By Rupert Read
Prostitution - such as that that has recently attracted national notoriety in Ipswich, because of its extraordinarily tragic and appalling consequences - involves a woman selling herself to a man. It's a pretty ugly matter. Some (e.g. David Prior, in the EDP earlier this week) say that legalising prostitution outright will improve the situation. Maybe. I am rather more impressed by the following idea: that, while nobody should be criminalised for having to make desperate choices to survive and feed themselves and their family, the buying of another human being for sexual purposes should be a crime. This is now the law in Sweden: such that it is the 'johns' - and not the sex-workers - who are targeted by the law. The activities of prostitutes are decriminalised; the activities of their 'clients' are not.
Legalisation? Or the Sweden solution? Or perhaps an intermediate policy, making the activities of prostitutes' clients a civil but not a criminal offence?
This is an important debate; but it is not the debate that I want to engage in today. I want to look deeper into the roots of this problem, to see, if we see prostitution as what it is, a peculiarly-unattractive commercial transaction, what factors underlie its demand and supply. For, if we understand these factors better, mightn't we be able radically to reduce both, so that this ugly and dangerous trade might be drastically reduced in volume?
Start with supply. Why are women selling themselves? Cheaply, desperately, dangerously? The answer, in the overwhelming majority of cases, can be summed up in two words: illegal drugs. Women will continue to put themselves in harm's way, as long as they have an illegal habit that costs a bomb and that they cannot get help with ending without placing themselves in a legal no-man's-land. According to a Radio 4 investigation, up to 95% of prostitutes in East Anglia are addicted to illegal drugs. We need to start treating drug-addiction as a medical problem, not as a crime. We need to have walk-in centres where people can get treatment on the NHS; and, until they are clean, they should be entitled to buy clean, legal, regulated drugs, just as they can in a pub or at a tobacconist's.
If young women could get heroin without having to rely on dodgy gangland dealers - and could get methadone on demand - then there would be far less of them willing to sell themselves over and over, to get their fix.
But now we need to look at demand too. 'Love' is only for sale because there are some who want to buy. Prostitution is sometimes termed 'the oldest profession'. But the plain fact is that there has been a huge expansion of prostitution in Britain (up to an 80% increase, according to government research), since the early 90s. Why? Because of consumerism and globalisation.
Globalisation results in people traveling much further to work. Local ties to family, community and loved ones are put under severe pressure. The result: more men whose lives are empty of intimacy, and who are therefore willing 'to pay for it'. Our consumer society turns everything into a commodity - sex is no exception. Advertising runs rampant; everywhere, there are messages tempting us with sex, telling us that if we buy their product, we will increase our chances of getting some. These messages create a sense of frustration, among many of those who don’t get to live the sex-drenched life that is constantly dangled before them on TV and even in the pages of newspapers…
In the long run, if we are to radically reduce the number of women selling themselves, we need to radically reduce the number of men wanting to buy. That will not happen, until more men are living fulfilled lives of quality, rather than empty relationshipless lives. And that's perhaps the most important result of thinking of prostitution as a market transaction: a society that marketises sex, as ours does relentlessly, can hardly be surprised when men want to buy it. And a society that leads men to think that women can be bought and sold is likely to produce a pathological minority of men who think that they can do what they want with their property. Such as, for example, strangle it.
To sum up: We need to offer medical help to women dangerously hooked on drugs, and, in the longer term, to re-localise our society, and re-invest life and community and love with meaning. So that men are no longer even inclined to get hooked on 'hookers'.