The Prostitution Debate

The Socialist, 18th Sept.2004

THE CONTROVERSIAL Tolerance Zones (Scotland) Bill and the British government's consultation document on prostitution, Paying the Price, have sparked a real debate about how to deal with the issue of prostitution.

The following is an edited version of an article by Sinead Daly which first appeared in International Socialist, the paper of CWI members in Scotland.

ALTHOUGH THE Tolerance Zones Bill was defeated in 2003, MSP Margo McDonald is presenting a similar bill which is due to be heard by the end of this year. The Bill, if passed, would see tolerance zones designated by the local council in consultation with the police, health boards and the local community. The council would then have a duty of care to provide CCTV, adequate lighting and access to support workers.

There is real division among support agencies that work with prostitutes about whether to support the Bill. Routes out of prostitution, based in Glasgow, where there are no tolerance zones, oppose the bill. While the Scottish Prostitution Education Project (Scotpep) based in Edinburgh - where until 2001 they had a designated tolerance zone - support it.

Tolerance zones

Scotpep claims that there has been a massive increase in recorded attacks in Edinburgh - 111 in 2003 compared with 11 in 2001. Previously they found it easy to locate and support prostitutes, now they are dispersed all over the city.

Prostitutes themselves have reported feeling less safe; one woman said: "I carry a knife with me now and I have never, ever done that before". Another said: "since the zone has gone we have had to put up with more violence than ever before, from the residents and drug dealers pushing their kit and more girls than ever on drugs."

Before the ending of tolerance zones, less than a third of prostitutes were heroin addicts in Edinburgh compared to 97% in Glasgow and 90% in Aberdeen. There is also less incidence of sexually transmitted disease.

The reality of working on the streets is horrific, women tell of being raped, severely beaten and being driven by strangers to locations they may not know or feel safe in - if they are attacked who do they tell?

One study found that 66% of women involved in street-based prostitution in the UK experienced client violence, including being slapped, kicked or punched - 28% reported rape or attempted rape.


THE SITUATION facing the estimated 700 women per year smuggled into the UK to work as prostitutes, mostly unknowingly and unwillingly, is worse. They face not just the brutality of their abusers who buy sex but also from their 'pimps' who have enslaved them.

Who can they turn to if they get the chance to escape - the police? If they report to the police they will most likely be deported. The reality is these women are being criminalised both as prostitutes but also as illegal immigrants.

The legalisation of prostitution, pimping and brothels has facilitated an increase in the trafficking of women. According to Michael Platzer, Head of UN Centre for International Crime Prevention, "the laws help the gangsters. Prostitution is semi-legal in many places and that makes enforcement tricky. In most cases the punishment is very light."


Rode Draad (Red Thread) a prostitutes union in the Netherlands claims that the legalisation of brothels has meant that prostitutes working conditions have improved. Many are now entitled to holiday, maternity and sick pay, as well as improved pay and conditions.

However, this is not the case for many. The other side of the coin is that prostitution is now regarded as a legitimate profession - so much so that two women have had their benefit stopped because they refused to take a job as a prostitute!

Big business and the governments who back up their system are now beginning to recognise that there is a lot of money to be made, which is why we are seeing the beginnings of the legalisation of brothels. One of the proposals under consideration by the British government is legalisation/licensing of brothels and prostitutes.

The 1998 report from the UN's International Labour Organisation blatantly legitimated sexual exploitation as an appropriate, key component of gross national product and called upon governments of poorer countries to take economic advantage of "The Sex Sector" - regulated, expanded and taxed!


We should be in favour of removing the existing legislation that criminalises prostitution. [This is not the same as legalising it]. We would not want to condone or legitimise any aspect of the sex industry, which is based, not on sexual 'freedom' and openness, but on the commercial exploitation of sex, and promotes stereotypical and damaging images of sex and sexuality.

However, the legal system should not be making criminals of prostitutes who are generally amongst the most vulnerable and most exploited people in society. Statistics released by the British Home Office consultation document state that 70% of prostitutes have been in local authority care as children, 45% have been victims of child sexual abuse and 42% have been raped.

We should back harm reduction measures that will ensure that prostitutes can work more safely, ie well-lit tolerance zones, safe off-the-street venues where support workers and health workers have regular contact.

There is also a need for women to access safe houses, a place where they can go to escape from their pimp/abuser. Women should also be assured that they will be given a legal right to remain should they manage to escape.

At the same time it is essential to fight for policies to end poverty like a decent minimum wage and free education.

We live in a society which is based on inequalities of power and wealth and breeds poverty, exploitation and abuse. Sexism, including the sexual exploitation of women, is rooted in its very structures. As long as this system remains women will continue to be forced into the 'sex industry'. A socialist society will provide the only lasting solution.

Eleanor Donne's response from The Socialist Sept. 25th
Rodger Bannister's piece from The Socialist Sept. 25th

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