27/04/2012 05:17 BST | Updated 25/06/2012 06:12 BST

This House Would Decriminalise Prostitution

Talia Robertson, a first year student studying Politics, Psychology and Sociology argues in proposition.

Anti-prostitution arguments are often couched in language implying concern for the prostitutes themselves, citing issues of exploitation, sexism, and coercion. However, these are false concerns which thinly veil the real motivation of such arguments: a simple social taboo against sexuality in general, and against sex work in particular.

One concern raised about decriminalisation is the potential for human trafficking and child prostitution to occur in the sex industry. However, decriminalising prostitution between consenting adults in no way encourages this. In the case of human trafficking, the sex worker is not consenting; in the case of child prostitution, they are not an adult. Both would, therefore, remain illegal. In fact, legalising prostitution allows the sex industry to be more carefully regulated to prevent the abuse of sex workers. Criminalising it, on the other hand, drives the industry further underground, making it easier for trafficking and child prostitution to continue unhindered.

Another concern raised is that prostitution involves the exploitation of vulnerable people, particularly women. It is true that sex work is often a last resort for people - especially women - who struggle with issues such as poverty, homelessness, unemployment, addiction, or discrimination. However, criminalising prostitution in no way alleviates the difficulties that they face, nor does it target the root causes of those difficulties. In fact, making prostitution illegal makes it even more difficult for vulnerable individuals to improve their circumstances. A criminal record doesn't help someone's substance abuse problem; it doesn't help a person find a job, or a home. If one genuinely cares about vulnerable people resorting to sex work out of desperation, then criminalising prostitution is an entirely ineffective way of helping the people concerned. A better course of action would be to campaign for policies that attempt to reduce the problems of poverty, discrimination, and unemployment - not ones that punish their victims.

As for people who are not affected by these vulnerabilities, and are nonetheless content to choose prostitution as a job, their sex work is merely a private agreement between consenting adults; why criminalise that? Many people may think sex work is demeaning, but an actual sex worker may disagree. People may also consider prostitution immoral; however, many people also believe that gay sex or sex outside marriage is immoral. Yet these were decriminalised when it was decided that the private sex lives of consenting adults need not be restricted by the law.

Ultimately, any claim that anti-prostitution laws exist to protect vulnerable people is exposed as false by the fact that such laws target the sex worker - the one who is supposedly vulnerable and in need of protection. Giving someone a criminal record does not protect them, nor does it help them out of harmful circumstances. Meanwhile, prostitutes who do not choose their career out of desperation are criminalised simply because other people believe that the consensual sex they are having is immoral. It is clear that such laws are therefore intended, not to protect anyone's rights, but to maintain an archaic sexual taboo.

Simon Johnson, a second year historian, argues in opposition.

''The law, sir, is an ass".'Someone who advocates the criminalisation of prostitution has to come to terms very quickly with the fact that changing the law will not stop prostitution. It is inevitable that it will be widely ignored and will not actually stop prostitutes from plying their trade. There is a widespread consensus amongst academic studies of prostitution that the biggest single factor affecting the rate of prostitution is the economy, and that changing the law has very little impact. Prostitutes just aren't deterred by the law. So, at the outset, we have to be prepared for the fact that our law will probably not decrease the amount of prostitution.

We also have to be prepared to encounter examples such as the Netherlands, where prostitution is not only legal, but regulated. It will be quickly pointed out that prostitutes here benefit from free contraception, free health checks, and a degree of police protection. In short, the life of a prostitute in somewhere like the Netherlands is safer and more humane than in other countries. So why not just legalize it, accept the inevitable, and move one?

Why not indeed? The interesting thing is the attitudes of men towards prostitution: in a 2008 Mori poll, 60% of people said that they would feel ashamed of telling their family or friends that they were using a prostitute, and opinion polls consistently show that a majority of people deplore the idea of prostitution. There is an important point here: prostitution remains very far from being an acceptable 'choice'. For a consistent majority of the population, prostitution is an unacceptable problem and a social problem to be addressed. And yet men still continue to visit them.

In cases like this, the law can provide clarity by acting as a demarcation line; it allows society to delimitate what it considers regrettable. Criminalising prostitution would put it firmly in its place. It would show that society, as a whole, wishes prostitution didn't exist. What is more, it can do this without harming women any further.

Prostitution should be criminalised by making the procuring of, but not the supply of, sex illegal. We would penalise those who seek out the service, not those who provide it. We would look to the cause of the problem; not its victims.

If we make prostitution illegal, we recast the terms of the debate. Instead of focusing on the why women go into prostitution, we force attention onto the demand for prostitutes. We force the men to consider their agency in driving the trade, and to make them assess the harms that the cause by doing so. We still have to accept that our legislation will not stop men visiting prostitutes, and nor should we let it distract us from helping the women involved. But it would send a clear message: that the men who seek out prostitutes are the cause of the problem. They are the people who should the law should condemn.