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Prostitution: The Debate Continues
Legislation Offers No Lasting Solution
SINEAD DALY'S article on prostitution in last week's socialist raises some very important issues around legalisation and decriminalisation. The debate in Scotland has centred on Tolerance Zones because this is the main proposal in Margo Macdonald's Bill to the Scottish parliament, as Sinead outlined.
Tolerance Zones are a form of decriminalisation of street prostitution but only in very limited areas. Under the proposed schemes the government would allow local authorities to set up zones (areas) - most likely in non-residential areas such as industrial retail parks after hours - where prostitutes would not be arrested for soliciting.
I think Sinead is right to say that, without condoning or legitimising the sex industry, we should support measures that make life less dangerous and harmful for prostitutes. The Scottish Bill on Tolerance Zones could be one such measure as, in addition to decriminalising prostitutes in the zones, it puts a duty of care on local authorities to provide CCTV, lighting and support services.
However, I don't think that we should give 'blanket support' to the idea of Tolerance Zones. What comes out of this government's consultation document, Paying the Price, could be quite different from the Scottish model. We would have to look carefully at exact proposals by local authorities, whose agenda is likely to be as much about removing the problem of prostitution from town centres and residential areas as offering real support or routes out of prostitution.
Without proper resources the zones could simply become dumping grounds - a kind of 'out of sight, out of mind' approach. The government's rough sleepers' initiative, 'solved the problem' of homeless people in central London by simply moving them on.
Whilst prostitutes within the zones would avoid arrest, those operating outside for any reason could face a harsher clampdown. Amongst these are likely to be women from abroad, brought here illegally, either as desperate economic migrants or literal 'sex slaves'.
It isn't yet clear what direction the government will take regarding the sex industry. The worry is that the reforms being touted in the consultation document, such as licensed brothels, would be like recent ones on drinking and gambling: good news for the multi-billion pound industries involved but bad news for working-class communities.
Prostitutes should be allowed to use off-the-street venues and work in groups for reasons of safety and comfort. However, we should completely oppose attempts to integrate prostitution into the entertainment and leisure industry.
New Labour is big on talk about anti-social behaviour. They are willing to use legislation to punish individuals via Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and Parenting Orders. They have introduced lessons on 'citizenship' in schools to teach our children how to be responsible. Yet the government has shown a slavish acceptance of the market in all aspects of society, whatever the social cost.
On this basis, it is possible that they will allow the development of licensed brothels to take advantage of 'The Sex Sector' that Sinead referred to in her article.
Whatever the outcome of the consultation, and whether or not the government changes the law, it is clear that our present economic and social system offers no lasting solutions to the underlying problems of poverty, inequality and sexual exploitation which drive women and men into prostitution.
The Problems With Tolerance Zones
I WELCOME the article on prostitution in issue 362 of the socialist. The Liberal Democrat council in Liverpool, where I live, are currently campaigning for legislation to allow them to have Tolerance Zones for prostitutes.
For socialists the link between prostitution, poverty and its accompanying social problems and the exploitation of women under capitalism cannot be ignored. Clearly, the abolition of such social evils under socialism would result in a massive diminution of prostitution. But we also have to advocate policies that are relevant for the present day.
The call for decriminalisation needs to be carefully thought through, because of the way the law currently operates. At present, no law actually forbids prostitution in Britain and in certain circumstances sexual activity can be paid for quite legally. In practice, the issue is hedged around with laws that make it difficult for prostitutes to operate within the law (see box).
Faced with such a confusing array of often reactionary and repressive legislation, the call for decriminalisation has an attractive appeal. But it is more important to consider the effect of each piece of legislation and what we are seeking to achieve in order to repeal, amend or replace as necessary.
Whilst supporting the establishment of Tolerance Zones, for the reasons stated in the article, it is doubtful whether such zones could operate unless provided for by legislation, which would criminalise (ie not tolerate) prostitution outside such zones.
Another problem with Tolerance Zones is the backlash against them from residents of the zones. To avoid this they would have to be carefully sited away from residential areas - in city centres, industrial areas etc.
Finally, whilst primarily concerned with the status and welfare of women, our attitude to prostitution should also take account of male prostitution, which, like its female counterpart, generally recruits from amongst the victims of the harsher aspects of capitalist society. These people also need the help, support and advice that Tolerance Zones could provide.
The Disorderly Houses Act 1751 forbids brothels, sex parties etc.
The Vagrancy Act 1824 makes it illegal for "common prostitutes" to wander in a public street.
The Town Police Clause Act 1847 makes it illegal for common prostitutes to assemble in a cafˇ, pub or similar place.
The Offences Against the Persons Act 1861 forbids the marking of people via sado-masochistic sex.
The Sexual Offences Act 1956 is aimed at pimps by making it illegal to live off immoral earnings.
The Street Offences Act 1959 outlaws soliciting in public.
The Licensing Act 1964 forbids landlords in pubs from serving anybody working as a prostitute.
In The Socialist 25 September 2004:
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