Aisha Iqbal: Let’s talk (honestly) about sex - and end the hypocrisy over the prostitution debate

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My first conversation with a prostitute was for an interview a few years ago. The girl had conquered her demons, had give up the game and was off to university.

She was one of the luckier ones, and was in no doubt about the murkiness and danger inherent in her former profession.

But I also remember her telling me very clearly that she and her working girl friends were united in the view that they wanted to see the laws around the sex trade changed.

“If it was legalised the girls would be getting the protection they need,” she told me.

“All the funding goes into the policies that don’t work and the ones that do work aren’t getting the funding.”

Fast forward a few years, and have we really moved on that much?

The legislation is even hazier if anything and, with the increased risks around people trafficking, the dangers to girls are greater.

What often gets missed in the current and ongoing debate is that prostitution itself - the exchange of sexual services for money - is NOT against the law in the UK. But related activities like soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling, pimping and - perhaps most significantly and nonsensically - owning or managing a brothel, are illegal.

I think there is an astounding amount of hypocrisy in the way we deal with this issue in the UK, and it is often rooted in the class divide.

Even the language used around the sex trade varies dramatically.

While red light zones are associated with the dregs of society, escorts and high class call girls operate, ostensibly, at the other end of the scale.

It’s an age old problem, of course - as old as the profession itself.

But it’s come into sharper focus in Leeds with the advent - and relative success, depending on who you talk to - of the country’s first ‘managed zone’ for working girls, which allows them to ply their trade in a designated area at designated times without fear of prosecution.

It’s been a hugely controversial project, but it’s one I think is laudable and progressive.

It won’t solve things overnight, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Why can’t we as a country have a mature discussion about this issue, rather than continuously skirting around it?

We are certainly behind the rest of the world in our approach.

At last count, no fewer than eight European countries had a legal and regulated prostitution industry. Five other countries including France have a slightly different, but equally progressive, approach, placing the legal responsibility on clients rather than prostitutes in the hope of improving sex workers’ safety and reducing human trafficking.

Germany has perhaps gone the furthest. The city of Stuttgart is home to one of the largest legal brothels in Europe, with its own restaurant, a cinema, a spa and 31 private rooms.

By treating prostitution as a job like any other, it is hoped, women can be freed from the pimps and drug dealers - and can take back control of the trade, and their bodies. They even pay into a pension and have health insurance.

I’m not saying I’m completely comfortable with the idea of people selling their bodies for money. It’s sleazy and degrading and misogynistic to its very core. But it’s also a fact of life - an ancient and universal truth.

As long as there is no violence or force involved, people should be free to do with their own bodies what they wish.

But in a society otherwise obsessed with health and safety, it’s about time working girls (and boys) were protected.

Talk of decriminalising prostitution has been ongoing at the highest level for a decade now.

Just last year, a Government select committee published a report which found that around 11 per cent of British men aged 16–74 have paid for sex on at least one occasion,

This equates to a staggering 2.3 million individuals.

It is also estimated that the number of sex workers in the UK is around 72,800, with each having an average of 25 clients per week, paying an average of £78 per visit.

Regulated rightly, with safety of the workers paramount, this can be a lucrative tax revenue bringer.

The same report also pointed out the blindingly obvious - that the perennial foot-dragging on more progressive legislation is down to the divisive, polarising moral arguments.

But again, this comes back to our hypocrisy.

We pride ourselves on being a sexually (and in other ways) liberated society, spending much of our time pouring scorn on other countries which we feel are draconian and backward and repressed in comparison.

And yet we don’t have the courage of our own apparently enlightened convictions.

We have a thriving sexual entertainment industry and ever-more relaxed attitudes personified by the ‘mummy porn’ phenomenon.

Sex is everywhere around us, on our bookshelves, on our radios and on our TV screens.

Let’s face it, the slew of reality shows dominating our screens nowadays are often little more than televised prostitution.

Those who argue against decriminalisation say that it’s tantamount to supporting exploitation. But would these same people all argue for the closure of lapdancing clubs and the sex industry generally?

And surely better legislation would help sort the exploited from the willing, and help to protect both?

It’s time to have a grown up conversation about the vice trade, and bring the oldest profession out of the shadows - and into the new world.

An image of the proposed trolleybus (NGT) scheme.

Lessons learned ahead of meeting about Leeds trolleybus inquiry