Why there are no easy answers in the prostitution debate
Published 31/08/2015 | 02:30
A little while ago, a man in his 70s - who had lost his wife two years previously - asked me if I would advise him to go to a prostitute. He hadn't had much luck in "dating", but he missed having a regular sex life with his late wife.
My answer was morally neutral (and possibly cowardly). I couldn't make that choice for him, I said. All I could do was to draw on my experience of having interviewed a number of prostitutes in the course of journalistic duty.
The successful ones were hard as nails and despised men for their neediness, the less than successful ones were "poor cows" (in author Nell Dunn's phrase, exploring the theme of women as victims). Perhaps he should try a little harder with his dating endeavours? Charm can go a long way in winning hearts and bodies.
We are no longer expected to call women who sell sex "prostitutes": we are supposed to call them "sex workers", in a bid to normalise the supply of sex, just like any other service or commodity. I have no objection to calling people whatever they wish to be called, and, as a matter of a fact, Christian teaching stresses that we should be respectful of all persons, without judging them: if a woman in this position wishes to be called a "sex worker", then that is how she should be addressed. But it is sometimes a bad sign, as George Orwell pointed out, when new euphemisms have to be introduced to describe old facts.
Prostitution (or "sex work") is as old as the hills, and, like my reply to the widower, there is no wholly satisfactory social or political answer to dealing with it. Legalising it - as Amnesty International wants Ireland (and everywhere else) to do - can address some problems, such as providing health checks (popular with all), and as in Germany, ensuring sex workers pay tax (unpopular with the practitioners).
But where there are legalised prostitutes, there is usually a "black market" on the side: younger girls who will do tricks for less money (the free-market principle of supply and demand) and less safely.
The Economist recently described Germany as "a giant brothel" in its legalised prostitution business: what's the betting that among the 800,000 migrants and refugees now seeking a life in Germany, there will be many young and vulnerable girls lured into sex work, and outside of the official trade? Yet banning prostitution seldom works very effectively either, and I don't repose much confidence in Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald's plans to criminalise men who purchase the services of prostitutes, following the Swedish model.
Sweden is a society which accepts a huge amount of state control over private life - every lone mother, for example, is, by law, bound to name the father of her child, and if she refuses to do so, the child will be subjected to a DNA test. Too much state intrusion usually leads to a problem moving elsewhere, and the Swedish anti-prostitution laws have led to more sex trade on the streets of neighbouring Norway and Denmark.
Sex Workers Alliance Ireland is emphatically against Minister Fitzgerald's project, arguing that it will make prostitutes less safe (and make lonely men like the elderly widower who asked me that question potential criminals).
Human beings are problem-solving animals, and so, we like to think there is a neat solution to every problem. If we pass a new law, or put a new clause into the Constitution - why, everything will be sorted. We don't like to contemplate the fact that there are some problems to which there are no satisfactory solution.
Sometimes, too, when you solve one problem, you create another. You may reduce cigarette smoking by imposing bans and increasing the price, but the black market in illegal cigarettes is enormous. It's been wisely said that the most consistent of all laws is the law of unintended consequences. Some issues can be ameliorated and conditions improved, but it's folly to imagine that "the oldest profession" can either be regulated or magicked away by the stroke of a legislator's pen. Sometimes, you just have to muddle through as best you can: minimise damage where possible; deter criminal exploitation and discourage vice; try to bring a level of kindness and compassion to the maintenance of certain standards.
To criminalise prostitution is to drive it underground; to legalise it is to pretend that "sex work" is an ordinary, normal trade to which young women may happily aspire. But ask 100 parents which one of them would want their daughter to be a hooker (the usual American word for the trade); it would be the rare parent who replied, "Oh yes, I think that's a fine career path."
An election may intervene before a bill to criminalise sex work is passed through the Oireachtas, which would surely be for the best, and might allow a little more reflection on the theme that not all human behaviour problems are amenable to perfectly constructed political solutions.