Page last updated at 21:00 GMT, Thursday, 17 July 2003 22:00 UK

Making sex pay

By Clare Murphy
BBC News Online

The prostitutes on Brussels' Rue de Matheus operate day and night.

They and other sex workers in the red light districts of Belgium's larger cities languish in legal uncertainty and amid varying degrees of toleration.

A client hands cash to a prostitute
Some countries are gradually getting their hands on prostitutes' cash
Belgian legislators are hoping to bring that to a close with a parliamentary bill that would draw prostitutes into the legal fold and bring the industry under state control, providing sex workers with labour rights and greater health protection.

But for a fee.

The sex workers themselves would be expected to pay up when the tax man calls - boosting state coffers to the tune of an estimated 50 million euros a year.

It represents an attractive option for a country currently struggling to balance its budget deficit - a means of generating money while affording prostitutes better protection.

The fact is, sex is a good source of revenue, as the underworld has long known. The industry is incredibly lucrative, given the consistent nature of demand for the services of the world's oldest profession.

At the moment it looks like all the government cares about is getting their hands on sex workers' money
Marion Detlefs
Hydra, Berlin
In Thailand, for example - where both sex workers and some policy advisers have been pushing for legalisation and taxation - the sex industry is thought to account for at least several percent of the nation's GDP.

In Britain, it is estimated that some 770m ($1.2bn) is spent on prostitution every year, more than on cinemas or many other forms of entertainment.

Those who can tap it, do. The US state of Nevada, where prostitution is legal, hopes to pick up millions of dollars over the next two years from houses of prostitution.

But for most it remains untouchable capital, beyond the reach of politicians needing cash injections for ailing health services, welfare systems and other popular expenditures.

Legalisation is often the only way to tap into this source of wealth while offering prostitutes better working conditions, a route both Germany and the Netherlands have embarked on in recent years.

Prostitutes in Germany, believed to number around 400,000, have for the past year been able to take part in a scheme that offers social benefits like pensions, health insurance and a 40-hour week in sanitary conditions, in exchange for a slice of their earnings.

It's a slow process, but I do think it's moving, and that the situation for prostitutes is improving
Marieke van Doorninck
Institute for Prostitution Issues
For their part, Dutch prostitutes have been asked to pay 19% VAT for similar rights since brothels were legalised nearly three years ago.

Advocates of this kind of legislation believe it is the only way to make sure sex workers enjoy adequate health and employment protection.

Opponents say it simply consolidates them in a position from which governments should be battling to remove them.

Teething problems

Finance ministries in both Germany and the Netherlands say it is impossible to calculate just how many prostitutes have registered to pay tax as forms do not ask them to name their profession.

But anecdotal evidence from prostitutes' organisations suggests that many have, where possible, at least tried to take up the offer.

"It has, however, been very difficult," says Marion Detlefs of the Hydra prostitute advice centre in Berlin. "When it was set up there was much talk of securing proper contracts, proper health insurance but a lot of this hasn't materialised because of big holes in the legislation.

"At the moment it looks like all the government cares about is getting their hands on sex workers' money - women who are already hard-up are giving their earnings away and getting very little return."

Despite the problems of these fledgling laws, European groups lobbying for better conditions for prostitutes believe they are at least a step in the right direction.

"But it has to be a matter of mutual benefit," says Marieke van Doorninck of the Institute for Prostitution Issues. "Governments have to offer real labour rights and protection in exchange."

"It's a slow process, but I do think it's moving, and that the situation for prostitutes is improving. People's attitudes are also starting to soften."

Ms van Doorninck says that while money provides one impetus for governments to legalise prostitution, the other issue is bringing the industry under state control to regulate its expansion.

In the Netherlands, legalisation has not led to the expansion of the industry, as predicted by some, but in fact to the closure of a number of brothels which are unable to comply with the restrictions and the bureaucracy involved with gaining legal status.

But under the Dutch law, only Dutch citizens and those from the European Union are allowed to work as prostitutes in brothels, which many believe will have pushed illegal migrant sex workers onto the streets.

While their earnings may be safe from the tax man, neither they nor their cash enjoy much protection from underworld bosses.

Should prostitution be legalised and governments use its revenue? Or should more be done to stamp the profession out?

Your reaction

Three words described legalized prostitution --"Opening Pandora's Box". I've got children who could eventually work in brothels and the streets if they cannot meet their financial needs in the future. Nothing can compare to the evil legalised prostitution will bring to your country and to the world at large. God Bless!)
Jozcat, Phils.

It is estimated that two thirds of those working in the brothels in the Netherlands are from outside the EU
Anna, UK
We are speaking as those from developed countries where the choice of whether to work in the prostitution trade is often a lot easier. Would any mother or father really want their daughter to work in the trade? What about those forced into the trade and trafficked from the developing world? Women from countries in the EU do not want to work as prostitutes so the women have to be imported from countries where the economic situation is so bad the women have no choice. It is estimated that two thirds of those working in the brothels in the Netherlands are from outside the EU. Once again an example of a developed country exploiting the poverty and desperation of those in the developing world. But hey - Belgium will get richer out of the taxes so let's concentrate on that!
Anna, UK

Having heard too many horror stories about the conditions of prostitute's lives, I can't help feeling that legalization and a strong support structure is vital - but perhaps in combination with a clampdown on illegal prostitution (ie pimps and clients, not persecution of prostitutes). Currently the half-tolerated but illegal position of prostitution benefits nobody except unscrupulous criminals.
Paul, Czech Rep

Prostitution is a fact of life and is a service which if regulated would hurt nobody. At the moment, a blind eye is turned on massage parlours and conditions are poor. Admission of prostitution and incorporation of it into the service sector could improve conditions and free resources to move prostitutes from the streets which is a cause of concern for local communities and in view of the safety aspects of the girls.
Phillip, UK

I went to Amsterdam recently on holiday with friends. To my surprise, the Red Light District is so damn well organised. More importantly, people are friendly (as you'd expect) and they all get on. The place is clean, people dont fight, and the girls are making more money than most people. Fact is, if people are willing to work as Prostitutes, let them but tax them and make it legal in certain places. Keep the area under constant monitoring and let the government make more money!!!!
Fais, England

Like drugs, gambling and pot noodle, prostitution is something that appeals to human instincts
Gavin, Wales
Like drugs, gambling and pot noodle, prostitution is something that appeals to human instincts. It'll happen regardless of whether it is legal or not. Legalising it should make it safer for all parties and take some of the seediness out of it.
Gavin, Wales

Thou Shalt NOT commit Adultery.
Its SIN to commit Adultery.
God will punish those who commit Adultery and those who legalised Adultery.
Gurkha Rai, Sydney, Australia

Agriculture is the oldest profession, not prostitution!
Alec Weir, UK

Surely the safety of the girls should be the prevailing factor rather than the cash that could be generated. It is shocking that prostitutes are treated as 2nd class citizens because it upsets the principles of a few middle class bores. Prostitution is not an occupation which is chosen but is thrust upon someone who is vulnerable and has nowhere else to turn. These people need protection from the dangers they are exposed to from their clients and their 'pimps'. Legalisation can only be a good thing to help get these girls off the streets.
Chris, UK

As long as the woman [or man] voluntarily sells her or himself, then i don't see why it should prohibited. What one wants to do with one's own body is not the business of anyone else. However, if it becomes legally permissible, i definitely think that it should be taxed just like any other industry. The same applies to substances such as marijuana - let people decide to abuse their own bodies as they see fit.
Hannah, USA

Yes! Legalise it and collect the revenue. Like the drug issue it will not go away no matter how stigmatised, criminalised or politicised it becomes. Tax an inevitable source of revenue and make conditions safer for all involved.
Nik, England

They should impose huge fines on prostitutes to stop the crime paying
Giles Johnson, UK
Prostitution is a sickness of society, opposes family values, increases abortion and is often the desperate act of drug addicts to obtain cash. It should never be legalised. If the government wants to tap money from this market then they should impose huge fines on prostitutes, to stop the crime paying.
Giles Johnson, UK

Whatever our opinions of the profession, it will not go away. America tried to do away with alcohol during the prohibition period and it proved to be impossible. So if it can't be stopped governments might as well make the best of it.
John R, UK

Making prostitution legal would benefit the whole community. You will no longer have red light districts on housing estates as areas could be designated by the police. This should help many areas which are affected by the constant cat and mouse game between the police and prostitutes. The health benefits would lead to a decline in the rate of sexual disease, as by having regular testing the disease should be treated much earlier. The prostitutes themselves would be able to work in a much safer environment leading to less assault and a lower crime rate against them.
Guy Willoughby, UK

'We must take advantage of it and cash in'
James, Canada
Stamping our prostitution is like stamping out sex... will never happen. So governments who realise this say to themselves "If we can't eliminate it, then we must take advantage of it and cash in." Money is not the root of all evil... weak men are.
James, Canada

I am originally from New Zealand and prostitution has finally been decriminalised there recently. Prior to this there was quite a percentage of prostitutes paying tax on their earnings anyway and the government seemed to have no qualms using the revenue. Prostitution should be decriminalised.
Elle, UK

All this amounts to is the governments acting as pimps and providing protection for their 'staff' in return for a slice of their wages.
Simon, Edinburgh, UK

One of the greatest scandals of our age is trafficking women to be abused as sex objects
Anthony, Germany (UK)
Yes it should be legalised, but not with the aim of simply collecting more tax revenue. One of the greatest scandals of our age is the trafficking of women to be abused as sex objects. Anything that can make it tougher for criminals to enforce their brutal exploitation of these helpless victims has to be welcomed.
Anthony, Germany (UK)

Well, several hundred years of trying to extinguish prostitution didn't help. I'm strongly in favour of legalisation as it would help in health and social issues. The additional benefit is that legal brothels would help in preventing trafficking as someone with a legal business would be less willing take a risk with illegal activities.
Vladan Konstantinovic, Serbia & Montenegro

Until three years ago prostitution was illegal, but accepted. The police could keep an eye on the situation (investigate criminals that forced young Eastern European girls into prostitution) and local government could develop a policy concerning prostitution (locate it in certain parts of town etc). Now it is legal, the position of legal prostitutes has improved a little. But the illegal prostitutes are much worse off. They are not visible anymore and more easily the victim of criminal groups that are active in prostitution. The aim of the legalisation was to protect prostitutes. In my opinion it has failed.
Nanne de Jong, Netherlands

Yes it should be legalised. The government could make a huge amount of money from the industry and it would provide safer surroundings for those who work in the industry.

It will always exist in every society. Therefore, the mature and responsible course of action is to bring it within the government sphere of influence. This will make it safer for both parties involved and allow the government to take a piece of the pie. The taxes could be used for schools and the NHS.
Nick, UK

Prostitution 'is 700m industry'
11 Apr 01 |  UK News
Dutch OK sex for sale
30 Sep 00 |  Europe

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