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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”


Sex for Sale, Legally
The Economist Global Agenda (11.07.03)

[*Mod note - although this report is from last month, it was forwarded to
the forum recently and we thought some members may find it interesting. ]

Though some governments are still trying to crack down on prostitution,
others are realising that it is better to legalise and license it than to
suffer the ill effects of driving it underground. New Zealand has just
done so; Belgium looks set to be next.

The selling of sex has been widely practised, and roundly condemned,
throughout history. The Bible constantly rails against whores and
whoremongers, from Genesis through to Revelation, and the book of
Leviticus gives the stern injunction: "Do not prostitute thy daughter, to
cause her to be a whore; lest the land fall to whoredom, and the land
become full of wickedness." But these days, many in the world's more
liberal countries doubt if the exchange of sex for money between
consenting adults really does threaten the fabric of society, and ask if
the state really has any right to stop them doing so. Even some who still
disapprove of prostitution wonder, given the authorities' constant failure
to curb it, whether it might be less bad to legalise and license the
profession. This would help to get it off the streets, take it out of the
hands of organised crime, control the spread of disease and curb sex
slavery and underage prostitution.


Such reasons were given by parliamentarians from Belgium's new
Socialist-Liberal coalition when, on Thursday July 10th, they promised a
bill to legalise brothels. At the moment, self-employed prostitutes are
legal in Belgium but brothels are not. By proposing to legalise and
regulate them, the country is following its neighbour, the Netherlands,
which did so three years ago. Since Dutch brothel girls are now legitimate
workers, they have had to start paying income tax, boosting the
government's coffers. Patsy Sorensen, a Belgian member of the European
Parliament, who founded a shelter for prostitutes, reckons her
country's legalisation of brothels could raise more than euro 50m ($57m) a
year in revenues. The wages of sin is tax, not death, it seems.

Romania's parliament is already debating similar legislation, while New
Zealand passed a law to legalise brothels last month. After years of
heated debate, its parliament approved the measure by just one vote. As a
result, the illicit "massage parlours" that are said to employ around
7,000 prostitutes will now become legal businesses but, as in other
liberalising countries, will have to obey strict health, safety and
employment-rights regulations. In neighbouring Australia, the situation is
more confused: Sydney has legalised brothels and Tasmania is planning to
follow suit; but this month the state government of Western Australia
abandoned its plans for liberalisation after concluding they would not
pass in the state assembly.

Worried about the rising numbers of foreign prostitutes on the streets,
Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, last year raised the
possibility of bringing back licensed brothels, which were common in Italy
until they were banned in 1958. Some of the country's recent efforts to
repress street prostitution have had absurd consequences: when Milan
banned "kerb-crawling" (ie, motorists stopping to pick up prostitutes) in
1998, the prostitutes responded by putting on running shoes and jogging
alongside prospective punters' cars, negotiating their prices. Britain
recently brought in tougher laws against street prostitution but many
cities and their local police forces have bowed to the inevitable and
introduced zones of tolerance, where the authorities turn a blind eye to
soliciting. The London-based International Union of Sex Workers, which
recently affiliated to the GMB, one of Britain's largest trade unions, is
campaigning for changes in the law, arguing that the prohibition of
soliciting increases the risk of violence, forcing prostitutes to rely on
pimps for protection.


Though the case for liberalisation seems to be making headway in most
liberal democracies, there are still many who oppose, on moral grounds,
anything that smacks of official sanctioning of sex for money. Of course,
the Catholic church immediately condemned Mr Berlusconi's talk of
liberalisation. And one of the New Zealand parliamentarians who voted
against legalisation last month, Nick Smith of the conservative National
Party, said: "Sex should not be for sale. Prostitution is nothing more
than paid rape."

Church leaders and other opponents of legalisation point to Sweden -
which, despite its reputation for being sexually liberated, tightened its
laws against prostitution in 1999, to make it illegal to try to buy sex
(though not to sell it). Men caught soliciting prostitutes now face up to
six months' jail. The Swedish government claims its measure has been a
success and is urging other countries to follow suit. The Russian
parliament is expected soon to debate a proposal to do just that.

Whatever the Swedish government claims, social workers who deal with
prostitutes say the law has simply driven the sex trade underground,
thereby making it harder to clamp down on trafficking in foreign women,
one of the law's main aims. A survey, after the law changed, by the
National Board of Health and Welfare, seemed to contradict the
government's claims of success: most police districts surveyed found
either that levels of street prostitution had not changed, or had only
fallen temporarily. Nevertheless, the government continues its crusade:
earlier this month it wrote to the Greek authorities expressing outrage at
their plans to increase the number of licensed brothels in Athens while
the city is hosting next year's Olympics.

Sex has always been a big business, but usually a shady one, dominated by
criminal gangs. But in a few liberated places, such as the American state
of Nevada, professionally run brothels have made great strides in ensuring
their working girls are safe from violence and disease. British television
viewers have recently been seeing this for themselves in "Love for Sale",
a BBC documentary series about two Nevadan brothels whose owner is seeking
to bring his trade into the mainstream consumer market. In May, Daily
Planet, a bordello in the Australian city of Melbourne, was floated on the
stockmarket. "Everyone knows sex is a smart investment," said Heidi
Fleiss, a legendary Hollywood madam, who was brought over to publicise the
launch. The firm now plans a sexual leisure park in Sydney and branches in
America, Brazil and Colombia.

Few cities have gone quite so far as Cape Town in South Africa, which
decided in 1999 to publicise its brothels as a tourist attraction. But
many parts of the world are taking a more relaxed attitude and either
liberalising for the first time or returning to the tradition of allowing
a limited number of what the French call maisons closes: officially
sanctioned but discreet brothels. Increasingly, governments are realising
that paid sex is impossible to eradicate, and that it is better to
concentrate on keeping the business clean, safe and inconspicuous.