Will small brothels improve life for British prostitutes?

U.K. lawmakers propose to let sex workers go into business for themselves.

Published January 18, 2006 12:59AM (EST)

Lately, British lawmakers have faced a conundrum: They want to put an end to prostitution, but they don't want to be unrealistic about it or take measures that might put sex workers in danger. Isn't that refreshing?

Home Office minister Fiona McTaggart explained why they're not hot on legalizing sex work: "There is no evidence that decriminalisation or licensing prostitution would achieve our objectives of reducing exploitation, improving the safety of those involved and making local communities safer." At the same time, she told BBC News, prostitution can't be eradicated "overnight."

The interim solution, McTaggart says, is small brothels. British law currently permits individual sex workers (whom the BBC News calls by the very OK-Corral title "lone prostitutes") to operate out of apartments or other dwellings, but does not permit streetwalking. The new law would allow prostitutes to pair up and even hire a receptionist or maid for their businesses.

Advocates say there are several advantages to the proposed system. First, it may provide safety in numbers for sex workers. Second, it eliminates the middlemen, in this case the pimps and managers who are often also traffickers or drug dealers. And keeping brothels small means they're more likely to be unobtrusive, which McTaggart says is better for the surrounding neighborhoods. For sex workers arrested for streetwalking or other non-sanctioned forms of prostitution, the law would encourage safe houses or rehab rather than fines.

But according to the English Collective of Prostitutes, the proposed law is a step in the wrong direction. They argue that under the new law, sex workers would remain in danger, because curbside soliciting is inevitable and fear of crackdowns will put pressure on prostitutes to hop quickly into cars without checking out their prospective clients. As far as the ECS is concerned, legalizing prostitution is the only way to keep practitioners safe.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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