Lifestyle Economics

Demand for sexual entertainments is ineradicable. We must decriminalise prostitution.

Prostitution is often discussed as a moral issue. Social science offers another perspective. In particular the numerous sex surveys carried out around the world as a result of the AIDS scare led me to conclude that the sex industry should be fully decriminalised. Attempts to eliminate or regulate prostitution are ineffective, ill-informed and a waste of public money.

In my report for the Institute of Economic Affairs, published today, I show large and continuing differences between male and female perspectives on sexuality, finding that they are pervasive in all cultures, even in Scandinavia. Male sexual desire is manifested at least twice as often as female desire. Despite the ‘sexual revolution’ and reliable contraception, the gap is growing over time. So the sexual deficit among men is growing steadily.  It is no surprise that men always have been, and still remain the main customers for commercial sexual entertainment of all sorts, and that sex workers – both male and female – cater to men almost exclusively.

Sex surveys around the world show a substantial gap in sexual desire and motivation between men and women. This cannot be dismissed as an outdated patriarchal myth as argued by some feminists. In Britain, the 2010 National Survey of Sexual Lifestyles (NatSAL-3) found that among couples aged 25 and over, one-third of women report an imbalance in sexual interest with their partner – typically because the wife has lost interest in sex. Sex-starved and celibate marriages are more common than we realise.

In addition, the demand for commercial and professional sexual entertainment is growing steadily world-wide, as economic growth drives demand for luxuries, the internet creates new meeting places for sexual encounters (both amateur and professional), and globalisation makes sexual markets international in scope.

The internet has changed the sexual landscape in Western countries, so that the distinction between amateur and professional sexual encounters becomes increasingly blurred. Among many young people, sexuality is taken for granted as a main entertainment. Recreational and non-marital sexuality is becoming just as important as reproductive and marital sexuality.  These social changes make it increasingly difficult, even impossible, to police commercial sexual entertainments.

The public image of the sex industry tends to focus on streetwalkers, as this is the most visible group, and the subject of many films and media stories about violence against women. However streetwalkers constitute less than 10% of the industry today. Prostitution has moved indoors, largely due to the internet, and has become an invisible sector in most European countries.

Several factors suggest that the male sexual deficit will not disappear, and is even growing in the 21st century. Women’s increasing economic independence allows them to withdraw from sexual markets and relationships that they perceive to offer unfair bargains, especially if they already have enough children, or do not want any. Divorce has become commonplace. Changes in national sex ratios towards a numerical surplus of men also help women to reset the rules in their own favour in developed societies. Due to the absence of major wars that traditionally eliminated the 6% surplus of males at birth, modern societies are slowly tilting towards a surplus of men in the prime-age 30-50 age group.

Male demand for sexual entertainments of all kinds is thus growing, and ineradicable. As economists Levitt and Dubner recognised in their SuperFreakonomics book, the puzzle is not why intelligent and attractive women become prostitutes, but rather why more women are not tempted into this lucrative occupation.

A key objection to the sex industry is that it damages women and that the presence of pornography, lap-dancing and prostitution in a country promotes rape and other violence against women. However, all available evidence points in the direction of prostitution and erotic entertainments having no noxious psychological or social effects, and they may even help to reduce sexual crime rates. In the USA, the state of Rhode Island unintentionally decriminalised indoor prostitution between 2003 and 2009. This led to a steep decline in reported rapes – down by one-third. Sweden has the highest rate of reported rape in Europe, with reported rape quadrupling in recent years, at a time when public policy has been seeking to eliminate the sex industry.

Whilst it is perfectly legal to sell sexual services in Britain, any third-party involvement is not. This serves to criminalise the industry and brothels, not only preventing girls working together in a flat for their mutual protection, but also stopping anyone from lawfully supplying services to a sex worker or even renting a flat to them. There have been cases of the boyfriends, and even the children of prostitutes being prosecuted for pimping. This policy enforces social isolation on sex workers, which cannot be helpful.

Countries that criminalise buyers (such as Sweden), simply push demand abroad to countries with a more sex-positive culture. Two-thirds of men who buy sexual services do so outside Britain, most commonly in Europe and Asia. Policies that criminalise sellers directly, or criminalise third parties who supply them with services, simply push the sex industry underground, increasing the risks for sex workers. Many prostitutes fear the police just as much as violent customers.

The commercial sex industry is impervious to prohibitions and cannot be eliminated. It is estimated to be worth over four billion pounds to the British economy alone. It should now be completely decriminalised – as Amnesty International and the United Nations have recommended.

Dr Catherine Hakim is the author of the new IEA report Supply and Desire: Sexuality and the Sex Industry in the 21st Century

1 thought on “Demand for sexual entertainments is ineradicable. We must decriminalise prostitution.”

  1. Posted 17/08/2015 at 17:01 | Permalink

    I agree with Catherine that prostitution should be decriminalised. She sums up the arguments, moral, biological, legal and sociological with admirable brevity, and concision.

    With regard to the Levitt and Dubner book, my impression of their discussion of prostitution was that, with the availability of efficient contraception, non-sex-workers, ie your wife, your girlfriend, and others, were more available for sex, thus reducing the opportunities for sex-workers. One exception they mention is when a convention comes to town. The result is a kind of tidal inflow of part-time prostitutes boosting their incomes.


    Mike Buckler

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