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Robert Leitch: Isn't it time to bring prostitution into the 21st Century?

Picture 20 Robert Leitch is a 22-year-old party activist who is working in Parliament for a Conservative MP.

Whilst flicking through the TV channels the other evening, I stumbled across ITV’s popular drama, Secret Diary of a Call Girl.  For those who have never seen the show, it is based upon a character called Belle de Jour, the nickname of a former real-life call girl. In many ways the series is rather humorous, but away from the glitz and glamour of ITV’s somewhat shallow portrayal of the upmarket world of call girls, the production got me thinking about the wider reality of the UK’s often murky prostitution industry.

At present, our prostitution laws are a middle-of-the road, uncomfortable compromise. Politicians of all colours often seem too afraid to align themselves with either the full legalisation camp or the anti-prostitution camp. Indeed, our current legislation, in England and Wales at least, is somewhat contradictory. The Policing and Crime Act 2009 made it illegal to pay for sexual services “of a prostitute subjected to force”. However, working as a prostitute in private remains wholly legal as does working as an outcall escort, such as Belle de Jour.

Put simply, the message of our current stance on prostitution is this: if you are out of sight, secretive and working alone, you may continue in your dangerous profession. Given the high risk of violence as well as the prevalence of human and drug trafficking in the industry, this stance strikes me as being rather naive and remarkably irresponsible.

After all, prostitution is not going to miraculously disappear. Not only famous for its reputation as the “oldest profession”, it is currently estimated that over 100,000 people work as prostitutes across the whole of the UK. In London alone, the previous Government’s Poppy Project found that over 900 brothels (all supposedly illegal) were in operation with a combined annual turnover of approximately £120 million.

Locating brothels is hardly difficult as the Poppy Project’s researchers were keen to point out. In order to track down such establishments, they merely trawled through the advertising pages of local newspapers. The common sight of the so-called telephone box “tart cards” also highlights the often lax police approach to enforcing our outdated prostitution laws. In light of the seemingly steady levels of demand and the frequent lack of police enforcement, is it not time that we simply accepted prostitution as an established and sought-after market?

Some may claim that such a viewpoint is amoral. However, I would suggest that continuing to drive some of the UK’s most vulnerable people underground is far more morally questionable. If we continue to ignore those within this specific section of the sex industry, or if we criminalise the trade any further, we are doing the equivalent of sticking our heads in the sand and throwing many young women in particular into the hands of those who operate at the highest level of Britain’s black market.

Alternatively, we could at last properly legalise the prostitution marketplace. In doing so we would not only champion freedom and liberalism, but we would also be able to offer a regulatory framework capable of offering greater protection, understanding and education to our country’s prostitutes. With safer working environments, prostitutes could operate free from the drugs, violence and human trafficking that all too often leads many into a lifetime of fear, despair and dependency at present.

It is now time for our politicians to grasp the nettle on this difficult issue. If we are to be a truly reforming administration, the coalition must be willing to confront the big, controversial issues in our society. It is time for an open, honest and sensible debate on the future of the prostitution industry and, in my view, such a debate should be the start of a journey towards full legalisation.


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