To legalise or to ban? Prostitution is not going away
Different European societies have taken different approaches to the issue of prostitution. There are two polar positions: in Sweden, the selling of sex has been prohibited and men found to be buying sex from women are charged with breaking the law.
In Germany, the selling of sex has been legalised and regulated, so anyone (generally men buying the services of women, but sometimes men buying the services of other men, or transvestites) who wishes to make that choice can do so licitly.
The 'Economist' magazine, which is usually libertarian, recently commented that this had turned Germany into one giant brothel. It is revealing that most prostitutes – 63% – in Germany are foreign-born, and many have been shipped in from Eastern Europe.
And yet I am not convinced that the Swedish answer – which has been copied, to some degree, by Norway and Finland – is a perfect solution. Any practice for which there is both a demand and a supply will, sooner or later, find an outlet. The prohibition on buying sex hasn't stopped it occurring.
I used to be forbidden to read in bed after 8pm as a child and all lights were switched off. So I acquired a torch and learned to read secretly, under the covers. Where there's a will, there's a way.
I am not saying anything that human beings desire should be permitted: there has to be an underpinning of moral framework to our laws and practices. After all, there is a market for the trafficking of young and vulnerable persons – mostly young girls from poorer countries – but that doesn't make it right or acceptable, even if, in some cases, the young girls themselves claim that this is their choice.
The trafficking of young people – and the degrading principle of putting women's bodies up for sale – form the strongest objections to prostitution. A distinguished collection of mainly female academics, led by Ronit Lentin of Trinity College Dublin, have recently called on the Oireachtas to make visible progress on enacting laws penalising the purchasing of sexual services (as recommended a year ago by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality.) Concerned women have always tried to halt prostitution – some from feminist principles, some from religious conviction (historically, the two often combined, as feminism itself arose out of evangelical Christianity).
These concerns are compassionate: young and vulnerable females are often lured into prostitution – as "easy money" at first and then, progressively, to support a drug habit. The pimps who organise prostitutes – or sex workers, if you prefer – quite often deliberately ensnare the young women into the drug habit, so as to make them more dependent. And I imagine that a drug which deadens sensitivities and feelings might be helpful if you are obliged to "service" 20 or 30 "clients" a day as a prostitute.
And yet, I find I am neither firmly in favour of prohibiting prostitution, nor am I swayed by arguments to legalise it. Where there is legal prostitution – complete with tax-paying sex-workers – unregulated "freelance" sex services often spring up in its shadows. The client may pay the legal prostitute the advertised price: but a younger and poorer girl will do the job for less, for cash, without any official sanction, and, if the client desires, without a condom, thus exposing her to sexually transmitted infections.
Yet I am not sure if outright prohibition is workable, or even humane.
There is also the argument advanced by some women in the sex trade that they choose this lifestyle quite freely.
Some prostitutes have been known – even in the Bible, and most notably in the New Testament – to be good at heart.
In France, after the First World War, there was a group of soldiers known as "les casses-gueules" – "the broken-faced ones". These men had suffered such appalling facial injuries that they hid behind bandages. There were special prostitutes who provided sexual services to these veterans, because it was accepted they were so deformed they would never be able to marry or find a normal girlfriend. My brother saw these "broken-faced ones" as old men in the 1940s and 50s and they were grateful to the prostitutes who looked after them.
In French Indo-China, too, the Vietnamese prostitutes nursed French wounded soldiers, apparently with kindness. After the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the Communists killed all these women for tending to "colonial" squaddies. So there have been times when women who sell their bodies for sex have shown altruism. Compassion towards prostitutes is also a Christian tradition – manifest by Frank Duff, the Dublin founder of the Legion of Mary, who set up special hostels for their care in the 1920s.
There are some social problems for which there is no perfect solution and sometimes we have to just muddle through. Of course trafficking should be prohibited and prosecuted. And nobody should be coerced into prostitution.
Neither should it be advanced as a perfectly ordinary and acceptable way to earn a living. Calling it "sex work" may change the language, but it doesn't change the facts. Does any parent ever say – "Oh yes, I hope my daughter grows up to be a prostitute?"
Contain and discourage prostitution where possible. Help those who have plied the trade to find alternatives.
But don't be surprised if "the oldest profession" still carries on, despite all the best endeavours.