street workerI want to make this assertion: that five women of Ipswich, England would probably still be alive today if prostitution were legal.

Our American friends won’t be familiar with this story since it received virtually no press here, but every British headline is reporting that an Ipswich man, Steve Wright, has been found guilty of murdering five women who were working as prostitutes in the town’s red light district. According to The Guardian:

“Wright admitted frequently using prostitutes in Ipswich and having sex with four of the victims. He denied murdering Gemma Adams, 25; Tania Nicol, 19; Anneli Alderton, 24; Paula Clennell, also 24; and Annette Nicholls, 29. …. The crucial breakthrough came when Wright’s DNA – which was on the police computer database after he was convicted of stealing £80 from his employer in 2002 – was found on one of the bodies. During the trial, he told the jury he had used prostitutes for nearly a quarter of a century.”

It’s something of a libertarian cliché to claim that the government is always to blame. In this case, however, as in many others, it happens to be true. The state created the circumstances in which these women were vulnerable to attack, by making their profession illegal in the first place. It’s true that the women decided to do it, regardless of the risks, and Steve Wright is a reprehensible killer who should be locked up for life or sentenced to death for the killings. But it was the law which created the conditions necessary for these attacks to occur as they did, and which gave Steve Wright his opportunities.

I know I’m losing some of you here. So let me start with a basic argument, and we’ll work our way up from there.

1) Prostitution is inevitable.

Prostitution is called the “oldest profession.” It has always existed in human history, and always will. No nation, notwithstanding its laws, has ever succeeded to stop people exchanging sex for money. Not even the bible condemns common prostitution; in biblical times concubines and courtesans were an ordinary part of society (only ‘temple prostitutes’, priests and priestesses to other gods, were condemned). All existing evidence shows us that prostitution is socially inevitable.

2) Prostitution is a legitimate service.

Why is it inevitable that people will exchange sex with money (point 1)? Could it be that prostitution fulfils a vital role in society by addressing the sexual needs of men and women who, for whatever reason, aren’t finding satisfaction within (or don’t have the ability to engage in) the social institutions of courtship, dating and marriage? Sex is a physical need, as valuable and basic as sleep, nutriment or hygiene, and – if there are those who have no other means, and there are – it is legitimate for them to seek the services of a prostitute.

3) Prostitution should be protected in law.

Such an inevitable, legitimate service is rightfully lawful. No third parties’ rights are infringed upon when a person uses the services of a prostitute. People in a free society have the right to have sex with whomever they like under whatever peaceful terms they wish. As I’ve argued before here on this blog, both sex and money (and what one does with either in peaceful adult interactions) fall within the sphere of individual rights, and therefore exchanging one for the other should be protected by default.

Steve Wright was unable to visit a prostitute under the protection of the law. He therefore broke the law in order to do so. I don’t wish to argue that the inevitability of human beings paying for sex forced him to break the law, because he did so while in control of his own actions. But here is the net result of his having to break the law in order to visit a prostitute: first, it meant that he’d already crossed the line separating law-abiding citizens from criminals. This is likely to have encouraged any existing, latent violent tendencies he had (in a letter to his father from prison he speaks about bottling up his anger and being exposed to a lot of violence as a child). Since he had already crossed that line, it was psychologically easier for him to continue to indulge his darker intents with these violent crimes. It’s a fact that people who have committed minor crimes are more likely to commit more serious, more violent ones than those who’ve never broken the law at all.

But there’s a much more fundamental reason to believe that the women of Ipswich would have been much safer had their profession been legal. The fact is that laws banning prostitution force sex workers out onto the streets to do business, where they are vulnerable and powerless to stop an aggressor, with no recourse to the protection of law enforcement. A legal brothel can advertise it’s services in other ways – in magazines and online, for example – without the need to expose their workers to the danger of city streets at night to do business. Thus Gemma, Tania, Anneli, Paula and Annette would have spent their evenings working in the safety and protection of their building, and could not have been picked up and driven away in Steve Wright’s car, where they were at his mercy without help.

I don’t support the legalisation of prostitution for this reason primarily; I support it in principle because I don’t believe the government has the right to ban it. But I am certain that these women would be alive today had the state protected their profession in law. This isn’t an untested assertion: legal brothels exist in many countries including the United States. Consider Dennis Hof’s famous Bunny Ranch, for example (NSFW). It’s a few hours’ drive from where I live, and is an entirely safe, completely legal brothel, protecting both worker and client, without harming anybody in the process.

It’s bad enough that the government is stopping people from using their own money and their own bodies in the ways they want; but it is unconscionable that it is being done at the expense of human life.

Legalise prostitution, and you stop Steve Wright.