Coffee House

The case for decriminalising prostitution is overwhelming. Look at New Zealand

16 May 2014

3:00 PM

16 May 2014

3:00 PM

Every so often our politicians declare that ‘it’s time to prosecute men for buying sex’; most recently with Caroline Spelman’s call for men to make their views clearer about prostitution. I’m one of few men who’ll own up to visiting brothels and spending time with call girls. Alas – for those getting hot under the collar with anticipation – my time spent cruising red light zones was strictly professional: I spent most of 2008 photographing sex workers in New Zealand for my dissertation, which documented how the country’s decriminalisation of sex work in 2003 had changed the industry.

New Zealand’s prostitution law reform sidestepped passing judgment on the ethics of prostitution, focusing simply on improving ‘the welfare and occupational health and safety of sex workers’. This might sound bureaucratic, but women in the sex industry are now protected by society, rather than marginalised from it. I remember the case of a bloke who’d pulled his condom off when he was in a brothel. The $400 fine the courts served him seemed paltry; but his name was published when the local newspapers covered the case. He was the bad person, rather than the ‘woman of ill repute’ he’d been visiting, which seemed pretty reasonable to me.


My experience from the dozens I met in the industry was that sex work is remarkably mundane, and the stories I heard about the (mostly) men who paid for sex were pretty humdrum: widowers, couples who’d stopped having sex, and so on. But I can’t remember meeting sex workers who expressly disliked their job. Many were comfortable – even proud – of what they did for a living, with the main complaint being that decriminalisation had seen a slump in their earnings. This (I was told by an MP who debated the 2003 legislation) came down to basic economics, with price being a product of supply and demand. And on that basis criminalising the purchase of sex would be a nasty double whammy for prostitutes, as not only would they be at the mercy of clients on the wrong side of the law, but it would also drive down earnings: hardly the way to look after vulnerable people.

Image: Matthew Plummer

Image: Matthew Plummer

Of course the press loves running stories of women brought to the UK and forced into sex work; trafficked victims in heels and lipstick make for far more exciting copy than cases of domestic servitude or forced agricultural work. The English Collective of Prostitutes has done a comprehensive rebuttal of the girls-trafficked-into-prostitution misconception which is worth reading, and various estimates on the numbers of women being trafficked to Britain to work as prostitutes have proved to be wildly inaccurate. This doesn’t surprise me; statistics gathered by the police in New Zealand in the aftermath of the 2003 decriminalisation showed the numbers of active sex workers had been overstated by a factor of ten. The murky legal and social status of the profession makes gathering hard data almost impossible, and I can’t imagine that things are any different over here. Far better to bring it out of the shadows, with taxes paid and health and safety regulations enforced, rather than creating a needlessly dangerous underworld and wasting valuable police resources.

Matthew Plummer tweets @mwyp

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Show comments
  • bm124

    One thing that baffles me: the constant references to prostitutes having been sexual abuse victims, as a reason to ban prostitution.

    Prostitution is not a normal activity. As a result, the pool of prostitutes is bound to be made up heavily of abnormal people, including those who were sexually abused.

    But the fact that sexual abuse leads to prostitution does NOT mean that prostitution leads to sexual abuse. A implies B does not imply that B implies A. That idea is completely illogical.

    It is not a basis for banning it. The sexually abused would still have been sexually abused. With a ban, they would just have an opportunity to be sent to jail for prostitution, as well as being sexually abused. Which makes no sense.

    Referring to this is a form of deliberately illogical smear tactic for “winning” an argument before an ignorant audience.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Britisher pals, what`s your imagined image of a whore? An over-the-hill, over-worked, brash White woman wearing too much make who calls everyone “Dearie”?
    Well if that`s the case I suggest you acquaint yourself with the new reality. Ship yourself somewhere east of Suez (non-Islamic country, obviously), and as you view the attractive, out-going young women passing by, see if you don`t find yourself thinking, “I`d willing put out $100.00 for an hour of her time.” First came the thought …
    If women of the first world were rather more generous with their favours, perhaps Western men would not be actively seeking home comforts in the third.
    Jack, Japan Alps

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    At least NZ has shaken off its Victorian hang-ups, at least in this area.

  • wally

    The truth is that in Auckland teenage and younger prostitution runs rampant on several streets. Whoops, you forgot to mention this uncomfortable little factoid…

  • Fergus Pickering

    I just love that word – sexsworker. Should sexworkers have degrees? You’d get a better class of screw.

  • Francostars

    It is better to legalize and tax prostitution.

  • Paul from SA

    -and what are the benefits to society? Less violence by men? Less crime committed by men? More hours worked by men?

    I agree prostitution should not be illegal, but I still don’t approve. I checked the photos. All those girls have an empty, sad look on their faces. If those girls had better options for income, would they still choose this profession?

    In America, all prostitutes are involved in drugs. Aren’t the drug problem and the prostitution symptoms of a larger psychological problem?

    • cartimandua

      A large tranche will also be survivors of child abuse too.

      • Colonel Mustard

        You really are plumbing the depths of the emotive argument.

        And we need to separate disapproval from criminalisation or we are going to lose our liberty.

  • cartimandua

    That’s the bottom line folks. Legal would invite every foreign gang but it also devalues the product by increasing the scale. It cheapens it diminishing any “take home pay”.
    In the Dutch experience women end up “working” for 12 hours a day seeing God knows how many clients and taking God knows how many risks and how much damage.
    The only way around that is highly regulated things like the Bunny Ranch.
    We are not really a big enough country to have a safe out of town “zone”.

    • jj155749

      With it being semi underground as it is at the minute, girls are wary of calling the police in cases of theft or violence towards them. If it were legal, then there would be no barrier to girls getting help. That would drive out the rip off and abusive pimps.

      • cartimandua

        There would be more prostitution and it would lower the value of it.
        The only way to reduce harm would be to have a very very upmarket highly regulated zone of tolerance and very expensive “services”.
        The giant brothels have been closed because regulation failed. (cant remember whether it is Holland or Germany.
        The Bunny ranch and places like it in Nevada may actually be OK.

  • cartimandua

    And when you read the article about the Dutch experience it appears that the increase in demand for prostitution also devalues the product.
    The pimps(excuse me managers) don’t care if their “workers” sustain damage because they have to “work” so long and so cheaply .
    Where legality does seem to work is in a very small area with an upmarket set up.
    (I’m thinking the Bunny Ranch here). So no trafficked girls from Eastern Europe hey.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Face it, it`s all about supply and demand. Or even quality over quantity.

  • Mrs Josephine Hyde-Hartley

    How can there be any such occupation as a ” professional” cruising red -light districts? Is this intended to come across as some sort of double whammy? What exactly is this author trying to profess?

  • Mrs Josephine Hyde-Hartley

    The oldest profession, apart from acting, is of course midwifery. It’s mentioned in the Bible, unlike prostitution.

  • Chingford Man

    Given the way the Spectator has been whoring itself to the Tories, I’d say prostitution is alive and well.

  • hookstrapped

    More photos and background from a country where prostitution is legal

  • cartimandua

    No it shouldn’t. In anywhere without borders it leads to a vast increase in trafficking.
    That is what has happened in other places.

    • jj155749

      trafficking isnt a hookering problem. There are laws about that already.

      • cartimandua

        But it is the truth. Where Prostitution is legal demand increases as does trafficking. So no thanks.

        • jj155749

          but your argument is false, as it is legal in the England and Wales already, and, I think in Scotland. not sure about NI

  • Hexhamgeezer

    It probably should be legalised – after all journalism is.

    • HookesLaw

      l like your comment l honestly do, but it makes me think the word’s oldest profession is the Smart@rse

      • monty61

        Takes one to know one.

      • Hexhamgeezer

        I wonder what the newest is; ray of sunshine or Guest Voter?

      • Fergus Pickering

        I take it the smartarse is a male sexworker.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Media whores?

    • jj155749

      `it already is legal except for certain things. see my earlier post

  • jj155749

    seeing a prostitute in th UK is quite legal. so there is no need to ‘legalise’ it here.
    It is illegal to manage a brothel -a place where 2 or more people work, even if not at the same time. (the client and the girl are breaking no law)
    it is illegal to kerb crawl
    it is illegal to see a co-erced girl, even if you dont know -but I understand there have been zero prosecutions for that

    but the law on brothels is daft. why are 2 girls working together any risk to society? Indeed, the girls are safer in a brothel than being on their own

    and the popular press view is that prostitution is street prostitution. It isnt. Most will be indoors and the girls advertising found on the internet.

    • cartimandua

      Because if you read punternet it is quickly obvious that “a lot of the girls don’t speak English” so you have no idea whether they are merely poor or actually enslaved.

      • jj155749

        Really? Where?
        Yes there are some immigrant girls but their plight can be dealt with under existing laws. You dont need to ban prostitution to sort out abusive trafficking
        anyway, as the article says, abuse is far more widespread in the gangs in agriculture and in packhouses.

        • Colonel Mustard

          Yes but like so much recent law trafficking with its element of coercion will be the emotive trigger used to justify imposing a much wider reaching law. Underlying this is a basic disapproval and a new “progressive” elitism of “leading beyond authority” by shadowy, unelected people who think it is up to them to impose their values on everyone, whether we like it or not.

          Wait to hear one of these purveyors of nanny knows best say something like “prostitution has no place in 21st century Britain” and build the emotive case to shame anyone who tries to defend it.

          • cartimandua

            It has no place in modern life. There is plenty of po** for men to w*** to and that is what is happening with prostitution.
            Its not a relationship. Its a man practising control domination and contempt.
            If people want a relationship there are now myriad ways of meeting someone for untrammelled se* online.
            There are websites for it.

            • Colonel Mustard

              “Its not a relationship.”

              It’s a business transaction not a relationship and as old as civilisation.

              “Its a man practising control domination and contempt.”

              I see that you’ve swallowed the lefty feminazi BS about this. Women have offered their services for money throughout history to various degrees and circumstances of free will.

              It is not for you to determine how other people should seek a “relationship”.

              • jj155749

                nor to determine how women should treat their bodies.

      • itdoesntaddup

        If you read punternet it is quickly obvious which girls provide a good client experience and therefore are less likely to be enslaved. Part of the purpose is to divert custom to the willing and identify the unwilling. Perhaps if the police were intelligent they would use this information to identify trafficked girls. Perhaps they even do.

        Perhaps it should be extended to cover male prostitution as well – both rent boys and toyboys, and even bisexual and couple or orgy offerings. Your focus on the idea of it being simply about women victims shows you have a poor grasp of the real world, which is much more diverse than that.

    • HookesLaw

      Is it illegal to take the Tony Benn option for a brothel and run it as a co-operative?

      But you are right. Prostitution is not illegal but soliciting is as is living off immoral earnings. Other issues are already covered by the Law.

      • jj155749

        2 girls sharing a flat makes the flat a brothel. Managing a brothel is an offence. So if the 2 girls are managing the flat, then they are both liable to prosecution and then will be chased under the proceeds of crime measures for their assets, Thats a yes to your question.
        mad isnt it?

        • cartimandua

          If we did not have open borders it might be sensible to allow that. (Although knowing most prostitutes were abuse victims or are drug addicts).
          We have open borders and the criminal gangs are rolling them in including very very young ones.

          Jurors were told the “poor and vulnerable” women were chaperoned in small groups.

          Some were put up in hotels and brothels in Eastbourne in East Sussex, Folkestone and Margate in Kent, and Woolwich in south-east London.

          Others were said to have worked out of rooms in student accommodation at Sussex University.

          Brown had worked as a PA at an engineering firm in Brighton, and was described in court as the logistical organiser of the operation.

          Her former partner Puskas organised transport, hotels and clients, along with Mohacsi and the Toth brothers.

          Puskas, of Billingshurst Road in Ashington, West Sussex; Brown, of Ockley Road in Bognor Regis; Mohacsi, from Cranbrook Road in Ilford, east London, and the Toth brothers, both of St John’s Road, Eastbourne, will be sentenced on Wednesday.

          ‘Threats to families’

          Portia Ragnauth, acting chief crown prosecutor in the South East, said: “None of us can imagine how desperate the victims were in this case.

          “In many instances, they came to the UK to try to escape financial difficulties at home.

          “Payments for their flights were often made by one of the five individuals convicted today. Once in the UK these debts were used as a hold over the women who were forced to work for up to 12 hours a day.

          “When the women told the group they did not want to work as prostitutes, threats would be made against them and their families back in Hungary. ”

          “working” for that amount of time would mean they sustained considerable physical damage.

          • jj155749

            and the perpetrators ended up in court. which is how it should be. if prostitution were to be criminalised, how would that have helped. the operation would have been more underground and harder to detect.

    • cartimandua

      Because they could still have been trafficked and are working under duress.
      Look at the websites rating their “services”.

      • jj155749

        Could. and your peppers at tesco could have been packed by someone exploited by a gangmaster. or your friend could have a domestic worker who is in effect a slave. are we going to shut down supermarkets and ban domestic staff then?
        ok you find prostitution distasteful. I find things distasteful, but I dont think we should ban stuff just because some people find it distasteful/

        • cartimandua

          Neither of those jobs are inherently harmful to the seller.
          Prostitutes will suffer physical and mental harm unless they are the very high end of it.
          12 hours a day is how many clients do you think? And even using condoms how much physical damage results from that?
          Legal means cheaper and having to “see” more clients.

          • jj155749

            sorry. I think you are just making this stuff up. You refuse to give any references for your assertions. you are just rolling out your ignorant preconceptions.
            look at for the real world.

      • Wessex Man

        I’m beginning to think that you have a very unhealthy interest in these internet sites, you’re not Harritt harperson in disguise are you?

  • roger

    To draw any lessons for Britain in its current social state from New Zealand, about anything,is almost impossible. NZ, a country that got such a large share of Gods fairy dust and a beacon for us all.

  • Colonel Mustard

    I don’t think New Zealand has England’s problem of wanting to penalise men for everything. Criminalising customers is akin to criminalising drug users rather than pushers but follows a hard line feminist agenda which seeks to criminalise pretty much anything it disapproves of as long as it is the male of the species in the sight and which promotes all females as victims regardless of circumstances.

    I hope Caroline Spelman is not going down the path of Claire Perry. Conservative (supposedly) women behaving more like Labour women. But this smells very much like the preliminary seeds of spin being laid prior to yet another initiative being launched to ban, criminalise or regulate something connected with the private s*x lives of consenting adults, no doubt pushed by “consultation” with some taxpayer funded single issue campaign group or fake charity.

    I suppose having finally emancipated one group who were persecuted for centuries they must needs find a replacement to legislate against.

    • cartimandua

      NZ has actual border controls we don’t.

      • ButcombeMan

        That is a very good point in relation to this issue as with so many others, In some poor countries of Eastern Europe prostitution is a reasonable life choice.

        Because the UK is a buoyant economy, that encourages whore masters to traffic girls to here, sometimes on the pretext of hotel/catering jobs.

        Passports get removed, some girls are under age, resistance is futile. Threats against family back home are made if girls cause problems.

        The problem is massive, especially in London

        Yes, if we want this trade to expand & to reinforce organised crime and even more girls to get sucked in, legalise all prostitution rather than the legal, one woman one dwelling legalisation, we have now.

        Fairly astonishing that Plummer wrote this astonishingly superficial article without reference to the horrors & exploitations of Amsterdam.

        New Zealand is a very different place, much less open and less accessible with a tiny economy, much less attractive to organised crime. NZ gets things wrong too, it has just overturned in short order, its toleration policy on NPSs (Legal Highs)

        But hey, Plummer has done the research. He must be right.

        The Speccie should spare us this sort of tripe.

        • cartimandua

          “Legalization” of drugs or prostitution has sailed on the rotten ship open borders. It would as you said just be a come and get it with no risk sign for organized crime.

          • jj155749

            but operation pentameter failed to find widespread abuse such as you allege. It seems most girls are working quite happily. And there are adequate laws to go for exploitation cases in both prostitution and in the gangmaster system.
            Come on. I imagine girls from E europe see the possible earnings and think why not?
            Actually there is inadequate research on this. People like the Poppy Project publish findings but they are so skewed for their political agenda that makes their findings worse than useless.
            The state should butt out of areas where its not needed, like controlling prostitution and concentrate in finding the exploited.
            And what of the 1000’s of british girls who work at this? they are adults doing what they want.
            I think some posting here are just replicating the prejudice and misconceptions of the tabloids.

            lastly what has prostitution got to do with open borders? Lots of locals are working girls. and who ever asked the immigration status of a girl before being their client?

            • cartimandua

              Open borders mean an increase in demand for prostitution and an increase in trafficking.
              NZ isn’t a member of the EU. It can control its borders.
              And no its not “adults doing what they want”. Most prostitutes are child abuse victims and or drug addicts.
              The number of belle du jours is tiny and she was one mixed up creature. she was damaged goods.
              Prostitution damages those who engage in it both seller and buyer. It devalues and demeans human beings and human relating.
              As po** is doing it makes normal attachment and bonding in those who engage in it much less likely.
              I have to say you sound as though you have a financial interest in the subject.
              Read punternet and look at the contempt for women.
              That’s the reality and it would spill over into “real life”.

              • jj155749

                open borders mean an increase in demand. how is that? where is your proof of that? I think the increase in demand has been driven by the internet.
                most prostitutes are child abuse victims and or drug addicts. really? again where is your proof

                these are the old tired cliches trotted out by left wing feminists and have no basis in fact.

                and I have no financial interest in prostitution. I just hate the government regulating something when there is no need.
                And I think there is worse forms of exploitation that prostitution. I find the gangmaster industry in agriculture and in the packhouses far more abusive of the vulnerable. But no-one wants to attack that because it provides cheap fruit and veg in the supermarket.

                what is your interest. are you a troll from the poppy project or similar?

                • cartimandua


                  “several studies and a few countries have found this not to be the case. Many studies performed by various organizations and governments have shown that legalizing prostitution has increased the influx of human trafficking. One researcher, Eric Neumayer, suggests it may be difficult for customers to distinguish legalized from trafficked prostitution. A second researcher, Donna M. Hughes, determined that legalizing prostitution increases demand for prostitutes which then increases the need for trafficked prostitutes.

                  Consider three countries that have legalized prostitution: the Netherlands, Germany and Australia. Since 1999, there have been reports that at least 80 percent of legal women prostitutes in the Netherlands were actually trafficking victims and not of their own free will. By 2009, the Netherlands had closed approximately 2/3 of the legal brothels in Amsterdam because of its inability to control traffickers. The Dutch government realized that legal prostitution created an environment which was so attractive to organized crime that the government could not control the traffickers as international organized criminals began to take over the city.

                  Germany noticed similar repercussions to legalized prostitution. Studies indicate that 65 to 80 percent of the female prostitutes are non-Germans with most being from Romania and Bulgaria. The women are lured to the country under the guise that they will be independent business women. When they get to Germany, they find they have no choice when they work, what services they perform, how many customers they receive and whether they can leave or not. Most are too afraid to go to the police because the pimp/trafficker threatens her family. When the police raid the brothels, the fearful women tell the police she is working willingly.

                  In Australia, after prostitution was legalized, within one year, illegal brothels in the state of Victoria tripled in number. According to reports, even legal brothels were using their businesses to commit illegal activities. Both legal and illegal brothels were trafficking foreign women to keep operating costs low (a trafficked victim is much cheaper than an employee with free will).”
                  So unless the industry is kept to a Bunny Ranch standard of local high earning uncontrolled women its dreadful.

                • jj155749

                  but we cant ‘legalize’ prostitution in the UK cos its never been illegal.
                  you could look up a girl on the internet, visit her in her flat,pay her, do whatever, come away and no law has been broken. Its quite simple. got that?

                • ButcombeMan

                  Of course you are correct, as I pointed out earlier,

                  Single woman working alone, in the way you describe is legal..

                  Plummer’s article is not only very poorly out together, the title is misleading,

                  Utterly pathetic if it is his title, worse if it Is the Editors fault.

              • Colonel Mustard

                “I have to say you sound as though you have a financial interest in the subject.”

                …and build the emotive case to shame anyone who tries to defend it.

                I have to say you sound as though you have a taxpayer subsidised quango or fake charity agenda interest in the subject.

                • jj155749

                  and hasnt the facts to back up his argument.

        • Kate

          I can’t see where you have done any research with your reply. Sounds like you have been sucked in by the tabloids.

          • ButcombeMan

            Based on your previous posts, you appear to be a “working girl”.

            If you have better information than t I have posted, please come out with it. If you challenge anything I say, please do so and then I will deal with your arguments.

            Northern Ireland is not London. Romanian gangs will not be too much attracted by the pickings in Belfast. They are rampant in London, Just a FACT. As are Chinese whore masters and previously, Lithuanians.

            I have seen the recruitment process in action.

            I do not read tabloids. Not even The Times.

            • Wessex Man

              perhaps you should, and perhaps calm down.

      • Wessex Man

        What on earth does that have to do with the debate? if you have a leaky bucket you repair it as we should our borders and sack a few Toryboys and Lib/dums while we are about it.

        Now back to the debate, unfortunately having met Caroline Spelman and even worse Claire Perry, they will do the exact opposite of anything sensible. It goes on of course, good old R5 is now, 8.48am having an interview with two Labour ladies campaigning to have the SUN and DAILY STAR moved to the top shelf!

        Their web-site according to a bloke now being bullied by them says that their web-site is a nightmare!

        What on earth has our country come to?