Sunday, February 23, 2003

p. 8.

Sanity needed in sex laws

THE law relating to prostitution is an ass, and even MPs seem to realise it. Last week a bare majority of the House decided to allow Tim Barnett's Prostitution Reform Bill to proceed to its next stage. But there are signs that the measure could fail amid a welter of amendments, moral panic and political funk. That would be a great pity. The bill would bring a measure of sanity into the law and would help with some of the social ills in the sex industry. That is a step worth taking.

The worst aspect of the present law is its double standard. Clients — and they are usually men — who approach prostitutes do not break the law. Prostitutes — usually women — who approach clients can be prosecuted for soliciting. This is sexist and unfair. It is some consolation that the law is not much enforced nowadays. But the threat is there, and the law is unjust by its very nature. Barnett's bill would rightly abolish it.

Decriminalisation would give protections to sex workers that they do not have now. Prostitutes suffering violence could approach the police without fear of being prosecuted for irrelevant crimes. It would remove the life-long stigma of a criminal conviction for an activity that should never have been the law's business in the first place. It would allow a greater power of redress against violent or intimidating or unfair brothel owners. It would give prostitutes more power to say no.

This would help improve the lives of those in the industry: it would not, of course, remove the problems altogether. It is important not to oversell this bill. Prostitution will remain a nasty business; pimps will remain sleazy characters; there will always be risks and dangers in the sexual transaction. But the new bill would help reduce them and would also help spread the safe-sex message. At present, safe-sex messages found in massage parlours can be used as evidence to gain convictions in court.

Some feminists have joined the Christian fundamentalists in opposing this bill. Sandra Coney says prostitutes are deeply disempowered women — often drug addicts — whose lot will not be improved merely by the stroke of a lawmaker's pen. It is true that the law will not suddenly make everything right. But the Prostitutes Collective rejects Coney's argument: its own effective lobbying and organisation shows that Coney is wrong. Prostitutes can help themselves, and a change of law will help them do so.

The Swedish alternative promoted by Coney and others — criminalising the clients and decriminalising the prostitutes — has the attraction of turning the tables. But it hasn't worked in Sweden: instead, it has merely driven the business further underground, as prostitutes return to stealth and secrecy to protect their clients. There will always be a demand for commercial sex, the law cannot change that. Barnett's bill recognises that fact and seeks to minimise harm.

The moral argument against the bill is daft, but the feminist-fundamentalist coalition might spook parliament into silliness. The state has no right to intervene in the sexual practices of consenting adults, no matter what the zealots say.

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