sex workers forms the backbone of the Home Office document's content, ignoring some of the more hidden realities that shape the commercial sex economy in contemporary Britain.

Up until now, the laws associated with commercial sex have rested on the outcomes of the Wolfenden Report on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, which was published in 1957. Heralding libertarian principles, the Report explicitly stated that the function of the law was to obstruct those who 'offend against public order and decency' or 'expose the ordinary citizen to what is offensive' (1957: 8). The dilemma of where the law should sit in relation to private, consensual sex acts was never really a sticking point for the post-war thinkers. Instead, they were adamant that there should remain 'a realm of private morality and immorality which is, in brief and crude terms, not the law's business' (from the Wolfenden Report--quoted by Haste, 1992: 171). As a result, in British law 'it is legal to be, but not to work as, a prostitute' (Day, 1996: 75), because the relationships that surround the organising, advertising and negotiation of commercial sex have been steadily criminalised over recent years.

These changes have mainly targeted the woman as the nefarious instigator of disorder and desire although, increasingly, legislation aimed at the purchaser equates his role with that of the coercive and abusive pimp (Brookes-Gordon & Gelsthorpe, 2003). Over the past fifty years, the changes that have been made to prostitution laws have resulted in a jigsaw of juris-prudence that, in the Home Secretary's words, is 'outdated, confusing and ineffective' (2004: 5).

Surely then, the legal status of commercial sex, historically, as falling somewhere between private pleasure and public intervention is of relevance when deciding what needs to be reviewed in the light of contemporary changes to sexual attitudes and behaviour. Not according to the consultation paper, which fails to even acknowledge the historical legacy on which this contentious subject rests. Indeed, any hope that this process of democratic deliberation would enable an adult discussion of the place of commercial sex in a changing world is quickly dashed in the opening statement by the Home Secretary, whose focus is only on the 'devastating consequences', 'serious exploitation', 'problematic drug use' and 'organised crime' that we are so familiar from tabloid exposes.

Thankfully, there are some praiseworthy efforts in the consultation paper, to address serious protection issues for certain groups. A significant amount of the paper is given over to issues of child sexual abuse and exploitation through prostitution: an area in which there is a growing consensus that this is a public protection issue that requires intelligence-led police strategies reinforced by tough justice. Indeed, the government has already made vigorous efforts to produce guidelines for local authorities to use in dealing with child sexual exploitation (Safeguarding Children Involved in Prostitution, DOH, 2001), and has increased laws for prosecuting perpetrators under the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

However, the idea that addressing the conditions that lead children and young people to suffer abuse through prostitution should be the vehicle for changing the approach to managing adult, consensual commercial sex must be contested. Including such extreme ends of the spectrum in one document or parliamentary process conflates the issues, and deflects attention away from the general debate on the place of prostitution in a modern Western...

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