Wednesday, February 22, 2003

p. 8

Oldest profession

Prostitution has been termed the world's oldest profession for good reason, existing as it has across nations, cultures, and time. That is precisely why the key issue raised by Christchurch Central MP Tim Barnett's decriminalisation bill should not be whether the industry is good or bad. It is whether prostitution should come out of the shadows in an attempt to curb the abuses that undoubtedly now occur.

Decriminalisation would have the immediate virtue of ending the present farces surrounding prostitution. It would enable a brothel to legally exist, rather than hide behind the pretence of being a massage parlour. The bill would also end the sexism through which soliciting is illegal, but the customer commits no crime.

Opponents of Mr Barnett's bill raise a variety of feminist and moral arguments. Decriminalisation, they argue, would actually encourage more young women to become prostitutes. Without fear of prosecution the industry would become more competitive, forcing prostitutes to use unsafe practices. Above all, it is argued that prostitution is inherently exploitative and abusive. The argument that prostitution exploits women is quite correct, but it makes a case for shutting down the industry completely. Just how unrealistic that would be can be readily shown in Christchurch. Despite prostitution's present status, a drive down Manchester Street or a perusal of newspaper advertisements suggests a flourishing industry. Just what its prevalence or at least its visibility says about the Garden City is of course another question.

Decriminalisation acknowledges the reality that prostitution exists and seeks to create a safer environment for both prostitutes and their clients. Prostitutes could gain access to the protections every other worker receives in employment law and gain the fundamental right to reject a customer. And both parties would benefit from the bill's emphasis on safe sex.

As to the claim that the bill would encourage young entrants into the industry, the sordid truth is that there is already child prostitution in Christchurch. It is interesting that the legal age for prostitution will be 18, two years above the age of consent. But this at least reinforces the bill's intent to stamp out the exploitation of teenage girls. In a changed legal environment, those in the industry might feel freer to report cases of child prostitution.

Mr Barnett's bill must next be debated clause-by-clause in the House, a dangerous time for any conscience issue. MPs on both sides of this emotive debate should be encouraged to continue the commendable restraint shown in the Second Reading. They should also strive to avoid emulating the chaotic handling of amendments which occurred in the 1999 drinking-age debate.

Several amendments suggested by Justice Minister Phil Goff are worthwhile. Just as entry to other industries is controlled through licensing, so too should brothels be, in an effort to prevent criminal involvement. And it is only reasonable to have tight rules governing the location and advertising of brothels in residential areas. Another proposed amendment, to make buying sex illegal, would certainly answer the feminist complaint that only the prostitute can be prosecuted, but it should be rejected.

Instead of offering prostitutes the protections of the law, it could only drive the industry further into the shadows, compounding its existing abuses.

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Created: April 13, 2003
Last modified: April 13, 2003
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