Friday, December 15, 2006

Whited sepulchres of hypocritical moralism

De Wallen, also known as Walletjes or Rosse Buurt, is the largest and best-known red-light district in Amsterdam, a major tourist attraction. It is a network of alleys containing several hundred tiny one-room apartments rented by female prostitutes who offer their services from behind a window.

Many of us Irish like to believe that we're open minded and progressive but whether it's prostitution, illegal drugs or same-sex partnerships, there is little fear that we would make any progressive moves until the rest of Europe has travelled far ahead of us.

This week in Ireland and the UK , all three issues received extensive attention.

In 2004, the Economist wrote in an impressive editorial on prostitution, that the puritans have the whip hand not because they can prove that tough laws will make life better for women, but because they have convinced governments that prostitution is intolerable by its very nature. What has tipped the balance is the globalisation of the sex business.

Today, the Financial Times writes that morality is choosing to live one's life by a code of behaviour. Moralism is inflicting a puritanical code upon others.

Moralism kills. It leads to making prostitution and the use of drugs illegal. That brings ghastly results. Now, when the murders of five prostitutes in Suffolk are gripping the attention of the UK, all must see just how ghastly these results can occasionally be.

Finding prostitution abhorrent is quite understandable. It is equally understandable that people find the sale of dangerous drugs abhorrent. But policy should focus on consequences, not such emotions. Prohibition merely drives these practices further underground, thereby making bad worse.

In the UK, prostitution is not illegal. The position is far worse in the US, where it is illegal in all states, except Nevada. But even in the UK, soliciting and advertising by prostitutes, as well as "kerb-crawling" and, most important, living off the earnings of prostitutes are all illegal.

A brief glimmer of sanity broke out, with the publication of a thoroughly sensible review, Paying the Price, by the often unjustly condemned Home Office in July 2004. It did not take long for the UK's tabloid press, that whited sepulchre of hypocritical moralism, to douse the light once more.

Nothing will now be done to make the business safer for those engaged in it. That can only happen if it is possible to establish businesses, with secure premises, with proper security and medical checks. In other words, it can only happen with the legalisation of brothels. Instead, action against kerb-crawling is being intensified and the idea of establishing legal red-light areas has been abandoned.

This will merely drive the business yet further underground, where it will remain intertwined with another business driven into the darkness: drugs. Paying the Price estimated there were 80,000 people working in the sex industry in Britain, with 95 per cent of the women involved dependent on drugs. A close link exists between illegal drugs and prostitution, with pimps often suppliers of both.

Unable to work within properly regulated businesses, prostitutes are far more vulnerable to violent customers. Nobody can now try to ensure the safety of prostitutes even, as we can see, from the deranged attacks of a serial killer. Public indifference to the fate of these women explains, but cannot excuse, this immoral policy.

We will never eliminate either prostitution or the demand for drugs. But we can minimise the damage done by these twin evils: prostitutes must have the opportunity to work in safe and secure environments; addicts must be allowed safe and secure access, through the health service, to the drugs they crave. This is not to condone vice. It is to recognise the limits imposed by human frailty. Those who persist in peddling moralism instead have blood on their hands.

The Economist wrote two years ago that it is not surprising that many of the rich world's prostitutes are foreigners. Immigrants have a particularly hard time finding jobs that pay well; local language skills are not prized in the sex trade; prostitutes often prefer to work outside their home town. But the free movement of labour is as controversial in the sex trade as in any other business. Wherever they work, foreign prostitutes are accused of driving down prices, touting “extra” services and consorting with organised criminal pimps who are often foreigners, too. The fact that a very small proportion of women are trafficked—forced into prostitution against their will—has been used to discredit all foreigners in the trade, and by extension (since many sellers of sex are indeed foreign) all prostitutes.

Abolitionists make three arguments. From the right comes the argument that the sex trade is plain wrong, and that, by condoning it, society demeans itself. Liberals (such as this newspaper) who believe that what consenting adults do in private is their own business reject that line.

From the left comes the argument that all prostitutes are victims. Its proponents cite studies that show high rates of sexual abuse and drug taking among employees. To which there are two answers. First, those studies are biased: they tend to be carried out by staff at drop-in centres and by the police, who tend to see the most troubled streetwalkers. Taking their clients as representative of all prostitutes is like assessing the state of marriage by sampling shelters for battered women. Second, the association between prostitution and drug addiction does not mean that one causes the other: drug addicts, like others, may go into prostitution just because it's a good way of making a decent living if you can't think too clearly.

A third, more plausible, argument focuses on the association between prostitution and all sorts of other nastinesses, such as drug addiction, organised crime, trafficking and underage sex. To encourage prostitution, goes the line, is to encourage those other undesirables; to crack down on prostitution is to discourage them.

Brothels with brands

Plausible, but wrong. Criminalisation forces prostitution into the underworld. Legalisation would bring it into the open, where abuses such as trafficking and under-age prostitution can be more easily tackled. Brothels would develop reputations worth protecting. Access to health care would improve—an urgent need, given that so many prostitutes come from diseased parts of the world. Abuses such as child or forced prostitution should be treated as the crimes they are, and not discussed as though they were simply extreme forms of the sex trade, which is how opponents of prostitution and, recently, the governments of Britain and America have described them.

Puritans argue that where laws have been liberalised—in, for instance, the Netherlands, Germany and Australia—the new regimes have not lived up to claims that they would wipe out pimping and sever the links between prostitution and organised crime. Certainly, those links persist; but that's because, thanks to concessions to the opponents of liberalisation, the changes did not go far enough. Prostitutes were made to register, which many understandably didn't want to do. Not surprisingly, illicit brothels continued to thrive.

If those quasi-liberal experiments have not lived up to their proponents' expectations, they have also failed to fulfil their detractors' greatest fears. They do not seem to have led to outbreaks of disease or under-age sex, nor to a proliferation of street prostitution, nor to a wider collapse in local morals.

Which brings us back to that discreet transaction between two people in private. If there's no evidence that it harms others, then the state should let them get on with it. People should be allowed to buy and sell whatever they like, including their own bodies. Prostitution may be a grubby business, but it's not the government's.

...back to Ireland

This week, the High Court declared that same-sex marriage is incompatible with the Constitution but there is no rush to strengthen partnership rights such as in relation to inheritance, which would surely provide the rights that gay people demand.

As to illegal drugs and prostitution, there is no public debate on moving on from the status quo.

That would surely require political courage and vision - two very scarce commodities.