Page last updated at 01:58 GMT, Sunday, 24 February 2008

Can you outlaw the oldest profession?

By Dan Bell
BBC News

Prostitute (File photo posed by model)
Sweden criminalised paying for sex in 1999
Steve Wright's conviction for the Suffolk murders comes in the midst of a major government review into how it deals with prostitution.

In December, Women's Minister Harriet Harman said paying for sex should be made illegal.

The argument is that if you stamp out demand, then you will stamp out the trade. But is it possible to legislate the oldest profession out of existence?

One country that has tried is Sweden.

In 1999 Sweden outlawed paying for sex. Anyone who is caught is liable for a fine or a six-month prison sentence.

The Swedish government says there has been a decrease in street prostitution, kerb crawling and the number of women entering the trade.

'Strong message'

Karin Karlsbro, of Sweden's Ministry of Integration and Gender Equality, said: "If you have no-one who wants to buy something, there will be no market for it."

But she also admits there are no official statistics on the number of sex workers in Sweden.

What is clear is that the country is sending out a strong message about the type of society it aspires to be.

Ms Karlsbro said: "The law marks Sweden's attitude towards prostitution. Prostitution is a form of exploitation of human beings."

But Pye Jakobson, a former sex worker and founding member of Sex Workers and Allies in Sweden, is adamantly against the law.

[The government] created a criminal law to solve a social problem, to send a moral message that Sweden does not tolerate prostitution.
Pye Jakobson
Former sex worker

She says the criminalisation of clients has actually made sex workers' lives more dangerous.

She says that a woman working a deal on the street used to be able to assess the client before getting into his car. Now because he fears arrest, she has to get in and do the deal afterwards.

Neither, she says, does it tackle drug addiction, the main reason why women are trapped in prostitution.

Ms Jakobson said: "[The government] created a criminal law to solve a social problem, to send a moral message that Sweden does not tolerate prostitution. The intention was never to help anyone."

Does she think it is possible to end prostitution through the law? In short, no.

"That is a huge question. Then you will have to change the whole of society. First of all you will have to eliminate all lonely people," she says.

Lives 'improved'

"A lot of the people who are buying sex are like that. A lot of it is about holding someone."

One country, which has not only resigned itself to prostitution but has brought it into the legitimate economy, is New Zealand where it is legal to buy and sell sex and to run a brothel.

Catherine Healey, a former sex worker who was instrumental in changing the laws, says bringing the profession into the open has improved the lives of sex workers.

She says brothels now give contracts to their employees who are able to challenge bad practices in court.

In one case a sex worker brought her boss to court for sexual harassment.

Vocal opposition

Ms Healey says: "You walk into a brothel and instantly you see health and safety signs saying use condoms, there's no duplicity."

Both Ms Jakobson and Ms Healey say a distinction must be made between women who choose prostitution and those who are forced into it by drugs or gangs.

But there are also critics of New Zealand's system.

Gordon Copeland, an independent member of the New Zealand parliament, led opposition to the law before it was introduced in 2003.

He says there has been a steep rise in underage girls selling sex on the streets.

We'll never get there 100%, because that's human nature
Gordon Copeland
Member of New Zealand parliament

He said: "When you signal that street soliciting is OK, that it's OK to buy and sell sex on the streets, to me that was a no-brainer - you would see an increase of soliciting, and that is what has happened."

He also criticises the arrival of brothels in residential areas.

"At certain times of the night you've got a lot of cars parked in the neighbourhood and men coming and going, and that's pretty distressing."

But Mr Copeland recognises it is unrealistic to expect to wipe out prostitution altogether.

"We'll never get there 100%, because that's human nature," he said.

So what approach will we adopt in the UK?

In January, Vernon Coaker, under-secretary of state for the Home Office, launched the government review with a visit to Sweden.

It's market forces, supply and demand, and it has been since time immemorial
Flo Clucas, MP

He said no decisions had yet been made.

"We can't say we back criminalisation of clients at the present time. What we are trying to do is gather the evidence," he said.

Mr Coaker added: "Many people argue that prostitution is the oldest profession and will always be with us. That is not something we accept.

"We do not believe it is inevitable and we are committed to doing all we can to reduce street prostitution and all forms of sexual exploitation - whether that be through legislation or other measures, such as awareness raising."

There have already been a number of experiments with alternative ways of managing prostitution in this country.

Liberal Democrat councillor Flo Clucas was at the centre of failed plans to introduce a managed zone in Liverpool.

She says that 96% of the women working the streets of the city are drug addicts and that while there is addiction and demand there will always be prostitution.

She said: "People will do anything to get hold of that stuff, they will do anything, they really will.

"It's market forces, supply and demand, and it has been since time immemorial."

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