The social cost of prostitution

Prostitution is often framed in terms of individual choice, freedom and consent. But of course choices are never made in a vacuum. Prostitution would be better understood as a system build on multiple forms of inequality.1 J.Musto, C..Jackson, E.Shih Prostitution and Sex Work, International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (Second Edition) 2015, Pages 279-285

This system has a profound impact that’s felt not just by those directly involved with prostitution, but by the wider communities in which it takes place, and by society as a whole. 

“Prostitution has a close affinity with a host of other important social issues, in particular crime, drugs, sexual equality, poverty and health.”,

In 2004, the British Home Office brought out a consultation report called Paying the Price, which identified numerous key concerns about the community impact of prostitution: 3Chapters 7 & 8 Home Office (2004): Paying the Price: a consultation paper on prostitution

  • The neighbourhood nuisance of noise, litter and harassment
  • The undermining of local economic regeneration and neighbourhood renewal
  • The advertising of prostitution, particularly through street soliciting and the use of prostitutes’ cards
  • The spread of sexually and drug-transmitted infections
  • Increasing use of the internet as a grooming / advertising medium
  • Links with drug abuse/ drug markets
  • Links with criminality, including robbery
  • Related violence, including serious assaults against those involved in prostitution
  • The increasing stigmatisation and social exclusion of those involved in prostitution
  • he abuse of children through prostitution
  • The impact on their families
  • People-trafficking for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation
  • The effect on the attitudes of men to women, and on gender equality more generally.

The fact that street-based prostitution tends to take place in poorer communities is no accident; even those who tolerate prostitution don’t want it on their doorstep. The sex trade is not a nice, discreet, respectful and civilised affair but something that makes its ugly presence known to all those in the neighbourhood.

It’s not just the people selling sex who are the problem, but also the sex buyers who prowl the streets in their cars, throwing out sexual harassment and lewd remarks at any woman or child who happens to be passing by.

“My daughter was also approached whilst at high school, in her uniform. She was asked if she wanted sex.” 4Leeds Live (K.Johnson) Scared families demand end to Leeds sex zone where pimps, perverts and prostitutes prowl streets

Then there’s the anti-social behaviour: the verbal abuse; the kerb-crawling that slows down traffic; the public sexual activity in car parks, playgrounds and private gardens; the litter, including used condoms, dirty needles and other drugs paraphernalia. 

On top of all this are the high rates of criminality: the violence, trafficking and drug-dealing, a general decline in public order and an increase in lawlessness, which of course eats up huge amounts of police and local authority time and money. 

It also leads to local degeneration and a ‘spiral of decline’, with families and businesses deterred from moving into an area known to be not just unpleasant but also unsafe.

Even if we’re not living with prostitution on our doorstep, we’re still likely to be carrying the cost. In 2015, a major French study attempted to calculate the social cost of prostitution. The report estimated that the sex trade imposes a “twofold economic and social burden which the prostitutional system imposes on its victims and on society as a whole.” 5Prostcost: Estimation du coût économique et social de la prostitution en France (Mai 2015)

After 18 months of research, it concluded that prostitution costs the French economy approximately €1.6bn. This figure includes direct medical costs (e.g. costs of hospitalisation, direct non-medical costs (police, judiciary); costs of direct social consequences (housing, social support, prevention, etc.); costs of indirect social consequences (homicides, suicides, placing of children, etc); human costs for those in the sex trade (physical violence, psychological violence, sexual violence, etc) and finally, the costs linked to tax evasion on prostitution earnings.

While the heaviest cost of prostitution is carried by the people who sell sex, the burden of the sex trade is something that touches us all. Prostitution has a profoundly negative impact on our society. It’s time we stopped treating it as an abstract debate. 

Case Study:

In 2004, Leeds county council set up a controversial ‘managed approach’ in the Holbeck area of the city, which suspended all cautions and arrests for loitering, soliciting or kerb crawling within a designated area away from residential streets between 7pm and 7am. 

However, hundreds of people in Holbeck have complained and protested about the impact this policy has had on their community. They say that the rules are rarely followed, and police enforcement is lax.

A local paper reports: ‘‘Some people in Holbeck say they are forced to lock themselves inside their own homes because they feel unsafe, while those who do venture out witness sex acts being performed in broad daylight in front of families.”

A schoolgirl told the BBC that she was propositioned by a man who asked if she was “open for business”: “I was 13 and was wearing my school uniform walking to school. I barely got down the street and I was approached by a man asking if I was a prostitute. I’ve been asked by sex workers if I was one of them as well [while] walking back from school on a different occasion. It will happen to other children probably just as it happened to me and as long as the zone is there it will carry on happening.”

Another girl described how she had been followed and grabbed by a man. She said: “I was really scared because I was by myself and it was dark. He was just saying ‘I like you’ and I was walking faster and he started walking faster.”