Ian O'Doherty: Making prostitution legal simply means allowing adults to spend their time and money as they see fit

In the Netherlands, where prostitution is legal and regulated, there are about three-hundred cabins rented by prostitutes in Amsterdam's red-light district Photo: Sergey Borisov

Ian O'Doherty

You can tell a lot about a society not only by what its politicians say, but how everyone else reacts to what was said. If the response to Minister of State for Training and Skills John Halligan's comments about prostitution was anything to go by, then we're stuck closer to the 1950s than we'd like to think.

When Halligan did the now obligatory 'Hot Press' interview he knew what he was doing. That magazine has a history of tripping the unwary politician, but these days it's a popular forum for TDs and Senators who want to get some brownie points with younger voters.

He made the perfectly reasonable point that: "Why would we want to fine somebody or make it a criminal offence for two consenting adults to have sex? Isn't it a natural instinctive reaction to enjoy sex, to enjoy pleasure?"

Then, because he is an Irish politician after all, he muddied the waters by appearing to say that criminalising prostitution was discriminatory against disabled, lonely or ugly people who might use prostitutes as their only recourse.

People have been arguing for the decriminalisation of prostitution for years, both in this country and across the West. Equally, people have argued just as vociferously to maintain a prohibition of the oldest trade, and neither side will change their mind any time soon.

The problem with the debate over legalised prostitution is that it is one of the few remaining areas of public legislation which is based almost entirely on private morality.

As we see with increasing frequency, the moral majority in Ireland is now both religious and secular, and Catholic and feminist groups who would usually make strange bedfellows are united in their opposition. Of course, as far as many people are concerned, if Catholics and feminists are against something, then the sensible option would be to support it.

Anti-prostitution groups such as Ruhama claim that legalising prostitution would lead to more sex trafficking, while Minister of State Finian McGrath says he "believes" that women are exploited. Frankly, what Finian McGrath "believes" is irrelevant - it's what the sex workers believe that counts. Did he contact the Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland to say what they "believe"?

Similarly, it is possible to be for the legalisation of sex work and against the involuntary trafficking of sex workers - which is simply slavery under a different name. In fact, if you want to help eradicate trafficking, then regulating the previously unregulated is an obvious way to go. But in fairness to Halligan, he wasn't talking about the broader, global picture of international sex trafficking.

No, what he was talking about the concept that whatever consenting adults choose to do with or to each other is nobody's business but their own.

In fact, the only time the State and private, consenting adults should collide on matters sexual should be if there are taxation issues involved. In other words, register the sex workers and tax them. After all, one of the most consistent refrains we hear from those who are pro-legalisation is that it should be treated as a job in the service industry like any other.

There are two great myths when it comes to sex work - one is of the happy hooker, the 'Belle du Jour'-style courtesan who is in control of her own destiny. The other is of a down-trodden, terrified victim.

The reality, for anyone who has ever bothered to listen to prostitutes rather than merely lecture them on their moral failings, is that they are like everyone else - they want to be left alone to conduct their business in safety but that safety can never be guaranteed when the participants are automatically criminalised.

But even taking into account the rights or wrongs of the arguments in favour of legalisation, there is one major point which nobody wants to accept - it's simply nobody else's business.

We have a long and thoroughly ignoble history of interfering in private matters in this country, and the prostitution debate is a classic example.

Even if you removed all the reasons for objection; even if you stopped all trafficking and ensured that all sex workers loved their job and were friends with the clients, the likes of Ruhama would never support it because of their moral judgment.

Just because you wouldn't like your daughter going on the game is not a sufficient or valid reason to make something illegal.

Interestingly, for a country obsessed with both gender quotas and gay rights, we've heard precious little from Ruhama or other prohibitionists about their views on gay sex workers.

The reason why gay sex workers aren't ever really discussed in these conversations is because it doesn't fit in with subconscious bias of the prohibitionists. In their eye, every woman who becomes a sex worker is a victim who must be protected from their own bad choices.

The man-as-a-victim narrative is a harder one to sell, so it tends to be ignored but it's every bit as pertinent as straight sex for pay.

In the meantime, men will continue to be arrested and face ruin, sex workers face constant dangers as they're forced to stay in the shadows.

But the gangsters, the pimps, the traffickers?

Well, they're very happy with situation just the way it is, thank you very much. Legalising prostitution doesn't make it compulsory. It simply means that we allow grown adults to spend their time and money as they see fit.