In the past few years toleration zones have been put forward as a form of legalisation which can be introduced without changing the law. Although such a proposal may be a reflection of growing public concern for prostitute women’s legal and civil rights, toleration zones would do little to protect these rights.
Where toleration zones exist, they are usually in isolated industrial areas, further segregating women from the rest of the community. Current redlight areas put women at risk but many women feel that toleration zones would be worse: “None of us would go to a dangerous industrial estate.”
Women who work in toleration zones in Utrecht, Holland, complain about being arrested while entering and leaving the zone. They have also told us that the police “wash their hands of the area,” for example refusing to protect them from violence. Yet Holland has a long tradition of liberal attitudes towards sex, including prostitution. The local authority funds a bus containing a shower, toilet, kitchen and a doctor. There is no indication that even this low level of assistance would happen here. Toleration zones on the basis of the UK tradition of continuing witch‑hunts and criminalisation can only create dumping grounds for working women away from the eyes and concern of the rest of the community.
Local authorities and politicians who have proposed toleration zones are more interested in the potential revenue of an expanded sex industry than in protecting the rights of sex workers. Their proposals have been prefaced by the eviction of women working from premises and the legitimation, as “community action’, of vigilante violence against sex workers.
Prostitute women increasingly regard legalised prostitution as legalising discrimination. Women want the choice of where and how they work, whether to be self-employed or to work for an employer, whether to work full-time, part-time or only occasionally, and when to get off the game. Legalisation limits choice.
In licensed premises in Amsterdam competition is fierce: the rents are high (approximately £100 a day) and women have to work longer shifts to keep their rooms and pay the middle men who run them. Women have little control over their money or working conditions – taxed at a higher rate than other workers, prostitute women are not eligible for social benefits and in many cases are not able to refuse clients or limit what services they will provide.
In Hamburg, prostitute women had to register with the police and undergo compulsory health checks. The loss of a health card could result in arrest. Only 12 percent of prostitute women were estimated to work in the legalised area; the rest preferred to work illegally rather than submit to these controls.
In Australia women have won some improvements in working conditions: health and safety are taken more seriously by employers now that the workers are not illegal, and they back women’s refusal to have sex without condoms. But these same employers are the main beneficiaries of brothels the women who work in them describe as supermarkets. As with all legalisation, women have to work harder for less money.
Legalisation has been advocated as a way of imposing mandatory HIV testing for prostitute women falsely labeled as health risks. Yet conclusive evidence shows that men don’t get AIDS through contact with women – prostitute or not. Prostitute women have traditionally insisted on condoms whereas clients are notorious for being ready to pay “four times the going rate for unprotected sex”.
State-run sex factories institutionalise women on the game – once you are down on a police computer it’s harder to find other employment. A Southampton woman spoke for all when she said: “They would have to bring in the army to get us out of our homes and into their brothels.”
We have been watching with interest the moves by Edinburgh Council to grant entertainment licences to massage parlours. We agree that women should be able to work together from premises without fear of raids and arrest. But why should a woman working on her own or with a couple of friends be forced to be public and pay £500 for a licence?
Under the current loitering and soliciting laws women are convicted on police evidence alone, thus encouraging police illegality and racism. None of the residents in whose name the police arrest women are ever called to give evidence in court.
But a legalised red-light zone would not be an improvement. We want the abolition of the prostitution laws. This is the only way to end the criminalisation of sex workers and remove the stigma attached to prostitution. Sex workers, like other workers, should come under civil not criminal law.
Abolition of the laws would for the first time disentangle consenting sex, which should not be the business of the law, from offences of nuisance, which existing legislation on nuisance or public order is well able to deal with.
Abolition of the laws would undermine the need for red-light areas, as women would be able to advertise and work from premises. It would increase safety for prostitute women who could insist on their right to police protection, and to employment and health benefits. Other women would benefit as police resources now invested in arresting prostitute women and kerb-crawlers, could deal instead with rape, racist attacks and other violent crimes.
Women who take the often courageous and difficult decision to go on the game to escape or refuse poverty should be commended for their efforts, not criminalised. We estimate that 70% of prostitute women are mainly single mothers trying to feed themselves and their families. It is about time that local and central government recognised, not “tolerated”, the legal, civil, economic and human rights of sex workers and provided higher benefits, wages, housing and other resources so that no woman, man or child would be forced by poverty into sex with anyone.