Monday, December 18, 2006


The UK press is winding itself into a traditional pre-Christmas frenzy over the murder in Suffolk of five prostitutes. The last I heard, on the news this morning, was that they had arrested a 37 year old man. I hope he's the culprit and they lock him up for a very long time, but as I'm currently reading Val McDermid's The Mermaids Singing, I can't help but think the story is going to be much, much more complicated.

But apart from the insights into police work all this reporting is giving me, useful grist to the mill of my current WIP, I am struck by another aspect of the all too predictable media response to this horrific series of crimes.

The question has been raised in many circles as to why we can't just legalise prostitution. I'm not stupid enough to believe that would be the answer to all the problems of the world, but I generally lean towards a less-is-better approach when it comes to legislation, and I think that making prostitution illegal is particularly stupid.

All of these 'ladies of the night' so far interviewed seem to do it to feed a drug habit. One obvious way to get them out of the profession and off the streets might be to legalise the drugs they use. Another, suggested recently by a very brave politician, would be to prescribe them the heroin they crave on the NHS for free, whilst requiring that they attend some form of rehabilitation.

Personally I think that all drugs should be legal for people old enough to be trusted with the vote. I'd like to see them distributed through a licensed network where their quality could be assured and where the taxes raised on sales could be used to fund addiction therapies and the myriad other things which might help to reduce dependence.

It's not perfect, I know. But it's got to be a lot better than the system we have at the moment, which criminalises the most vulnerable in society rather than reaching out to them the hand of help. The real criminals are not the users and the prostitutes, but the suppliers, the pimps, the people who bring illegal immigrants to the UK and then force them to sell their bodies. I've no problem with the full force of the law being used against these people; I sometimes wish it went further. But I can't help thinking the easiest way to deal with them would be to destroy their market. And in the absence of people becoming celibate and drug-free en-mass, the best way to do that is for the government to steal that market for itself. Legitimise and control.

Of course, it will never happen. If this thirty-seven year old male turns out to be the killer, pretty soon we'll have consigned the Ipswich killings to an interesting footnote in the country's criminal history. The prostitutes will be back on the streets (actually, they never left) and the press will find something else to talk about. But even if the killings continue, and the debate progresses, there will still be the great stumbling block.

Because as soon as one of our politicians comes close to suggesting that drugs be legalised, or prostitution, or any number of society's more questionable pastimes, the cry goes up that they are condoning such behaviour. That they are leading our gullible and feckless youth down a path of total moral corruption. That they want to eat our babies and rape our daughters.

Now I don't get that argument. It comes up every time, and every time I shake my head and wonder at the illogic of it. Smoking tobacco is legal in this country, if you're over sixteen. The government takes billions of pounds a year in tax on cigarette sales, and spends a decent chunk of it on persuading people not to smoke. It has banned advertising for cigarettes anywhere but at the point of sale, and provides counselling services to help people quit. The consumption of alcohol is legal in this country if you are over eighteen. The government taxes the sale of beer, wine and spirits so much that it's cheaper to drive to France and buy them there. And every year, our televisions are filled with the same drink-driving and drink-awareness messages. Paid for by the central kitty that is Her Majesty's Treasury.

Nowhere have I seen a government-sponsored message suggesting that we should smoke more and drink more. There are no classes in school on how to get pissed fast, or the best way to chain-smoke. Government and individual politicians in no way condone smoking and drinking. Quite the opposite. And yet at the merest hint of a relaxation of any given law, the cry goes up that bad behaviour is being encouraged. 'What message does this send to our children?' is often the question asked. To which I always end up shouting: 'How good a parent are you that you can't teach your children what's right and wrong?'

It frustrates me greatly that no politician has ever faced down this argument publicly and with the contempt that it deserves. It's woolly thinking of the worst kind, pandering to emotion when what is needed is a level-headed analysis of the facts. Drugs exist, prostitution exists. Making them illegal has not made them go way. Instead it has given rise to sophisticated and ruthless criminal organisations as well as a vast army of petty thieves and addicts who plague the daily lives of ordinary people. We may disapprove of people selling themselves for sex, or of doping themselves into insensibility, but we should accept that they will do it, and try to work out the best way of managing that, rather than trying to sweep it under the carpet, lock it up and hope that if we're not watching it will go away.


Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Gee, nothing controversial about this post.

Okay, I'm not saying this is my opinion. But perhaps some of these politicians figure that if prostitutes weren't easy targets, these psychos would attack "decent" women. I wonder if that kind of "they're only rubbish" thinking goes into the process at all with why prostitution hasn't been legalized.

Drugs, whole different ballpark. Do you watch The Wire James? Because you really should. Especially season 3. And then you can ponder the question of legalizing drugs until the cows come home, because while there's a strong argument to be made for it, the result still isn't pretty.

I don't know what the answers are.

And there are plenty of wome who aren't prostitutes who sell themselves, if you follow me. We just put different labels on it...

December 18, 2006 10:42 pm  
Blogger JamesO said...

I don't believe for a minute that legalising drugs and prostitution would make the world a better place, Sandra. All the reasons for taking drugs in the first place will still be there, and some women will always see prostitution as the solution to their problems. People will still die, people will still kill. Families will still be broken apart by terrible tragedy. But if we can stop thinking of these people as criminals, and start seeing them as victims, then perhaps we might try to help them a little more. And if they're contributing to the economy in the form of taxes, perhaps we won't mind so much the money spent on helping them.

As far as I'm aware, The Wire's not been shown over here - at least not on the free channels that are all I'm prepared to pay for. I'll have to add it to my DVD rental list, if Amazon have it available.

December 19, 2006 12:16 pm  
Blogger Trace said...

It's a touchy topic, to be sure. Too much for my brain to contemplate at the moment. These issues come up again and again. Like Sandra, I don't know what the answer is either. *Sigh*

Thank you so much for putting my cover on your blog, James. I appreciate it more than you can imagine. *KISS*

December 19, 2006 1:52 pm  

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