Vice Nation – Sex IV: Prostitution

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Oh boy. Well I had to come to it eventually (excuse the pun). For perhaps the first time I’m genuinely worried about how this is going to go down (excuse the pun again) because I have a sizable audience of women (40%+) for a political blog….though probably not for much longer.

This is easily going to rank amongst the most controversial posts I’ve ever published, though I’m fortunate to go under the radar 99% of the time. You’ve been warned.

In my defence – and not wanting to get too far off topic – doing a sizable chunk of the heavy lifting with the whole independence thing (and, subsequently, saying and doing things that could get me into serious trouble because nobody else is willing to touch them) is a lot harder than just saying you support independence then not offering any idea on what sort of country an independent Wales should be.

While this would’ve otherwise have been a simple “prostitution is bad” post, some of the things I’ve found here have been an eye-opener.

Breakdown of “The Oldest Profession”
Whatever you want to call them – escorts, sex workers, brass, hookers, whores, ho, rent boys – prostitution is as old as civilisation itself. It’s always been associated with the downtrodden, many of whom were slaves or in some sort of indentured servitude, which sadly continues today.In 2014, the Office of National Statistics included data relating to illicit activities – including prostitution – to provide more accurate economic/GDP figures. Another site also analysed data from one of the leading prostitution sites in the UK (which I probably can’t name or link to or I’ll get into trouble).Firstly, a word of warning. The ONS study seems flawed, mainly because of the workload attached to each prostitute. It was based on Dutch figures where laws and rules relating to prostitution are far more liberal – I return to this later.

Anyway, the headline figures are:

There are also other statistics from multiple sources, but mainly a report from Swansea University (pdf):


  • 2,000 female university students in the UK have joined sites advertising “sugar daddy” arrangements.
  • 5% of university students have undertaken sex work at some point and 20% have actively considered it.
  • A greater proportion of male students (5.9%) have undertaken direct or indirect sex work than female students (4%).
  • Student sex workers face prejudice and stigma if their identities become public, usually from their own Student Unions.
  • It may also jeopardise their careers, particularly in professions seen as “caring” or requiring “a good character”. This is despite 70% of sex workers having worked in health, care or the charity sector and a third holding degree-level qualifications.
  • 32% of UK men (but only 1% of women) have either used the services or a prostitute or would seriously consider doing so.
  • 42% of people (55% men, 29% women) would consider having sex for money if the amount was right.

Wow. This is one of those rare occasions I’ve been taken aback by something whilst doing this blog. I thought, “None of this can be true”. Clearly I need to get out more. The two things that stand out in particular are the economic contribution of prostitution and the relatively high numbers of men doing it – it’s almost always stereotyped as a women’s issue in the same way as domestic violence.

To put things in perspective, according to these figures there’s a higher proportion of men in the prostitution workforce (42%) than there are working as teachers (24.6% – Table 1.2), though when you take into consideration demand, then that will lean the overall workload heavily in favour of women.

Prostitution and the Law

Prostitution is currently a legal grey area in EnglandandWales. In terms of law enforcement, the police are far more interested in breaking down people trafficking rings and links to serious and organised crime than dealing with massage parlours (which may sometimes be legitimate fronts for brothels) or prostitutes and clients who stay off the streets.

What’s legal:

  • Prostitution itself. It isn’t a crime to willingly exchange money for consensual sex acts.
  • Prostitution in your own home (once more than one person are selling sexual services on the same premises it’s legally categorised as a brothel).
  • Advertising prostitution services in newspapers, magazines and on websites – though these may be subject to editorial and regulatory guidelines, while advertising for a brothel (as opposed to individual escorts) is illegal.

What’s illegal:
  • Running a brothel or knowingly letting a tenant run a premises as a brothel.
  • Prostitution under the threat of force or coercion.
  • “Pimping” – Acting as an agent for prostitutes and collecting their earnings or expecting a share of earnings. This includes trafficking people to employ as prostitutes.
  • Sexual exploitation of children (anyone under-18) as prostitutes.
  • Street prostitution and kerb crawling – It’s a criminal offence to solicit for sex or try to obtain the services of a prostitution on the street or in a public place. The difficulty there is, as seen in the Pill area of Newport last year, the police may be reluctant to take prostitutes off the street by force if they’re considered “vulnerable women”.
  • Advertising prostitution in telephone boxes and other public places.

The laws are almost identical in Scotland. Northern Ireland has stricter laws and in 2015 banned the purchase of sexual services, with people doing so liable to a year’s imprisonment and a fine of £1,000.
In 2007, the then Labour UK Government considered making it illegal to pay for sex, citing similar laws in Sweden (and, subsequently, Northern Ireland). Meanwhile, in 2014 a UK parliamentary committee said current laws were “confusing”. In January 2016 the Home Affairs Select Committee began an inquiry into the legalisation of prostitution….then the Chair, Keith Vaz, was – as you well know – caught hiring male prostitutes. Maybe he’s been playing too much Grand Theft Auto.You have consensual sex for money and film it – that’s legal. You have consensual sex for money and not film it – that’s sort of legal but somehow worse?

The Case for Prostitution

  • It enjoys some public support – 59% of people responding to a poll believe prostitution is a “reasonable choice to make”, and according to a 2014 sex survey, 62% of people support full legalisation of prostitution (including 59% of women).
  • It pays well – It’s easy money, particularly if you’re a reasonably attractive women; you’re looking at an equivalent of £120-130 per hour. This is part of the problem too as I’ll come back to later.
  • Job satisfaction – 91% of sex workers found their work“flexible” and 56% thought it was rewarding. Many even consider themselves educators and therapists! However, those surveyed are likely to be more professionalised escorts, not those who work the streets and not all of them will be prostitutes (some will be strippers presumably).
  • Improves the quality of life and mental health of disabled people – Disabled people want sex too, and as 70% of people wouldn’t consider a sexual relationship with a disabled person, many turn to prostitutes. The Dutch indirectly subsidise prostitution for disabled citizens.

Ultimately – your body, your choice. If you want me to be really controversial, then you can – to a certain extent – argue that all sex is a form of prostitution; is spending a large amount of time and money on several dates and then having sex afterwards any different? Prostitutes just cut out the date bit (though escorts usually don’t), while no-strings-attached sex is tolerated and accepted, even fuelled by the dating apps like Tinder and Grindr.
Of course that’s an over-simplification and there’s a world of difference between a person who makes selling sex their job and sex in a relationship. Prostitutes perhaps use their head more (excuse the pun) and ignore the heart. I don’t think it’s anything someone would really set out to do unless they’re desperate, see themselves as some sort of sex therapist or are a nymphomaniac – but why not as long as they’re making an informed choice to do so?

The Case against Prostitution

  • People are driven towards it because of money problems – I listed the good pay as a positive, but it’s a damning indictment of society when prostitutes are either working a low-paid second job or are earning, on average, far more than care workers and nursing assistants – but that’s supply and demand for you. Also, there’s a slippery slope argument that if people are allowed to sell sex, then it could lead to selling their bodies in other ways (i.e. creating a market for organ transplants).
  • It’s exploitative – In addition to the money problem factor, there’s evidence that prostitutes (particularly those working on the streets) are significantly more likely to be drug addicts, are likely to have been sexually abused as adults (pdf) and have mental health problems (pdf). Many will have been trafficked too. This doesn’t necessarily extend to more professional and self-employed sex workers.
  • It can be dangerous and a risk to health – 47% of sex workers have been victims of crime, including rape. 36% have received threatening calls or harassment. That’s before mentioning the risks posed from sexually-transmitted diseases (Part V) – a BMJ study of female sex workers showed they were three times more likely to be infected with gonorrhoea and twice as likely to be infected with chlamydia than other GUM clinic attendees.
  • Nobody has a “right” to sex – This is the danger with the disabled example mentioned earlier. It’s well-meant but it would be a primitive step to consider sex a “basic right” and opens a can of worms when it comes to consent and sexual ethics.

If prostitution is exploitative and immoral, with close ties to criminality, then the argument goes that it should be stamped out – regardless of an individual’s rights to do what they want with their bodies, similarly to illegal drugs (Wales on Drugs).
Even if the numbers of active prostitutes are perhaps more gender balanced than people might think, a feminist opponent of prostitution may argue (correctly) that the workload is still primarily borne by women, and the purchasers are almost always men – so prostitution is both patriarchal and objectifies/commodifies women.People with more conservative attitudes towards sex and relationships might also believe sex should be reserved for someone you have feelings for, or at least with a view to a commitment of some sort – not bought and sold like a commodity, which cheapens the body. Prostitution, or rather legitimised prostitution, may also encourage cheating.Prostitution & Independence

Devolution of criminal justice would give the Senedd powers here, not necessarily independence – though independence would allow Wales to make a break from the status quo.There are some things that needn’t change so much:

  • Kerb-crawling and soliciting sex on the street or in public places could remain a criminal offence.
  • Measures relating to “pimping”, preventing people trafficking, exploitation of children and bringing traffickers to justice should remain.
  • Advertising restrictions for prostitution should remain, though with clearer guidelines from a watchdog or Media Commissioner.
  • Travelling to another country to have sex with children (places where this is common include Thailand, Cambodia, Brazil and Mexico) should be prosecuted here – as currently.

As for what else, there are two broad policy options. Firstly, a clampdown on prostitution because it exploits the people involved (anti-exploitation). Secondly, the approach of tolerance, regulation and legalisation (sex-positive).

Anti-Exploitation (Ban)
  • As a do-minimum, buying sexual services could be made a criminal offence (as in Northern Ireland, Sweden, Norway, France, Canada) but selling them wouldn’t be. This would protect (mainly) women who are actively doing it from being punished but at the same time limiting “male access” to women’s bodies.
  • Brothels would remain illegal, and there could be greater pressure on police forces to properly investigate legitimate “front businesses” which hide a brothel – like massage parlours.
  • Alternatively, prostitution itself could be criminalised (both buying and selling). There’s a risk this would result in some vulnerable and desperate people being arrested, prosecuted and/or imprisoned.

Sex-Positive (Full Legalisation)
  • Prostitution would be legalised (as in the US state of Nevada, Germany and the Netherlands). This would be restricted to escorts, out-calls and brothels.
  • All active prostitutes would need to be registered at a single business address that has a sex entertainment licence, be aged at least 18 (perhaps 21) and eligible to work under nationality criteria (to help clamp down on people trafficking). For example, a brothel may have prostitutes working on the premises themselves, but also provide an out-call escort agency.
  • It may be a good idea for all sex workers to be members of a recognised industrial body, like the GMB-affiliated International Union of Sex Workers.
  • Any premises applying for a licence would need to be inspected by the police and local authorities beforehand and at regular intervals to keep their licence. They should also have measures in place to protect the safety of the people working there (i.e panic buttons) and meet minimum standards of hygiene. Unlicensed brothels would be forcibly closed down and the landlord or owner fined and/or imprisoned.
  • Brothels could be restricted to non-residential areas (referring back to the planning categories I mentioned in Part III), with prostitutes considered self-employed contractors, or employed in co-operatives and voluntarily contributing towards the upkeep costs of a brothel itself (i.e. employing a “madam”/administrator or security staff).
  • Brothels and individual prostitutes would be responsible for paying their own tax at standard rates, or (if being run as a co-operative) having tax deducted accordingly as employees. They would have the freedom to set prices however they see fit, though every exchange would need to be formally recorded….yes, that means receipts!
  • Anyone engaging in sex acts (as opposed to stripping or exotic dancing) could be required by law to use condoms and undergo mandatory STD testing at regular intervals (with a certificate from a GUM clinic proving they’re clear) to remain active on a register.

How much could legalised prostitution raise in taxes?

Even if the above figures are a gross over-estimate, then when you add business rates and other tax revenues from alcohol etc. then the £74million figure is likely to hold up. There would presumably be public spending savings in terms of reductions in policing costs, costs to social services and treating health problems too.

What next?

My libertarian instincts favour the sex-positive approach. No society has ever managed to eliminate prostitution even when it’s punishable by death, so for the safety of the people involved it has to be properly regulated whilst at the same time offering some measure of reasonable flexibility.

That doesn’t mean the anti-exploitation measures are any less legitimate – if I had a son or daughter I’d hardly be jumping for joy if they chose to become a rent boy or escort, but it’s not as if people dream of working in fast food or cleaning toilets. If that makes me a hypocrite so be it, but it’s not for society to tell people what they should or shouldn’t do if it causes themselves or other people no harm. It’s just more likely to push/keep prostitution underground (which could result in more criminality and danger to [mainly] women).

Now, I don’t like the idea of fully legalised prostitution – in the same way I don’t like the idea of legalised drugs either – but setting up reasonable barriers, lifting standards and taking the market out of the hands of criminals is probably the right way to go if people are going to do it regardless.

Plus, taking away the “seedy” nature of it and reducing it to a sterile business transaction/personal service may reduce the number of prostitutes – and people seeking their services – in the same way removing the mystique of drugs may cut drug use. It would move from being something illicit and edgy, to part-time accountants giving blowjobs then handing over a receipt.

What about sex-bots?

Before you think I’ve gone nuts, the first reactive sex robots (as opposed to inanimate sex dolls) will be going on sale this year. The future is now.
This will probably be worth coming back to in its own right and has been briefly explored in Humans and Westworld: is a realistic sex robot nothing more than a glorified sex toy? Can it consent? Does that matter?We’re still some way away from creating self-aware artificial intelligence, but the prospect of robots being able to respond in a human-like way raises serious questions. A sex bot can’t say no and isn’t a person so wouldn’t be subject to the same laws of consent or sexual impropriety as a human would. Likewise – and much darker – a sex bot created to have the appearance of an animal, child or young teenager would be, in legal terms, nothing more than a dildo.So it may be worth having pre-emptive laws that forbid sex bot manufacturers from selling products in Wales that: have the physical appearance of a child or animal, look like any real person living or dead, and fail to meet minimum hygiene/environmental health standards if used in an“e-brothel”.

Part V will look at sexual health in Wales and what can be done to support the NHS in addressing STDs, at-risk groups and teen mothers.