Saturday, July 17, 2004

A Positive Step by David Blunkett

It's good to see British Home Secretary David Blunkett using his powers of office for once to put forward something other than yet another repressive new initiative. The tendency to moralize about prostitution rather than taking practical measures to limit its harmful effects is a strong one in British politics, and it takes a brave man to go against what is sure to rile the Daily Wail reading classes.

Licensed brothels and red-light "zones of toleration" are among ideas being considered under the first review of prostitution laws for 50 years. David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, said yesterday that a rethink of the way the sex trade is policed may be necessary to limit its "devastating consequences".

In the inner cities, the "world's oldest profession" is increasingly associated with drug-taking and gangsterism.

A consultation paper from the Home Office is seeking views on whether a licensing scheme and a register of sex workers would help to limit the seedier side-effects.

Managed zones where street prostitutes could work without being arrested for soliciting are also under consideration. Cities such as Liverpool have indicated support for the idea, both to increase security for prostitutes and to control the areas in which they operate.

"What is proposed is a formalised 'red light' area, where those involved in prostitution and their users are permitted to trade in a defined area regularly monitored by the police and provided with drop-in health services and other facilities," said the consultation paper, Paying the Price.


Prostitution is not illegal in Britain, though some activities associated with it - such as soliciting, kerb crawling and placing cards in telephone boxes to seek business - are offences.
The final quoted paragraph details an oddity of British law that I suppose makes even the status quo better than what it is in most of the United States. Given how fine a line there can be between dating and the selling of sexual services*, there really is no point in trying to prosecute women for engaging in prostitution as such. What can (and ought) to be controlled is the sort of male behavior that assumes that any woman walking down the street is fair game for an indecent proposition. The advertising cards for escort services are a notorious nuisance of Britain's phone booths, but even clamping down on them might properly be subsumed under the prevention of vandalism, and acceptable as such.

What isn't acceptable is to pretend that the tens of thousands of hardcore drug users who walk British city streets are about to disappear at any time in the near future; if they cannot be kept off the streets, one can at least try to use measures that acknowledge their existence to contain the disease, harassment and petty crime that seem to accompany their trade. The high-priced escorts who operate via web sites and newspaper advertisements aren't a nuisance to anyone (other than the odd neighbor who might be tired of the unceasing squeaking of bedsprings), and ought to simply be left alone to take care of themselves.

*Washingtonienne, anyone?