Prostitution: Is there anything wrong with selling sex?

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1. Selling talent

Many people find it impossible to imagine how anyone could actively choose to sell their bodies, such is the deep-lying stigma attached to the ‘oldest profession’.

News stories often tell of individuals that have been forced into prostitution by traffickers or pimps, or by drug addiction or desperate poverty. But there are also stories of people like Brooke Magnanti, the research scientist who blogged positively about her experience as a London call girl under the pen name Belle de Jour.

The idea that human beings could be for sale is ethically controversial. However, sex workers often say they don’t sell their bodies but, like other workers, simply put a price on their talents and skills. They argue that, if sex work was decriminalised and destigmatised, the associated problems would mostly disappear. But there’s more to consider when debating the rights and wrongs of prostitution.

2. What the law says

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UK prostitution laws reflect the idea that prostitution may be immoral, but the law does not interfere in sexual arrangements between consenting adults, unless they cause a public nuisance. It is legal for two adults to agree to a money-for-sex exchange, but the law does all it can to keep it behind closed doors. But many sex workers, as well as opponents of prostitution, have criticised this compromise.

3. Private matters

Prostitution is both a sexual and an economic activity that can be organised in very different ways, and people from all walks of life can be found in the sex industry.

Suppressing prostitution completely could seem a viable way to ensure that nobody is forced into it, but this approach also impacts on those who choose to sell sexual services. There is also another consequence: anti-prostitution laws, in effect, interfere in private arrangements between consenting adults. Allowing politicians to establish what people can and cannot do with their own bodies is to some a major breach of personal freedom.

Freedom is a hot topic in the prostitution debate: the personal freedom of those who want to be in the industry; the freedom of the buyer to be able to get sex on demand; the lack of freedom of the trafficked and exploited and of those who don't have any other alternatives. All this makes prostitution extremely complicated to address in law.

Questions about criminalisation, decriminalisation, and regulation of prostitution are widely debated. Prostitution, however, is also affected by other areas of the law, for example welfare and immigration laws, which constrain the alternatives open to those who can't get other paid work.

Countries have found very different responses to the prostitution question, often causing a domino effect on the nations around them, such as sex tourism to places with a more permissive approach to the industry.

4. Around the world

5. Grey areas

In popular debate, prostitution is often reduced to something you can be either for or against. But the issue is not black and white.

Some may object to it on moral or political grounds, but still worry about the ethics of laws that interfere with the sexual choices of consenting adults. Others may see it as a positive force for those who freely choose it, but still be concerned about how to protect vulnerable people involved in prostitution.

And some might be unhappy with the idea of buying and selling sex becoming normalised, yet also recognise that the continued stigmatization of prostitution places those who sell sex at risk of violence. It isn't a simple either/or ethical choice.

6. An ethical maze

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Two sides of the same coin: which of these arguments do you support?

7. Which model do you think works best?

The following countries have very different approaches to prostitution, from complete regulation to criminalisation - either of prostitutes or clients.

UK

Legal, but with restrictions

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UK

Exchanging money for sex is not illegal. However, prostitutes can be prosecuted for soliciting or working in a brothel, and clients for kerb-crawling.

Germany

Complete regulation

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Germany

In an attempt to recognise prostitution as a job like all others, Germany made all forms of prostitution, including pimping and brothel-keeping, legal in 2002.

The 'Nordic Model'

The buyer gets the blame

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The 'Nordic Model'

In Iceland, Norway and Sweden it is legal to sell sex, but it is illegal to buy it. This means a man caught with a prostitute faces a heavy fine or prosecution.

USA

Completely illegal

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USA

All forms of prostitution are illegal in the USA, including street prostitution and brothels. However, brothels are allowed in some parts of Nevada.