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Prostitution Reform?

Prostitution — Time for Change

by Patrick Harrington

In 1954 the Wolfenden Committee was appointed to look into the Sex Trade. This led to the current law, the 1959 Street Offences Act. It states that being a prostitute is not illegal in iteself, but it is illegal for a ‘common prostitute’ to loiter or solicit for business.

Any woman can be convicted of soliciting on the uncorroborated word of a single policeman. Soliciting is defined as : “not only spoken words but also various movements of the face, body and limbs such as a smile, a wink, making a gesture and beckoning or wriggling the body in a way that indicates an invitation.”

When a prostitute appears at the magistrates court, her previous record will be read out. If she has had two previous cautions for soliciting, even if there are no actual convictions on her sheet, she will be referred to as a “common prostitute” throughout. This is the only crime in Great Britain for which a defendant’s previous convictions are taken into account before conviction.

I am concerned at both the low standard of evidence needed to convict a woman of soliciting, and the vague definition offered in the Act. I am also concerned by the way in which the trial is prejudiced by a defendants previous convictions or cautions being considered in advance.

It is also an offence for a woman to work in a brothel (defined as any premises housing more than one prostitute).

If the present law is unjust what are the options for change? They broadly fall into three camps : tolerance zones, decriminalisation, and legalisation.

Tolerance Zones are designated areas where prostitutes can work set hours under conditions laid down by the local authority. The Dutch city of Utrecht has been operating such a system since 1984, to qualify for which girls must be over eighteen and off drugs. Pimps are barred. Against such zones is that they do create sex-market ghettos.

Decriminalisation would abolish all criminal laws which single out prostitutes and involved parties. Vice would be governed instead by laws on public order and assault. The women would be taken off the streets, so they would be safer. They would be able to report criminal offences committed against them and have legal redress. The public nuisance caused by street prostitution would be removed, and it would also get rid of pimps.

Legalisation would make practices such as brothel-keeping legal, and the State would be able to collect tax. Holland instituted State brothels in 1992, but only twelve per cent of known prostitutes work in them.

The Third Way view is that brothels should be licensed for up to six prostitues working on a co-operative basis in non-residential areas. Strict penalties would be applied for soliciting in the street (where confirmed by video evidence) or advertising outwith approved publications. Persistent kerb-crawlers would have their license endorsed, and if necessary removed.

Our attitude is to regulate something which will not go away. We want to minimise its impact on society as a whole and ensure that those who are not interested remain uninvolved and unaffected. We also want to enable prostitutes to have redress in law if crimes are committed against them and maintain a communications between them and the State, so that health advice and other services can be offered. Not a view you are likely to find expressed in the tabloids, but a view which has an entirely logical foundation.


Footnote : For years now in Edinburgh the authorities have turned a “blind eye” to the nature of a number of properly-run licensed “Saunas” throughout the town, and not just in run-down areas. This enlightened approach does not seem to have caused any trouble; on the contrary, there is a widespread sympathy for the idea amongst the general public, as it alleviates many of the prostitution-related problems normally occuring in cities.


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