Opinion: Changing demand without changing supply puts prostitutes at risk

It is with some concern that I read of proposals to criminalise paying for sex in Scotland.

Prostitution is a catch-all term that describes arrangements that should make the state very concerned indeed – trafficking of children for brutal sexual exploitation for example. There are also arrangements that the state has no business interfering in – the work of a self-employed, financially comfortable escort making very good money to supplement another income in an environment over which he or she has control.

Changing demand by criminalising the purchase of sex will have a number of unintended and undesirable consequences.

Firstly, we should consider the nature of those customers who would be deterred relative to those who would persist. Those deterred would be those who have greatest respect for the law, likely to be those that are themselves more respectable. Those who are violent and dangerous – and presumably those this law is intended to protect women from – are presumably less likely to stop paying for sex.

Secondly, we have to consider where the economic pressures of this law change will impact. Estimates place the rate of addiction to heroin or crack in street prostitutes at between 85 and 95%. Removing customers does not remove the need for these women to service their addiction. With fewer customers, the existing street workers will have to make themselves competitive. A greater desperation for income may cause them to cut their prices, increase the number of sex acts they perform and be less discerning in the customers they accept. In a sellers’ market, street workers can choose to turn away customers they don’t like the look of. After the criminalisation of buyers, more dangerous customers will be looking for more desperate sellers. If the buyer is breaking the law, they will be more concerned about ensuring the seller’s silence. The most effective way of doing so is through murder, which is of course not something the government should be seeking to encourage. All the logical extrapolations of the effects of this law point to less safety for women not more.

Thirdly, what happens to the street prostitutes who stop trying to make money from prostitution? In attempting to service their addiction people have a variety of options with which to raise funds. Legal employment is very rarely available, so the remaining major avenues are stealing, taking money from unconsenting rather than consenting members of society, or dealing, potentially creating more young people who are so desperate that they will themselves consider prostitution, stealing or dealing in order to stave off withdrawal.

There will no doubt be some rare street prostitutes who will have no other choice than to get off drugs, whether via incarceration or just because their fear of stealing or dealing is greater than the pain of withdrawal.

These rare women hint at the other major policy option that could address the street prostitution problem. Rather than targeting a change in demand for prostitution, we should instead be aiming to change the supply. If women are working the streets in order to pay for heroin, we can stop them doing so by offering them the very best evidence-based treatment. Because of the undoubtedly traumatic lives that street prostitutes lead, they should be priorities for consideration for the heroin maintenance treatment clinics that our new drug policy calls for. The dealers that create the desperate addicts that consider prostitution should also be targeted in order to reduce the number of young women who might replace those that enter treatment. With a reduction in supply, the remaining sellers can perhaps raise their prices, take less customers, and be more discerning about the customers they choose to accept, hoping to service the sad but gentle regulars that hold no fear of prosecution.

If we genuinely care for the plight of street prostitutes it is supply change not demand change that we should be advocating. For the rest of prostitution in all its many forms, just as with illegal drugs, we may eventually find that strict state regulation of a legal market is the best way to keep people safe… but that’s another blogpost for another day.

* Ewan Hoyle is the founder of Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform and member of the Scottish Liberal Democrat policy committee.

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9 Comments

  • Richard Dean 20th Jun '12 - 1:37pm

    What about the longer term view? The harder it gets to make money as a sex worker, the less likely it is that someone will enter the profession. So although the proposal may have be tough for today’s workers, perhaps it provides a larger benefit in reducing the numbers of workers in the long run.

    My impression is that supply is presently criminalized – is this right? It seems unfair to criminalize supply but not demand.

    But the proper way forward is probably to address the social ills in other ways. Prostitution is legal in some countries, and even has industry guidelines that act to protect people on both the demand and supply sides.

  • No. I don’t agree with this post. Is this some kind of sick joke?

    For a start, imagining “a self-employed, financially comfortable escort making very good money to supplement another income in an environment over which he or she has control” does not fit with the reality of
    “the 85-95% rate of addiction to heroin or crack”.

    This is not a simple supply – demand equation. It completely ignores the power imbalance, and the people.

    The author argues that a “customer” who does not want to be criminalised as a user of prostitution would prefer to be criminalised as a murderer and user of prostitution. Really?? Perhaps they would rather not be a criminal at all – or face the consequences of their actions.

    The author should perhaps start by reading the facts stated in his own link: http://www.demandchange.org.uk/index.php/facts/facts

  • CP – this is not a sick joke… and please don’t presume I tackle the subject lightly.

    The financially comfortable escort was an example of someone at one end of the prostitution spectrum making decisions without feeling pressure or coercion. The drug addiction stats were for street prostitutes. Different policy solutions are required for women (and men) at different points on the spectrum of risk. There may be a case for criminalising paying for sex in specific circumstances once the major supply issues have been addressed, but not before. And please do not take my use of supply and demand analogies as evidence that I do not appreciate the deeply harrowing ordeals that prostitutes routinely experience. They assist in my making my point in a way that will be easily understood within the confines of a word limit.

    I stand by my assertion that prostitutes will be at greater risk of violence (including murder) when those who respect the law are deterred from buying sex.

    I was motivated to embark on the drug policy work I have done in large part by the realisation that normal girls can easily get caught up in drugs and descend into harrowing lives of prostitution. I think tackling the things that cause the poverty and psychological issues that provoke prostitution should be our first priority, but I also want to tackle demand for prostitutes who are controlled by pimps and rapists. I want to put as many of these c***s out of business as possible. I don’t think the blunt instrument of criminalising everyone who pays for sex is the best way to go about it.

    Perhaps the best way is to improve sex and relationship education and create clear legal separation between “acceptable prostitution” and the nasty stuff – as unpalatable as that may seem to those who refuse to accept that some women happily sell sex (and I know they are a very small minority). This is already the legal situation as escorts who work alone are not criminalised, but I definitely think we need to investigate policies that could offer greater protection.

    We can’t eradicate prostitution, but we can definitely do a damned sight better at protecting those involved.

    This page describes the law as it currently stands in Scotland http://www.quayservices.co.uk/scottish.law.html

  • Mike Clements 21st Jun '12 - 10:22am

    to be criminal is immoral but to be immoral is not necessarily criminal May we be spared from the likes of certain countries in the world where morality is enforced by a religious/morality police

  • trade in anything requires supply and demand, criminalising any part of any trade causes unintended consequences and usually results in the trade going underground thereby making any enforcement more difficult. The commodity isn’t the point.
    I thought that we had moved towards licensing as being a way of regulating, ie recognising that the trade cannot be eliminated, but there does need to be some control. We should decriminalise drugs and sex working, the first feeding the undesirable aspects of the second, and both having a significant impact on the work of NHS and Police. It will be a brave step to take, but we have been trying the current approach for so long now that we have to conclude it doesn’t work. It would also help if those pontificating would just take time to talk to the people involved, in order to inform the direction of travel.

  • Richard Swales 22nd Jun '12 - 9:48am

    Rather than decriminalise, better is to fully legalise and open both fields for legitimate business people rather than people who are (for example) still going to be buying drugs from international traffickers rather than legally farmed ones.

    The papers in Eastern Europe carry lots of classified ads which openly offer wages 10 times what girls can earn here as waitresses, if they go and work in “erotic clubs” in Germany, Switzerland, the UK or in Eastern Europe itself. The Harrriet Harman idea that it is inconceivable that any woman could consider doing that to be a rational choice and such a person must be “trafficked” (a term which they never define in terms of what it does and doesn’t include), seems to be based on a rather Victorian view of sexual and financial morality,

    Any legislation based on “I want people to want … ” is not liberal.

  • work the streets as a prostitute in manchester , when the poilce are there all my good decent punters go and you are left with all the trash and thats the one who dont pick me up they start offering you stupid 5 po unds and its all because of the poilc, and i have been attacked when the poilce have been there ..so u are right i am sick of people calling street prostitutes i am not on drugs ,i dont want to go and work in a parlour where your a slave and have to do everything. but yes the poilce are harrassing prostitutes they are the biggest harrassers of prostitutes . i would like to start a campaighn to protect and stop the harrassment of street prostitutes and the decent punters who just want a service alot of guys dont want the emotional attachment of an affair.

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