Legalise the vice trade

As the Government plans another crackdown on prostitution, we need a new approach to the oldest profession

Published in the Evening Standard 29 December 2005

It was a stare like none I?d ever seen. The eyes were laser-focussed, as if trying to bore into me. I was driving home and she was on a street corner; I made eye contact, trying to work out if she wanted to cross the road, but the look she gave back confirmed she was no ordinary pedestrian. It was a gaze that sought to be both alluring and to communicate a hard, urgent fact: ?Yes,? the eyes said, ?I am for sale.?

That was the first proof I had seen of something I had long heard. That on a corner of Green Lanes, just before the Seven Sisters Road, there is a brisk trade in human flesh: prostitutes, relocated to N16 after, so it?s said, they?d been chased out of Kings Cross.

I reacted like most people who discover the sex trade has come to their neighbourhood: not in my backyard. I didn?t want my children knowing of such things, let alone living within walking distance of them. Which should make me a natural supporter of the Government?s latest scheme to crack down on street prostitution.

The plans, aired in yesterday?s Guardian, aim to make life harder for the men who pay for sex. From now on police will take away kerb-crawlers? driving licences, even publish their names in the local papers. Also in the frame are the brothels disguised as massage parlours and saunas: the government wants to close them down. Perfect timing for Westminster council who, along with the police, are already seeking to clean up one of London?s most notorious areas for prostitution, Sussex Gardens in Paddington.

My gut reaction is to demand some of that same strong medicine for my own neighbourhood. After all, this is a vile industry, one that trades on human misery. Literature and movies still insist on depicting prostitutes either as glamour girls ? think Sharon Stone in Casino ? or tarts with a heart. The reality is much uglier, with the women involved routinely exploited and abused, whether by pimps who steal their earnings in the name of protection or ?clients? who turn violent. Surveys suggest that of the 30,000 women at work on Britain?s streets every night, two in three have been raped or severely beaten in the last year. And casting a pall over the whole business, inseparable from it, is drugs. I can still see the face of that woman on the street corner: the hollow cheeks, the unnaturally sharp jawbone. Chances are, she was one of the 95% of street-walking women who, according to Home Office estimates, are hooked on heroin or crack.

So anything which confronts this desperate trade has to be welcome. Except the government did not face a choice between this new plan and doing nothing. There was, to coin a phrase, a third way ? and it was floated just 18 months ago by a previous Home Secretary, David Blunkett.

Responding to pressure from police forces in Liverpool and elsewhere, he suggested local authorities be allowed to create ?red light? zones where prostitution would be tolerated, with a few small, licensed brothels and a register of sex-workers. These would not be in residential areas, but far away from schools and playgrounds, perhaps on industrial estates.

Yes, there were strong counter-arguments. For one thing, the government would be lending tacit endorsement to an appalling industry (though there are plenty of perfectly legal businesses that are hardly moral). For another, the evidence from tolerance zones elsewhere was mixed. Some Australian states tried it and found that, while the sanctioned trade boomed, so did the illicit one. Leith in Edinburgh had a go, but the project was abandoned. Experts said one problem was that any area deemed suitable was usually too remote to attract clients ? who stuck with the old, illegal streets instead.

So the government has rejected that initial proposal, in favour of another push for its get-tough, ?respect? agenda. But it could be making a mistake. For the underlying logic of tolerance zones remains sound: namely, that prostitution has been around too long to be eradicated and therefore has to be managed. Of course, that?s sad: in an ideal world such exploitative relations between men and women would have vanished long ago. But prostitution is a reality. And as things stand, the law is making a bad problem much worse.

Because the entire trade is illegal, there?s no way to regulate it ? no way to ensure even a minimum degree of health and safety for the women who work in it. Licensing would allow police to check women were not underage or working under violent duress; there could be regular health checks. Nor would prostitutes need to ply their trade in dark, remote backstreets, where they are least safe.

If women could turn to police for protection, they would have no need of the pimps who exploit their vulnerability. Right now, few sex-workers go to the police when they are victims of crime and no wonder: the authorities might fine them ? sending them right back on the streets to earn more cash.

If anything, small zones of tolerance might not go far enough. Full legalisation, as demanded by the English Prostitutes? Collective, might be the only way. But the current set-up ? with some 32 different offences, from living off immoral earnings to soliciting ? is, after half a century, creaking badly. Prostitution sits at the heart of a very modern set of crimes, from international drugs to people trafficking. A few snaps of red-faced men in the local papers is not going to solve it.

All three main parties like to talk these days of decentralisation and local empowerment. Well, here?s a perfect example. If local police forces and authorities want to try a new approach to this oldest of problems, then let them. A national crackdown may bring an eye-catching headline, but it won?t provide an answer – not for that woman with the cold, broken eyes or for the people who live near her.