Published on February 17, 2014 | by Livvy Doherty and Valentina De Vito


Should the UK legalise prostitution?

Is the world becoming more liberal? The senior Interactive Editors of ALN share their opinions on what the legalisation of prostitution would entail.

Livvy Doherty argues ‘for’ legalising prostitution 

Headshot of Livvy Doherty

Livvy believes that criminalising sex workers leaves them in dangerous situations and more susceptible to violence. [Andy Fyles]

The argument for legalising prostitution can be a very emotional one. Generally, whenever a topic on sex is debated, if you oppose the popular view you’re accused of being too moral, frigid, conservative and old fashioned. But argue for something like decriminalising prostitution and you’re automatically pigeonholed as a liberal, sex-crazy, religion-hating, family-ruining and quite simply, a poor excuse of a woman.

To be honest I’d rather be the second, so call me what you will.

Prostitution: The practice or occupation of engaging in sexual activity with someone for payment. The laws in the UK are very confusing as to what is legal and what is not when it comes to prostitution. The actual act of selling sex is not illegal, however there are a number of laws surrounding the criminality of sex work, such as inciting prostitution or controlling prostitution. This means a sex worker can be prosecuted even if she is acting entirely under her own free will, despite the act itself not being illegal.

It’s obvious that criminalisation does not stop the selling of sex. Instead, it leaves workers vulnerable to more violent, dangerous and unhealthy situations.

If a sex worker is attacked, they are less likely to report it to the police in fear of arrest or remarks such as ‘what did you expect?’ Those who pray on prostitutes know this too.

“Gary Ridgway said that he killed prostitutes because he knew he would not be held accountable. The tragedy is that he was right – he confessed to the murders of 48 women, committed over nearly twenty years. That is truly criminal,” said Melissa Ditmore, coordinator of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects.


An argument that is often brought up regarding prostitution is the issue of sexually transmitted diseases. Were sex work completely legal and regulated by criminal law, those in the industry could be properly educated about health, tested weekly, given mental support and clients could be forced to wear condoms.

It is unfair to place prostitution in the same category as other crimes such as drug dealing or theft. Sex is not a crime, so why is selling it a crime? When a man or woman chooses to make money from sex, they themselves are not for sale, and this is the difference between sex work and trafficking. And it is a huge difference. Sex trafficking is a serious issue, but it cannot be tackled until those who choose sex work are licensed, regulated and therefore able to be distinguished from those forced into the industry.

Sex trafficking is a serious issue, but it cannot be tackled until those who choose sex work are licensed, regulated and therefore able to be distinguished from those forced into the industry.

It is a misconception that only a small percentage of sex workers choose to go into prostitution. The sad thing is that many people trying to ‘save’ these men and women actually have no idea if they even want saving. I attended the second Sex Workers Film Festival last November, hosted by Sex Workers Open University (SWOU) and the sex workers were not pleading for help, or even asking for a way out. Instead, they were fighting for their rights. They were celebrating their community and the support they give each other. No one there was a victim.

The type of moral policing we have shames and imprisons a large majority of adults, whose only crime was to have sex with another consenting adult – one of whom just happened to pay for it. It’s clear that we are missing the bigger and far more important picture.

Women’s rights

One issue I haven’t touched upon is women’s rights. Whether feminism and prostitution can work in harmony is another topic, for another blog piece. What I will say  though is this: If one woman is selling her body for sex, this does not suddenly mean that every woman is for sale. And it should not mean this. It would be a huge problem within our society if the legalisation of prostitution caused everyone to believe that all woman could be bought (not that this isn’t a popular opinion already).

It’s the same fear that people have with legalising gay marriage. Just because one person chooses to be a sex worker, doesn’t mean anyone forces you to be. Calm down.

Is it too idealistic to imagine that there could be better working conditions for sex workers, a reduction in trafficking and STDs and no stigma attached to those who have worked as a prostitute? You could say it might be but it is better to be striving for improvement, rather than assuming nothing will change and introducing stricter laws. Laws that harm those they are apparently intended to ‘save’ and drive the demand for sex work further underground.

Valentina De Vito, argues ‘against’ legalising prostitution 

Headshot of Valentina De Vito

Valentina thinks that the spreading of STIs is a major risk in legalising prostitution that must be considered. [Benjamin Bishop]

How amazing would it be if prostitution became legalised: cleaner streets, more tax revenue, women free to exercise the oldest profession in the world safely and without exploitation of any kind.

It would be a step forward and a coup against the hypocrisy of those who prefer to keep on pretending that the problem doesn’t exist.

This is what some politicians, intellectuals and many ordinary people – whether they be conservative or liberal – think about the issue of prostitution.

But, realistically, would legalising prostitution be a good idea? My answer is no, and I will now outline my ethical and practical reasons as to why I strongly appose this view:

Ethical objections

The ethical objections to the legalisation of prostitution revolve around two concepts: women’s dignity and the common good.

The legislation of prostitution no longer pursues the act as a crime, but instead governs the law to keep a close eye on the affairs that take place, thus allowing the open practice of immoral acts and jeopardising the dignity of women.

Of course, many would argue that since prostitution has always existed, it makes sense to recognise it.

Well robbery and murder have always existed too. Should we decriminalise those?

The second principle to reject the idea of legalising prostitution is that of the common good. What type of message is the country conveying to the public if it says it’s okay for people to prostitute themselves, as long as they pay regular taxes?

The message conveyed is this: Prostitution is good. Tax evasion is bad. Do what you want as long as your taxes are paid.

Legalising prostitution places a material element in front of the moral rectitude. I might sound like a prude, but I am scared that, in a world where selfishness and materialism rule, things will only worsen.

Practical arguments

In addition to these ethical arguments, there are more practical ones. My first concern is that the possible legalisation of prostitution would be extremely dangerous for women’s health. Studies conducted on prostitutes confirm that many of them suffer from neurosis and depression. Other studies have found that the vast majority of prostitutes have been victims of sexual assaults.

Those who find such findings alarming may think that having ‘safe’ places to perform prostitution, such as legal, regulated brothels, would solve this. Yet countries such as the Netherlands, who regulate prostitution, have an increasing volume of victims who are sexually exploited.

Countries such as the Netherlands, who regulate prostitution, have an increasing volume of victims who are sexually exploited.

The second concern which worries me the most is the spread of sexual transmitted diseases (STDs). Even if a prostitute is being tested every day for HIV, the test will show up as negative for at least 4 weeks after infection. This means that while the test is becoming positive and the results are becoming known, prostitutes may expose their clients to HIV.

I refuse to believe that women who have received a decent education and know their value would ever give sex away for money. And I’m not talking about degree level here. I am talking about primary school level. I think that from the day they learn to speak, children should be taught the value and importance of their own bodies.

Which leads me to my final thought: The government should invest in more education that will allow girls to find a path other than prostitution, rather than develop a system that allows them prostitute themselves with more ease.

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