Legalising Prostitution

Prostitution Laws – Hypocrisy Rules O.K.

By Gwydion M. Williams

Viewed logically, Britain’s laws on prostitution are an absurdity.. Prostitution as such is not illegal. But there are a plethora of laws that make it impossible for prostitutes to operate without breaking the law. Lurid porn magazines are legal, but not discrete little journals where prostitutes could advertise their services. Soliciting is illegal, regardless of whether any member of the public is offended by it. If the laws were strictly enforced, prostitutes would hardly be able to operate at all.

They are not strictly enforced, and few people expect them to be strictly enforced. The police simply tum a blind eye to prostitution in some areas. But they are free to arrest prostitutes as and when they think fit The penalty for a first offence is a fine; the penalty for further offences is often a larger fine. Naturally, these fines are met by continued prostitution. A prostitute who tried to reform after a brush with the law would risk going to jail!

It’s not logical – but without doubt there is a logic behind it. The establishment does not seriously think that it could or should abolish prostitution. But it wants to pretend to be doing something; and it wants to keep prostitutes under control, free to operate only where the police choose to tum a blind eye.

What’s the solution? One could argue for much tougher laws, to try to get rid of prostitution altogether. For a start, one could make the act of prostitution illegal, both for prostitute and client. Alternatively, the whole business could simply be decriminalised. Specific laws against prostitutes operating and finding clients would be repealed. Prostitutes would be left alone, for so long as they . carried on their business without troubling the rest of society.

In practice, hardly anyone is arguing for really tough laws that might seriously limit prostitution. There is a widespread belief · that society could not in fact carry on without prostitutes. Few people like to say this; even fewer doubt that it is true. Throughout history, there have been very few societies that could do without them. The real choice is between decriminalisation and the present hypocritical set-up.

The hypocrisy survives because prostitution cannot ever be a particularly nice business. The prostitutes would much prefer to be earning the same money in some nicer trade. The prostitutes’ clients would much prefer it if their sexual needs could be met within some warm, tender and loving relationship. Both parties to the transaction settle for what they can get In an ideal world it would not be necessary. But it is unclear how preventing prostitution would take us any nearer an ideal world

Four types of argument can be put against decriminalising prostitution:

(1) The women involved are exploited, downtrodden victims of society.

(2) To legalise prostitution is to condone immorality.

(3) Criminal elements are involved; one should not make life easier for criminals.

(4) Something has to done about controlling VD and AIDS.

On the first point, it is certainly true that many of the women involved are victims of one sort or another. Usually, they become prostitutes as a way out of trouble – debts or an impossible home life. It is said that high unemployment has boosted the number of prostitutes – but they existed even in the days when almost anyone could get a job. Abolish prostitution, and their original problems would still exist.  You do not save people from drowning by taking .away their lifejackets.

Feminists tend to stress the “exploitation” argument. Prostitution is men exploiting women; therefore nothing must be done to decriminalise it. Feminists tend to be middle-class and well-educated, mostly with well-paid jobs. They are fairly safe from the pressures that drive women to prostitution; the fact that prostitutes would be somewhat less exploited with decriminalisation does not concern them.

They tend to view women in the sex industry as a species of lower animal; to be pitied and patronised, but never treated as “sisters”, or even as fellow human beings. One might have thought that “a woman’s right to choose” included the right ID be a stripper or a prostitute, if that’s what she wants. But feminists seem to consider themselves the lawful joint-owners of the bodies of all women, whatever the other women may think about the matter. “A women’s right to choose” does not extend to matters which the .majority of feminists disapprove of!

(Of course, not all prostitutes are women, and not all clients are men. There was a case in the USA, where a man was being paid by women for various sexual services. He was acquitted of prostitution, because the relevant laws assumed that a prostitute must be female. But it is female

heterosexual prostitution that is the main form, and that is central to the question.)

On the second point – prostitution is already accepted in practice, and also looked down on. Social attitudes are not easily made or changed by law. Mothers are hardly likely to recommend it to their daughters as a nice career, were it to be decriminalised Law is one thing; morality is quite another. The two should not be confused. Besides, . as I said before, the present set-up is totally hypocritical. And no one is campaigning for a serious prohibition,

On the third point – when a trade is illegal, of course criminals are going to get involved. Decriminalisation may not get rid of the criminal elements – after all, betting has been legalised without becoming spotless beyond reproach. But with decriminalisation, prostitutes would be allowed to trade on a legal basis. Firm action could then be taken against actual lawbreaking protection rackets. under-age sex, drugs, turning streets where people live into open-air brothels. The prostitutes themselves might be willing to help, provided they were left free to retail sex in a legal and controlled manner.

On the fourth point, again, the prostitutes could do a lot to help the fight against VD and AIDS. They’re not stupid, and these diseases threaten them more than the rest of us. (Not that sex for mutual pleasure gives any immunity, of course.) In Britain and in the rest of Western Europe. prostitutes were insisting on the use of condoms long before anyone had dreamed that such a thing as AIDS might exist.

More could be done, of course. One could make it a requirement that every prostitute should have weekly check-• and carry a certificate to prove this. But since prostitutes hate to be listed or registered. there should be – no bureaucratic nonsense like asking for real names or addresses. There should be really heavy penalties for forging certificates or otherwise abusing the system. And the prostitutes themselves would help enforce the system.

(During a recent BBC programme on “Street Girls”, one prostitute commented on another who was operating without using a durex. She said “that’s totally out of order; it’s really disgusting”. I’m sure a lot of them would feel that way.)

Prostitution as such is not a social evil. Its existence is a symptom of much deeper social evils; it is also a limited cure for some of them. (Carrying a handkerchief does not cure a cold But it makes a cold much easier to put up with). Several attempts have been made to change the law; so far the establishment has used delay and hypocrisy to keep things as they are. But it’s high time for a change.


It has taken the AIDS syndrome to return the condom .to its original purpose. For most of its history, the condom has been marketed as a “family planning” device. In practice it was just as often to let young unmarried people have sex without unwanted pregnancies. But it seems likely that they were first invented as a neat way of not getting a dose of the clap.

The whole notion of sex without reproduction took a long time to get established. Malthus was dead set against any sort of contraception – he thought it better that population be kept down by “misery and vice”. And when the leading radical William Godwin argued against him, Godwin’s main suggestion was infanticide!

By an irony of history, Malthus’s name was used as a respectable cover by the early advocates of Birth Control. Condoms and the like were called Malthusian Devices. Their other use was never quite forgotten – prostitutes tended to make their clients use them, for instance. But far too many people thought that ‘The Pill” was the answer; and homosexuals, logically enough, saw no need to concern themselves with birth control.

Now, at last, the older purpose of the sheath is being remembered. Even Government advertisements say “wear a condom” – but even so, at the time I write this, advertisements for condoms are not yet allowed on TV. Television can show rape and murder, but until recently, it could not show contraceptives. At present, advice about condoms is allowed, but only “ghettoised” is special programs that many people won’t watch. The whole point about adverts is that they force themselves on people who have tuned in to watch something else. If they can be allowed for all sorts of useless rubbish, why forbid them for potential life-savers?


This article appeared in July 1987, in Issue 3 of Labour and Trade Union Review.

Viewpoint from September 2019.

I wrote as ‘Dan Ackroid’, because my contract of employment had an ambiguous clause about ‘bringing the company into disrepute’.

I have not changed my views, but I would combine it with a removal of sexually explicit advertising, which does indeed suggest that all women might be available.  And I would want it organised as discrete ‘sex malls’ where prostitutes and other explicit businesses could rent space for a fixed fee for a company subject to regular laws.  A company big enough to see off criminals and be content to run a legitimate business.