Prostitution: decriminalise, not prohibit, not legalise

Amidst talk of a 'new Yorkshire Ripper' James Turley calls for a principled approach to sex work

On October 30 1975, Wilma McCann was brutally murdered in Leeds. The killer was Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper - but it took an enormous police operation six years, during which 12 more women were murdered and many more violently attacked, to catch him. Most of the victims worked as prostitutes, which itself complicated issues considerably, as survivors’ testimony was frequently derided or ignored by police officers contemptuous of street-walkers.

Sutcliffe’s psychotically religious ‘street-cleaning’ effort, unfortunately, is still raked over today - because prostitutes continue to fall victim to the pathological consciousness of serial killers. Now Stephen Griffiths, a 40-year-old PhD student, has been charged with the murder of three women in another West Yorkshire city - Bradford. The victims all worked at the sharp end of the sex trade - looking for custom in a few blocks of abandoned buildings near the city centre. One body has been found so far, gruesomely dismembered; two more women are missing and presumed dead. If the charges turn out to be proven, once again a disturbed individual has picked on women in the sex trade for a murderous rampage; if not, then three women in the same trade in, for all intents and purposes, the same workplace have disappeared or been murdered in the last year. Like the similar murders in Ipswich only three years ago, the Yorkshire Ripper haunts these crimes.

He haunts the media coverage, too, which has focused on the most directly political issue involved: that of the legal status of prostitution, and the sex industry more generally. This represents an absurdity from top to bottom. It is, technically, legal for prostitutes, of the type that fell victim to the Bradford killer, to exchange money for sex. Everything else, more or less, is illegal: clients are barred from kerb-crawling and paying for sex where any coercion is deemed to have taken place, whether or not they know about it.

The prostitutes themselves, meanwhile, are barred from soliciting for business in a public place. They are barred from running a brothel - a brothel is defined as any place where two or more prostitutes work. This situation can only be described as schizophrenic; a prostitute has to hide from the police up until the moment when he or she is alone with the client and most vulnerable, or risk prosecution for soliciting. These prosecutions invariably result in a fine (or did until recently, as we shall see), which is then almost invariably paid for by upping the work schedule - with all the attendant risks.

Brothels - actual brothels, that is - are often sites of brutal exploitation by their owners, naturally. The blanket ban on any place used by two or more prostitutes, though, is not only - as the cliché goes - cracking a nut with a sledgehammer; it rules out in advance any attempt by prostitutes themselves to collectivise their work, with the possibility of defending each other in a safer environment. At the moment, it is not even legal for two prostitutes to share a flat if both use it to sell sex.

Restrictions on soliciting and kerb-crawling have another major and worrying effect. Street prostitutes do not typically love their jobs; the dull compulsion of the economic, along with a high rate of substance abuse problems, drive men but mostly women into this unsavoury line of work. A police crackdown gets rid of the johns - not the underlying pressures that sustain street-walking. The prostitutes will by and large continue selling sex - only now they have to withdraw into even more obscure locations, where they will be more at risk.

As for the most recent innovation - the ban on paying for sex with “a prostitute subjected to force” - it, too, falls apart on closer analysis. As a strict liability offence - ie, one that you can be guilty of whether or not you know that force has been used - it is difficult to imagine any reliable way to act within the law. It is not the ignorant common-or-garden clients who beat and terrorise street-walkers, but their pimps; what purpose is served by this clause is completely unclear. Its actual effects, meanwhile, are simply to compound the problems above. Other, marginally less disagreeable, measures introduced at the same time - such as the option of a series of meetings with relevant agencies (drug rehabilitation programmes and so on) as an alternative ‘sentence’ for soliciting to a fine - are simply reduced to a dead letter, because most street prostitutes will understandably and predictably continue to avoid the police.

This is true not just of the nonsensical legislation in England, but any policy centred on prohibiting prostitution in some way. Firstly, it is worth underlining that if there is a supply of a commodity and demand for it, no amount of prohibition will stop it trading in some form. All the drug laws in the world have failed miserably to stop the use of ‘controlled substances’; prostitutes and their clients, meanwhile, both faced far harsher penalties in bygone days, yet prostitution never went away. It is, as popular wisdom has it, the oldest profession - and it has at least as much life ahead of it as class society (beyond that, as ever, we should be wary of making predictions).

The most widely touted variant of prohibition in the metropolitan capitalist countries today is the so-called ‘Swedish model’ - in Sweden, the exchange of money for sex is illegal for the buyer, but not the seller. That prostitutes do not have their other problems compounded by a growing rap-sheet is an advantage over Britain - but the displacement of criminal responsibility wholly onto the client actually shifts the balance of power to the client, who will be able to dictate favourable terms.

The supporters of the Swedish model are many, and unfortunately include sections of the left. The Scottish Socialist Party, for example, has long held a prohibitionist stance; in this, it is only following the lead of a particular brand of contemporary liberal feminism, which considers sex work to be ipso facto an act of violent oppression. This is an alarming position for any self-described progressive, given that prostitutes have all but disappeared from the picture, figuring only as helpless victims that must be philanthropically rescued from their degradation. It is especially alarming coming from the far left, because the agent of this grand philanthropic project is to be ... the repressive apparatus of the bourgeois state.

Worst of all, that characterisation of sex workers has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy; the last thing this moralistic attitude needs is any input from the victims it supposedly defends - especially when sex workers’ organisations, such as the English Collective of Prostitutes and the International Union of Sex Workers, tend vehemently to disagree with you.

The flipside to prohibition is ‘legalisation’ - which involves sex work being transformed into an ‘industry of a special type’, subject to a whole special legal apparatus of its own. Prostitutes may be expected to obtain a licence from the state to conduct their work; they may be subjected to mandatory health checks, and the conditions under which they offer their services restricted. It amounts at least to a safer situation in which to conduct sex work; yet it draws a hard dividing line where none should exist between prostitution and other forms of work.

Being physically beaten or raped, or forced into prostititution against your will, is a far more odious experience than the mundane occupational hazards of most other jobs; but there are already laws against rape and assault, and all the other forms of brutalisation associated with street prostitution. From the legal point of view, there should be no difference between being forced to work as a prostitute and being forced to work in any other job. (Indeed, the repulsive conditions, say, of the de facto slave-labourers who build every vulgar hotel in Dubai are not much less unsettling than the worst horror stories from the red light districts.) What legalisation amounts to is yet another exploiter for the prostitute, in the form of the state.

Communists prefer a policy of decriminalisation, with all the usual legal protections extended to prostitutes no longer treated as an underclass of semi-criminal riff-raff (or, for that matter, utterly helpless victims), and the business left to operate under its own initiative to the same degree as any other industry. We are under no illusions - prostitution cannot be swept away, and attempts to do so simply sweeps it under the carpet. As long as it exists, sex workers have every interest in being integrated not just into the working class as a class, but into its organisations and struggles.

Full legal equality will not make this happen overnight - but it will at least be easier to link the spontaneous forms of solidarity that arise among groups of prostitutes to an organised, conscious project for advancing their cause in society. It will allow prostitutes to go to the police when they need to - without being subjected to an intrusive bureaucratic apparatus (or, at least, more intrusive than usual for the police). Prostitutes do not need to be ‘rescued’ by the benevolent state, either through bans or legalisation; they need the forms of class solidarity which allow them to take control of their own lives.