Fiona Bruce MP recently wrote on this site “Sex for sale. Let’s prosecute the buyers – not the sellers”. I posted a dissenting comment, and am now writing at more length because prostitution policy illustrates some fundamental issues about the relationship between religious beliefs and public policy.
Religiously I believe that pre-marital and extra-marital sexual relations are sins. Those who commit them are accumulating debits for their final accounting before God on the Day of Judgement.
Temporally I consider that both activities impair your chances for a happy marriage. For both religious and temporal reasons, I have never engaged in either activity.
I also believe that gambling is a sin. In addition, I regard it as stupid, and gave it up at the age of 16 after losing one shilling and six pence to a friend at cards. Losing hurt too much!
A key question in the world today is “To what extent can I impose my religious and moral views on others using the coercive power of the state?”
Historically legislators have been eager to criminalise sinful activities. In the past adultery, homosexuality and blasphemy against the Christian religion (listed in order of abolition) were all illegal in Britain.
Fortunately, in Britain today few Christians set out to impose their religious views on others, though sadly we see a great deal of it overseas amongst adherents of many religions.
However even in the UK there remains a significant level of what I would call “morality-based policy making”. Whether it is policy on gambling, pub licensing hours, recreational drugs, Sunday trading, many of the arguments one encounters, even when couched in temporal language, appear to be underlain by the religious or moral views of their proponents.
Policy on prostitution illustrates these issues very clearly.
What should the goals of our prostitution policy be?
For religious reasons, I would like there to be no prostitution in Britain. However, as indicated above, my religious beliefs cannot be the basis of policy making. Considered objectively, prostitution is a service not fundamentally different from any other service.
Some of the obvious legitimate policy goals are:
- Prostitution services be properly subject to direct and indirect taxation.
- The health of prostitutes and customers not be adversely affected.
- All prostitutes be adults of sound mind, and all prostitutes and customers be adults.
- Nobody be physically coerced into prostitution.
- Advertising of prostitution services to not excessively impinge upon those adults who do not want to see it, or upon children who should be protected from seeing it.
What goals about prostitution should we not have?
Once one accepts that, setting religious views to one side, prostitution is no different from any other service, it cannot be a legitimate policy goal to eliminate it.
The coercive power of the state should not be used to attempt to eliminate activities simply because some citizens have a religious or moral objection to those activities.
Prostitution policy in practice
The law in the UK, and its history, are well summarised in the Wikipedia article “Prostitution in the United Kingdom”. I would describe the law as lacking any clear policy framework because it cannot decide whether prostitution is something so heinous that it should be banned, or a service activity like any other.
On the one hand, in England and Wales it is not illegal to be a prostitute.
However, the law then proceeds to make illegal most activities which a service business requires, such as operating a brothel or publishing directories of prostitutes. Similarly, it is illegal to employ prostitutes and then sell their services, which forces all prostitutes to be self-employed.
In Australia, the law regarding prostitution is a matter for the states, and is summarised in the Wikipedia article “Prostitution in Australia”. In some states, the legal position appears very similar to that in the UK.
New South Wales has a different approach, and makes it legal to own and operate brothels. However even in New South Wales, according to the Sex Workers Outreach Project, it is illegal “to advertise sexual services, a sex worker or a sex industry business.”
The November 2011 briefing “Regulation of brothels: an update” from the NSW Parliamentary Library Research Service explains that the NSW government was at that time considering licensing brothels, but I have not spent extra effort to ascertain the latest position.
Recommendations for the UK
In my view the policy goals set out above can be best achieved by getting rid of the vestigial criminal prohibitions surrounding prostitution.
Instead we should have a legal framework designed to protect providers and customers, and to protect the tax base, which should be designed without moralising. While I dislike regulating industries on principle, in the case of prostitution I can see good practical reasons for:
- Requiring prostitutes to be individually licensed, with a regime for mandatory health checks.
- Legalising the operation of brothels, with regulatory standards and an inspection regime. After all, we regulate casinos.
- Some regulations regarding where sexual services can be advertised. For example, there are other products which cannot be advertised on free to air TV, so I have no objection to some advertising restrictions. The primary aim of such restrictions should be to stop children seeing prostitution advertisements.
The operation of a properly regulated prostitution industry would make it less financially attractive to run criminal prostitution activities with women who had been coerced into the activity.
Police resources could then be concentrated on eliminating such illegal activities, without being wasted, as they are at present, on investigating activities that should not be criminal offenses.