Should prostitution be illegal?

UK government is contemplating on outlawing the kerb-crawling and solicitating for prostitutes on streets. Warning of the “blight” of prostitution, (Home Secretary Jacqui) Smith outlined a three-point plan at the Labour conference that will:

  • Remove the requirement that only persistent kerb crawlers and men who solicit on the street can be prosecuted. The changes will mean that kerb-crawlers and men soliciting sex on the street can be prosecuted after a first offence.
  • Give new powers to councils and the police to close down brothels for at least three months if prostitutes are being run by a pimp or have been trafficked.
  • Change the law so that men can be prosecuted if they pay for sex with women who are exploited – “controlled for another person’s gain”.

As much as I try to see the positives in the changes suggested, I cannot help but think of the women who’d be pushed underground if the men purchasing sex from them start getting prosecuted. Women will become  more vulnerable to abuse and violence as opposed to the direction the suggested changes want to take. I recently watched a documentary – Born into Brothels – based on children born and raised in Calcutta (India) brothels. The documentary maker is a lady who goes to the Calcutta Red Light district and teaches photography to children of prostitutes in hopes of getting them out of the environment that they’re stuck in. The film shows how these children are literally segregated from the mainstream society and are discriminated against because of their mothers’ professions. It is shocking to see the amount of bureaucratic work that the film-maker lady has to put in just to get them admitted to schools because they have no proof of birth and no proper documentation of their lives. The film also highlights a case of one of the children’s mother’s death. She was a prostitute and was put on fire by her pimp. No case was registered against the pimp though since she was a prostitute. So, no matter how much violence and torture these women have to go through, they cannot even go to police for help even though prostitution is still not illegal in India.

Prostitutes can practice their trade privately in India but cannot legally solicit customers in public. Despite that legality, prostitutes do not enjoy the same rights as rest of the citizens. They are already being discriminated against. I can’t imagine the implications for them if the sex-trade was to be banned. Most of the prostitutes don’t have a choice of not being prostitutes either especially in countries like India which is home to 33% of global poor. Some of the sex-workers are born into the profession. Others are forced into it and stick with it since they don’t know any other skill to feed themselves or their families. The rest choose to be prostitutes because it means being able to afford two meals a day. Whatever the reason might be, the truth is that all of them will be on streets and their families would not be taken care of if their profession (prostitution) was taken away from them.

Although Jacqui Smith is not suggesting a blanket ban on prostitution, there is effectively a gray area in her suggestions that can be exploited to suppress a woman’s right to choose. Besides that, women’s safety, that these changes are geared towards are more at risk if these changes are implemented.

While I am at it, I also want to discuss a complete ban on prostitution as it has been talked of many a times in various countries. I think that just like banning partial-birth abortions led to unsafe coat-hanger abortions in US, banning prostitution would do just the same by pushing women to work underground and be prone to more abuse than they are now. It’s often said (albeit a cliche) that sex trade is one of the oldest professions in the world. It is here to stay: legal or illegal. I understand that trafficking and exploitation of women for prostitution is one of the biggest threats endangering all societies across the world but I don’t think banning of sex-trade is a solution. Those who are involved in activities like trafficking or exploitation of people have no regard or respect for law anyway. They will undauntedly continue their activities whether they are legal or not. What will get hurt in the process though are women who are willingly in the sex-trade and want to remain in sex-trade on their own free will. Their choice of career will be take away from them.

The Guardian published a view of a prostitute a few days ago and I’ll quote her here:

Making criminals of all men who pay for sex would result in myself and thousands of other women who choose to work in this industry becoming unemployed, and thus instead of contributing to the state (through our taxes) we would be taking from the state in the form of income support, housing benefit and so on. This is how we make a living; it’s an industry that prevents many, many women and their children from living on the breadline. If you are going to take our livelihoods from us, the consequences will be devastating.

Read more of what she has to say here. It surely makes an interesting read.

19 thoughts on “Should prostitution be illegal?

  1. I love how the govts of the world say things like outlawing or banning certain things or activities like it would make a difference. The only difference is that you won’t be able to see it…but maybe that is the point. They really don’t care if people are trafficked or how the women are treated or paid…they just don’t want to actually SEE it. Kinda like burying their heads in the sand.

    I don’t think it would make any difference, it would still be there. Women and children would still get kidnapped into sex slaves for pimps. Men would still pay for it. The way I see it…if it is legal, it can be regulated and that way women who feel that they have no choice but to sell their bodies can have some recourse if they are treated poorly and some wives won’t have to worry so much about their pig husbands bringing home some STD as it can be regulated by the Health Department as well.

    I always thought it was a shame that in some countries where women are worthless they are forced into prostitution because it is the only work a single or widowed woman can do, yet she is ostracized for it. Many cases I can see women turning to prostitution (because it happens in the grand country of US of A as well) that women sell their bodies just to be able to feed their children.

    It is a shame really…but if you think about it, nothing will change until the stigma of sex being horrible and bad and dirty is gone. The way I see it…it is just another service that is offered like a massage or car wash.

    But, I am also of the mind that if you don’t want women selling their bodies, you need to give them the means to make the same money without it…and then if they continue to choose to sell their bodies…then that is their choice…but at least they HAD a choice.

    sandy: bingo!!! hit bang on target.

  2. Ban is the easiest way out for the govts when they dont want to work hard at a problem. Prostitution should never be banned. It should be regulated in a way that the women who do it are not exploited. They do it on their free will. That all women regularly undergo health checkups. No minor is involved in the business. There should be a safety net for them. They should be made to file taxes like any working human being etc etc.

    Anyone pimping or running organised brothels should be heavily punished. These wont happen cos the govt will lose the votes of the conservatives. Hence the rot all over the world.

    liju: exactly …

  3. The story of Lara was something unique..i mean i never had heard something like that… but after i read the post i didnt feel any hatred towards her… she just did a job in which she was very confortable (atleast the mental satisfaction came after she enjoyed the profession…)

    as you said banning prostitution will increase the rate of crimes towards woman, that is for sure… those who support the industry or those who make money from that are gonna do it there be a law or not..!!!

    just after reading your article i just remembered one movie i watched in malayalam ‘Achanurangatha Veedu’ which one girl of a three-daughter father is being trafficked to prostitution..(this one was based on a real life incident)…she was with the kidnapped one fine day and then fifteen days or more she was taken from places to places, served(sorry for the language) thrice or four times a day and after fifteen days dumped back..!! kerala police couldnt do anything..!! such incidences can be a result of such banned things..!! when it is not freely available(i mean legally) it will taken forcibly, for sure.. thats the mentality of indian culture.. a curse of our society, but a reality..!!

    vinz: not just indian society … sadly, every society … human beings in general. we are a sorry species.

  4. “Most of the prostitutes don’t have a choice of not being prostitutes…Some of the sex-workers are born into the profession. Others are forced into it and stick with it since they don’t know any other skill to feed themselves or their families.”

    Well, an interesting trend that has been observed of late is that young students/executives from middle/upper middle class families, especially in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chandigarh, Bangalore, etc., choose to become call-girls to maintain their jet-setting lifestyles or simply to ‘supplement’ their incomes. Their numbers have risen significantly enough for news stories on the subject to appear in some of the leading dailies.

    That said, banning definitely does not appear to be the most practical thing to do.

    That middle/upper class families girls thing … is the same as the write up i mentioned at the end … the lara lady … who actually ‘enjoyed’ her work.

  5. Banning something is never the answer… just creates an ‘underground economy’ with no rules and regulations, and one thus ends up strengthening the very aspect on wanted to weaken.

    In this age of HIV/AIDS, there is an urgent need for this business – for that is what it is – to be legalised and regulated.

    I have no moral stand on the issue – if people want to sell sex voluntarily, so be it.


    Quirky Indian

  6. I feel it should be made legal. Banning something just makes it deadlier!! Coz prostitution will anyways go on! It would rather be done in a safe manner, and also prostitutes should have some rights as well, just like people from other professions!

  7. Here’s a press release from the International Union of Sex Workers, a group of people from the sex industry who campaign for human rights and the full protection of the law. The tragedy is that the laws, if passed, will actually harm the very people they purport to help. In Turkey, a well publicised hotline for reporting trafficking generated many calls from men who paid for sex, and resulted in the rescue of more trafficked women than the expensive Pentameter 1 police opertation here.
    Thousands of sex workers could be endangered by Home Secretary’s proposed changes in the law

    Press release from the International Union of Sex Workers

    “You’re putting us in danger Jacqui,” sex workers tell the Home Secretary

    Government plans aimed at curbing exploitation in the sex industry will imperil workers’ lives and human trafficking victims’ chances of rescue, warns the International Union of Sex Workers.
    Home Secretary Jacqui Smith told the Labour Conference in Manchester that the Government plans to
    * Make kerb crawling punishable as a first offence – instead of police having to demonstrate “persistent” kerb crawling as at present
    * Hand more power to police and councils to close brothels
    * Outlaw paying for sex with someone forced to sell sexual services by another or controlled for another’s gain

    But the measures would further complicate already outdated, confusing and ineffective laws governing the sex industry, says the IUSW.

    “The Government could have made sex workers safer, but they’ve failed. The measures they are proposing endanger us all,” said IUSW spokeswoman Catherine Stephens.

    And an early reference by Ms Smith to the “blight of street prostitution” has drawn criticism: “Sex workers are part of the community, not a blight upon it,” said Ms Stephens. “There is much evidence of violence inflicted on street sex workers by so-called community members. Such vigilante action will be encouraged by this inflammatory and objectifying language.”

    Evidence from Scot-Pep, the Scottish Prostitutes Education Project, shows that in Edinburgh – where kerb crawling laws have only been recently introduced – they can lead to assaults on street sex workers doubling.

    They are blamed for the breakdown of street sex workers’ networks, relied on for safety, as they disperse as members seek un-patrolled locations to safeguard their customers. This in turn makes them more difficult for outreach workers to locate for safe sex counselling, drug rehabilitation or support in pursuing routes out of prostitution.

    Ms Smith’s plans to give councils and the police powers to close brothels and “clamp down on exploitation” drew further criticism.

    “Sex workers themselves are the most determined to oppose exploitation and coercion within our industry, and closing our workplaces is not the way forward,” said Ms Stephens. “Increased raids and closures of brothels will directly endanger the thousands who choose to work in this way, and indoor sex workers will pay the price if this measure is introduced.”

    Present law fails to make any distinction between clean, well run, tax paying brothels with fair and safe working practices, and those in which workers are coerced, exploited or treated as slaves. This wastes valuable criminal justice resources and creates a major barrier to decent owners and managers providing the facilities, say the IUSW.

    “We welcome the recognition that sex work can be a freely made choice, and the fact that the government has not bowed to pressure to criminalise all purchase of sexual services,” she added.

    “Brothel and agency owners and their clients are the most likely to see and report victims of trafficking – by continuing their criminalisation, and extending criminalisation to some clients, the government makes it less likely abuse will be reported, increasing the vulnerability of those they wish to help. Trafficking victims will pay the price.”

    The IUSW calls for decriminalisation of the sex industry as the first essential step towards greater safety, fairness and social inclusion.

    But changing the law is not the only way to make sex work safer – the government can be more effective through measures such as:
    • providing a hotline for clients to report trafficking anxieties
    • reversing government-endorsed restrictions on advertising sexual services in local newspapers
    • taking violence against sex workers seriously by categorising it as hate crime
    • adopting a more human rights-based approach in supporting victims of trafficking, as in Italy
    • including people from the sex industry in development of policy

    The union called for funds spent on ‘John Schools’ – rehabilitation courses for kerb crawlers – and on anti-trafficking posters to be diverted to a campaign to inform clients how to report concerns (an estimated million plus people pay for sex) and to support the rights of sex workers to have unionised, legal and safer working spaces. This, the IUSW said, would bring us closer to winning the war on trafficking.

  8. Well, the forbidden apple has done enough damage already, time to legalise its consumption-in India and everywhere else.

    A strong post Roo, strong in terms of view and research.

    :)) thankie mampi.

  9. man, if this is how the ministers are up in arms against it, by the time I can actually make it to Amsterdam, it will all be history!!

    Thailand is nearby.

    i once walked through Sonagachhi in Kolkata with three of my frnds as part of a dare. I was a teenager then and was scared shit. in my fear of the unknown, feeling sorry for their plight wasn’t primary on my mind. in retrospect, i feel they have served as the buffer and should be given their due dignity. it is a profession and it is high time we recognized it as one… like a mature nation instead of pussyfooting around like a film censor board . . .

  10. Banning doesnt solve anything as you say. It will just be sleazier and more risky for the women concerned. Especially if it is not supported with any other kind of rehab programme. where will they earn their money? I guess the task is to make it less risky – provide support and alternate means of livelihood.

  11. see, this is one of those moments … where i agree with all of you … and have only gained more information in the process. so, i don’t know what else to add. thank you very much for your input. i appreciate it.

    thank you, catherine, for the read. it truly needs to be shared with the world!

    oreen … i can imagine the ‘fear’. we always fear the unknown.

    QI: there should be no moral stand … who are we to judge anyone’s individual morals, eh?!

    novs … they should at least be treated like human beings … which they aren’t either. it’s sad.

    P …. that’s ideal innit … it’d be fab … but, of course, legislators wont’ do that … they don’t have the time or money …. like Liju says .. govt doesnt want to work … and hence suggests bans.

  12. I was in agreement as I started reading the post. But am not so sure now. Brings this question to mind: Is prostituion a crime? If it is, wont it be in the same class as smuggling – another illegal business deal. So is it right to say making smuggling illegal has deprived many people of their income and thereby food? No. So if you look at it from that angle, there is no justification in pointing out that cause.

    That said, I cant decide if its a crime or not. Certainly unpleasant and most people who are engaged in it are like you say, doing it as a last measure to retain life – they dont know how else to live. But if this was made illegal, wont they at least try to get out and find out – cause survival is man’s innermost need – If you cant get food this way, you go that way. Be it construction work or whatever, wont they at least see if they have a place there? Or has the descrimination gone up to the level where they simply have absolutely no choice?

    And many women like you say are forced into this. They dont want it, and some are waiting for the day they could get out or run away. Wont taking these men away help them there? Besides many of these women, do not get paid, are treated inhumanly and the pimps take a good or whole part of what they worked for.

    Abused and exploited is right – so shouldnt it be that help should be given to get away from the profession?
    Even begging cannot be considered illegal in that case – but young men and women, who may very well find employment, come to beg, kids are kidnapped for sympathy – and that should be promoted? I dont think so.

    I havent actually thought these things out before, but the post made me think all this. Just typed out my thoughts, have no clue if it makes any sense.

  13. “QI: there should be no moral stand … who are we to judge anyone’s individual morals, eh?!”

    Precisely. Unfortunately, most of the objections to prostitution are ‘moral judgements’. I think the battle is won if people can look beyond the so-called ‘moral’ aspect.


    Quirky Indian

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  15. Tried posting this yesterday.. but your blog wouldnt accept it :)

    Roop.. you have yet again picked up a topic that is so relevant and gone about it precisely. You really force us to think; but on this topic I seem to be in a dilemma.

    I wouldn’t want any women to be forced into this profession and if by choice or not she is in, she deserves her rights as any other normal citizen.

    But yet again, in this world of no blacks and whites but only shades of grey, I wonder if we will ever make the right laws.

    After reading “Lara’s” story, I remembered the one which was published in “Vanitha” which is a Malayalam magazine. This also had a story of a sex worker who admitted she enjoys her job but then the difference was in the fact that this lady was forced. As for Lara, I believe she chose this profession over others since she found this was an easier way out. And the main reason being a single mother and she says…

    “It was by no means a desperate existence – we always had enough food, and the house was always heated – but it was quite empty from my point of view”

    So we make certain choices and then work around it.

    Even in India in the yesteryears we had the “devadasi” system whereby the temple dancers who were revered earlier (if history is right) were forced into prostitution. Most of the women never had a choice and in turn so do their children be left with lesser choices. And I am yet to read of an instance where the mother into prostitution would like her daughter to continue in the same profession if given a choice.

    So I believe we need to do more thinking before we equate this profession with the rest. The poor woman chooses this option due to want of education or because she is forced into it by circumstances.

    But then if prostitution is made legal I guess prostitutes will be in plenty and this business will not be lucrative as before for many. And I don’t envisage a time when society recognizes this as any other profession and if it does won’t our children (or theirs) have one more career option? Ironic isn’t it?

  16. Thx Cris and HK

    Cris: think lady think … come back to us with more thoughts.

    HK: i haveta say that there are cases when even educated women choose to be prostitutes … and are happy with their choice. in terms of legality, i feel it’s more of a moral issue than a legal. And we can’t judge any one else’s morality either. so it should be left to the individual who wants to get involved in it to decide whether it is morally acceptable for him/her to sell their body or not.

    i’m sure there are MANY who would NOT do it even if it was legal. I sure as heck wouldn’t do it … i am sure none of my friends or family would do it either …. those are the morals we grew up with.

    on the other hand … legal or not …. there are people and families who’ll indulge in prostitution ….. it’s best for those women/men to be legally protected though … for atleast they can have proper healthcare and help from police if they are being beaten or abuused. if illegal, it’d all be pushed underground.

    we can’t force our moral judgement on anyone like Quirky also mentions. if we feel that selling body is wrong and not like other professions, there must be someone who thinks we are wrong. it is a personal morality call and we are no one to judge. hoewever, as a society, it is our responsibility that all members of our society are taken care of … including the elderly, sick, people with special needs, children, adults, anyone including those who we don’t approve of …. it’s a part of being humane …. thus the need of providing legal care and protection for those even in the professions that we don’t approve of just so that they don’t have to suffer more if their job was made illegal.

    that’s my view. maybe i am wrong.

  17. Roop.. i did say in the first part of my comment that they deserve to be treated like any other citiizen.

    Only when one says this profession is just like any other profession, I feel it undermines the feelings of those women who have been forced into this. It just doesnt let us say it is wrong to force them.

    I do feel this trade needs to be regulated.

    As for morality, I am still searching for the meaning of it… I dont blv my right will ever be the right of my neighbour and vice versa.

    As i said this topic is a tricky one, but those women and children needs protection for sure and in that I dont have a second opinion.

    u know HK … yesterday, they were talking of gun control on tv …. the argument pro-gun people were using was that the people who would use guns in a negative manner are the people who’d use ’em illegal or not ……… and it brought me back to this post ………….. i use the same argument for prostitution innit ….. then why am i Anti-guns ……. yep, confused thoughts.

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