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Prostitution: Should It Be Decriminalised?

21/08/2015 13:44 BST | Updated 21/08/2016 10:59 BST

The decriminalisation of prostitution is a heavily debated topic in the fields of gender and sexuality studies but has recently saturated the mainstream media as a consequence of a new academic report, which argues that "attempts to control the sex trade are ineffective and a waste of money".

The report by the Institute of Economic Affairs entitled 'Supply and Desire' outlines new evidence from national sex surveys which provides some shocking reading for feminists such as myself who oppose the decriminalisation of prostitution.

In the report, heterosexual men are referred to as having a "sexual deficit" - a "surplus sexuality" - that "helps to explain many puzzles, including why men are the principal customers for commercial sexual entertainments of all kinds, are most likely to have extra-marital affairs, sometimes rape unwilling partners or complete strangers, and offer other sexual violence against women". It further argues that the male sexual deficit "helps to explain the everyday sexism of male sexual harassment of women in workplaces and public places".

The explanation of male sexual desire in the report as being double that of female sexual desire symbolises the crux of the argument favouring the decriminalisation of prostitution. It reduces the dark side of prostitution to a basic consumer imperative of supply and demand.

The decriminalisation of prostitution is often favoured through linking it to a decline in rape - something there is no confounding evidence for. The link, in this case, is assumed and not proven. Just because rape statistics have dropped where pornography or prostitution usage have increased, this does not mean to say that there is any correlation between the two.

The report furthers that "areas with lap-dancing venues had sharply declining rates of rape and sexual assault, to levels lower than for comparable areas without such clubs, and even below the national average".

Taking this theory into consideration and applying it to another model of sexuality, however, is deeply disturbing. If we are to use the same model to reduce levels of child abuse - thus exposing paedophiles to images of children - are we to feel comfortable doing this? Are we truly confident that exposure to the sexual objectification of women, men or children will prevent the voyeur from wanting to rape them?

The next and perhaps most common argument in favour of decriminalisation is that the prostitutes themselves can be protected. We must decriminalise in order to protect sex workers - apparently no problems or harm to women will ensue once prostitution is stripped of its criminal label.

Take lap dancing clubs for example. They're completely legal and thus have measures in place to ensure that female strippers are protected, i.e. through the 'no touching' policy. But why, I wonder, is the turnover for 'erotic dancers' so high? Why are so many women entering this industry where they supposedly earn good money and are protected, only to leave it so soon?

Time spent working as lap dancers, for many women, did not result in them feeling liberated or protected. As ex-lap dancer Elena states: "the men just see you as an object, not a person, and whether you are equally engaged in their desire is irrelevant. Increasingly, you learn to despise the men because of the way they perceive you".

So let's suppose, for arguments sake, that the relationship between prostitution and declining levels of rape is true and ignore the absence of a causal link. Let's say that all men really do have sex drives double that of women's and forget all the asexual men and women with high sex drives. How do we explain to a future generation of girls that we live in a society that condones the buying and selling of bodies which, overwhelmingly, are female?

As a feminist who is pro-sex and anti-sexism, I want society to move forward in how it discusses, experiences and engages with sex. I don't want this progression to include Biblically out-dated models such as prostitution, where red light districts are legally introduced and women are strewn in windows selling a sexuality which isn't truly theirs.

And if we're really to believe that women will be protected and that the men who offer an extra £100 not to wear a condom or to perform a sexual act the women isn't fully comfortable with will truly be upheld, what kind of message does this still send out about how we view women - and men - in 21st Century Britain?

We should be focusing on the increasing male suicide rate which is the biggest killer of men under the age of 50 in the UK. It seems that a lot of men are suffering as a consequence of the unemotional and detached labels of masculinity prescribed to them by society. I would argue here that the pressure on men to be sexual machines 24/7 feeds into this outdated model of masculinity.

Further to this, arguments in favour of legalising prostitution as a means of making sex accessible to people with disabilities is both offensive and damaging. Amnesty International has argued in a leaked policy paper that prostitution can help people with disabilities "express their sexuality" and develop a "stronger sense of self".

If we are to congratulate ourselves as a society on legalising prostitution in order to help the disabled then I think we need to take a long hard look at ourselves and realise that our ignorance would merely push the disability movement back fifty years. We still have a long way to go in order to be a truly inclusive society; shamelessly encouraging paid-for sex as a means for disabled people to have sex is degrading, inhumane and offensive.

As for the female students who (apparently) want to sell sex in order to help them pay their tuition fees - why do we want to decriminalise them selling their bodies? Why, instead, aren't we addressing the issue at large and coming up with real solutions to tackle the difficult standards of living many students are enduring? Furthermore, if female students are really resorting to prostitution as a desperate means to an end, what exactly are all those male students doing to get by?

In light of all this, prostitution is technically already legal in the UK. The exchange of sexual services for money is completely legal but engaging in practises such as soliciting in a public place and curb crawling are not. For women who therefore do the job because they simply love sex - an arguably low percentage - they can carry on as they please. For the remaining 95% of street prostitutes who are problematic drug users, perhaps it's time to reform their situation. Our attention should turn to tackling the drug epidemic instead of decriminalising the saddening desperation of their situation.

Legalising or decriminalising prostitution will create a society that upholds the sexual objectification of women as a valid and approved means of generating profit. Has Page 3, lads' mags and lap dancing clubs reformed chauvinist men into pillars of masculinity, who now view women as people instead of objects? I think not.

There's nothing new about new sexism; it's just an old song that has been remixed. There are many feminists, such as myself, working towards a new melody. Prostitution is not in the lyrics.