A modest proposal for making the sex industry safer – make punters get a licence

We still aren’t talking enough about what supposedly civilised men actually do to women in prostitution.

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“Civilisation” is a rum concept. For much of history it’s been defined with women on the outside: great men do their great works, and women are vaguely imagined on the fringes. Jeremy Corbyn thinks we should have a more “civilised” approach to prostitution: “I want to be [in] a society where we don’t automatically criminalise people”, he told an audience at Goldsmiths, and that gender-neutral word “people” means he’s not only talking about freeing those in prostitution (mostly women) from the heinous burden of criminalisation, but also and more controversially striking away the laws concerning men who pay for sex.

Focusing on how prostitution policy affects women is certainly an advance on 100 years ago, when the Defence of the Realm Act treated suspected prostitutes as a danger to men. “Infected women” who “had sexual intercourse with any member of His Majesty’s troops” could be inspected and punished; women were placed under curfew, their movement was restricted, their homes invaded. (This brutal history is why many women in sex work who support decriminalisation of the industry are wary of well-meaning liberals who think “regulation” would be a benefit. Women who sell sex have got every reason to be suspicious of those who want to “regulate” them.)

But moving beyond misogynist anxieties about women in prostitution as a threat to civilisation isn’t enough. We still aren’t talking enough about what supposedly civilised men actually do to women in prostitution. In fact, some groups very carefully avoid talking about men at all. National Ugly Mugs, a reporting and information sharing scheme for incidents of violence against those in prostitution, says it issues warnings about “dangerous individuals”, but those dangerous individuals are, specifically, men. Men who rape, men who assault, men who murder.

The problem with having identified men as the source of harm in prostitution, however, is that you can’t have prostitution without men. Every industry needs a market, and men are the market for paid sex: one in ten British men has ever paid for sex, and one in 100 pays for sex regularly. For comparison, only one in 1,000 women has paid for sex even once. If we’re going to have a civilised sex industry, it looks like we’ll have to find a way to manage men first.

Let’s start small, then. If we accept for the sake of argument that prostitution isn’t inevitably damaging to women, then we could say that men who want to pay for sex are exercising a particular sort of freedom which we know could be damaging to other people if used recklessly. It’s a bit like wanting to drive a car really. So any man who wants to pay for sex can start by applying for a punter’s licence. Just as for a driver’s licence, he’d have to be thoroughly examined first, with a full physical, criminal record check, and a lengthy theory test asking questions like “what would you do if you weren’t certain a woman was acting outside of someone else’s control?” and “if you’ve paid a woman for sex and she then says no, should you carry on or stop?”

Obviously, a few unsuitable men would slip through the licensing process, so there would have to be regular retesting – say, every six months – and a points system. (Asking a woman to let you go bareback? Instant lost licence.) And the rule would be no licence, no sex. In fact it would go further than that: no licence, no opportunity to ask for sex. Supporters of the sex industry often insist that women consent to paid sex, but there’s always the question of how freely that “yes” is given if a woman is worried about feeding her kids, paying overheads to a brothel, or making a profit after her pimp has taken a cut.

This new system would get rid of all those concerns. If men were paying to ask for sex, women could refuse without fearing lost income. And – bonus! – men who pay for sex could be certain that the women they’re paying are participating with enthusiastic consent. I can’t think of anything more depressing and grotesque than knowing another person is only tolerating me penetrating them because I’ve bribed them, and it would surely be a relief to all decent-minded johns to know that they’re not just taking their pleasure on a minimally compliant woman.

Of course, I don’t think this system is complete, but I do think this is the only way to have anything approaching an acceptable sex industry: one where the main threat to the safety of women in prostitution was kept tightly under control, and where everyone could be sure that the service being bought is offered without coercion. Of course, some will find this harsh. Dehumanising of men, even. But there is another way. It turns out, men don’t actually need to pay for sex. They could just choose not to, and instead only have sex with women who actually fancy them. It’s a radical idea, I know, but doesn’t it sound civilised?

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.