The Economist had a debate today on Twitter about the legal status of prostitution.
There was a real flurry of activity, and I think it is fair to say that most were in favour of decriminalisation.
It is very clear that the criminalisation of prostitution is an example of absolutist moralism thrusting its way into the inner recesses of law. The laws were put in by religious moralists, but a neo-moralism is tending to support them, from those who rightly point to the factors of compulsion (kidnapping and trafficking), drug addiction, emotional blunting, economic necessity and exploitation by capitalists.
These are all undeniably components in the vast field that is encompassed by sex work, although there may be a small proportion of women (and indeed, men) who freely choose it as a way of life.
The point that moralists must understand is that prostitution is a fact. Irrespective of what we as individuals or as society may think of it, it has existed, does exist, and will almost certainly continue to exist. Neither moral outrage nor moral legislation will stop it. Legislation can only drive it underground, out of sight and out of hope of any amelioration or escape.
The point for legislators to consider is this: Given that prostitution is an established fact, what is the best way for law to minimise the harm?
From a medical point of view, the response is unequivocal. Decriminalisation means that health workers will be able to meet with sex workers and carry out regular tests for sexually transmitted diseases (STIs). I would envisage a statutory requirement for this to happen for every registered sex worker. In the course of these contacts, there is a possibility opened up for confidence building, for exploring whether the worker was trafficked, whether s/he wishes to move out of sex work, and in that case they could be put in contact with agencies who could assist.
There are a number of other advantages to decriminalisation, including saving money with police, courts, and prison. There is the not inconsiderable matter of taxes raised. There is the matter of removing adverse pressure from people who already have more than enough in the way of personal problems.
Decriminalisation is not a magic wand cure all. In the Netherlands, where it has been decriminalised, there is still an illicit industry. Nevada shows that exploitation still exists in licit brothels, which shows that detailed regulations need to be put in place. This is a separate issue. Given the will and the resources, it is not difficult for the police to identify and bust these operations. Sometimes I wonder why we hear so little of successful prosecutions by the Serious Organised Crime Agency.
So, in summary, there is a clear case for decriminalisation of prostitution, in the name of public health, and for the sake of sex workers themselves. The only thing that stands in the way of vital harm reduction measure is the unholy and perverse influence of absolutist moralism.