Mr Corbyn is not afraid to buck the political trend by expressing unfashionable views, but his comment at Goldsmith University that it would be civilised to decriminalise prostitution has outraged prominent members of his party. Prostitution is "exploitation and abuse" and not "work/industry" tweeted (yes, it would be tweeted, wouldn't it?) the normally sane Harriet Harman, before calling for men who use prostitutes to be prosecuted. Someone called Jess Phillips, who is an MP or councillor somewhere, described it as "known violence against women". The word "disgusting" echoes around the twittersphere. Amnesty International say... oh, actually they turn out to be on Mr Corbyn's side. Perhaps then we should repress our prejudices, leave the neo-Victorians to theirs and try to look at the position rationally.
Prostitution is illegal in Northern Ireland but not in the rest of the UK, although there is a battery of offences associated with it, generally known to the public by rather picturesque names. For example "curb crawling" is trying to solicit a prostitute from a motor car contrary to section 51A of the Sexual Offences Act. "Pimping" is causing or inciting prostitution for gain, an offence under section 52. "Keeping a disorderly house" is running a brothel, also an offence. Behind the names there lurks a common purpose; to make it difficult for prostitution to operate without a criminal offence being committed.
If going to all this trouble to make something difficult without banning it seems rather an ambiguous approach, that is because prostitution by its nature has a slightly ambiguous status. Ms Harman is clearly wrong when she says that it is not "work," but then it is not a very respectable form of work.
"Well dear, you are very pretty, have you considered a career in prostitution?" would be considered an unusual piece of career guidance even for the less academic student. Job centres do not recommend it. There is a general consensus that no one should be forced into it or be allowed to carry it on as a minor. It is important that its practitioners should be able to escape from it. Still, it is carried on and, because much of it is carried on illegally, it is hidden away and, as is so often the case with hidden places, provides a fertile environment in which crime, cruelty, drugs and oppression can fester. Mr Corbyn presumably believes that making it legal would help with this. He is probably right.
To test that, we are going to have to do a terrible thing. It will require us to override our prejudices. It will require us to stop canting about morality. It may even require us to stop mouthing off about "dignity" and "respect". What we're going to have to do is to look at the evidence and when we do so we will have a nasty shock. We will not be the first people to do it and we may find that the conclusions that others have reached do not fit with our preconceptions.
There are lots of countries where prostitution is legal and no doubt where research has been done into the consequences of that. Still, it seems sensible to focus on a country whose systems of morality and law is similar to our own, so a good place to look for guidance is the "Report of the Prostitution Law Review Committee on the Operation of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003", which was published by the New Zealand government in May 2008.
Before the Act was passed, the position in New Zealand was not unlike that in the UK. Prostitution was not actually illegal but there were loads of offences relating to it, including bans on running brothels and soliciting. In 2003 the Prostitution Reform Act abolished these offences but also regulated the industry, seeking to create a framework to "safeguard the human rights of sex workers and protect them from exploitation; promote the welfare and occupational health and safety of sex workers; contribute to public health; and prohibit the use in prostitution of persons under 18". It also put in place a certification regime for brothels.
The Act contained provisions under which its workings were to be reviewed after five years, and the Committee was formed to carry out that review. Its membership was very broad. It included a nun, a doctor, sex workers, a city councillor, an academic, a retired police officer, a public health official, social workers, a criminologist and others. How was such a disparate group to work together? Well, by ignoring moral and political issues, accepting the health and human rights approach taken by the legislation and looking at the matter in terms of evidence-based research. Not a bad plan when you think about it.
The report which they produced comes to some interesting conclusions. For example, on the basis of the available evidence, the legalisation seems to have made little difference to the number of sex workers. However, over 90% of street-based workers, private indoor workers and workers in brothels appreciated that it gave them legal rights such as the right to refuse particular customers and sexual practices.
The conclusion of the report is that people working in the sex industry have benefited from the change in the law, but of course not everything in the garden is rosy and some bits of the legislation work better than others. There are also differences between the UK and New Zealand and not everything that works there will necessarily work here. Nonetheless it is hard to escape the conclusion that moving prostitution from an underground activity to one which is open, visible and regulated has a lot to be said for it. That great American judge Louis Brandeis referred to daylight as being the best disinfectant. The whole area of prostitution with its taints of illegality and crime has become a dark area in which many unpleasant and unseen things can occur. One advantage of decriminalising and regulating would be to bring it into the light.
There is another side to this too. The New Zealand report focuses primarily on those working in the industry, although it comments on the nature of the clientele as well. If you move the focus to the latter, one point strikes you immediately. Among the population there are men who, whether because of an inability to interact socially or for some other reason, get less sex than they actually need. In some cases that can be dealt with by abstinence or by masturbation but in other cases the pressures make them dangerous. Prostitution is a valve through which the pressure can be released and therefore has a function in relation to public safety.
It is not the purpose of this article to argue that we in the UK should necessarily follow the example set by New Zealand and indeed a number of EU countries, but to make a lesser point. Clearly this is something which the politicians should be considering seriously and it is to the credit of Mr Corbyn that he expressed his views honestly and without bowing to the current political orthodoxy. A politician as experienced as Harriet Harman should be aware that this is not a subject which should be dismissed in a facile tweet. She is not a fool. One would have expected better.
This article first appeared in the Shaw Sheet at www.shawsheet.com