Liscensing and sex work

Posted on July 25, 2013


An ally writes on why, as with alcohol, measures to control humanity rarely work and often have unintended consequences.

I am not an expert on sex work, though I know more about it than many would.

I am not an expert on the licensed trade (in alcohol), although, again, I know more about it than many would.

What intrigues me about the world of sex work now is the impact of the internet upon it, and its worst effects. Street sex work was emphasized and distorted in England and Wales by the existence of laws preventing anything that resembled a brothel being operated legally. A combination of old common law powers to prevent the keeping of a disorderly house, tight definitions of what constituted a disorderly house and the laws on living off immoral earnings that meant a sex workers husband would have to prove he didn’t know she was a prostitute all created, in effect, a tightly regulated arena for sex work, and that arena was the pavement.

There were alternatives of course; call girls, as they were known to the tabloids in the sixties or seventies, but they were often a metropolitan phenomenon.  There were upmarket brothels, and there were corrupt police officers willing to tolerate them in certain places, but it was an uncertain and dangerous arena to enter, with existing pimps and brothel keepers able to bar entry to competitors by using compliant, corrupted or tolerant police officers to discourage competition.

The internet has changed a lot of that. It’s possible to be a prostitute and advertise for punters without having to pay someone to card the local phone boxes or to put cryptic adverts in newsagents windows. (I once bought some furniture from an old lady convinced she’d be bothered by perverts if she advertised a large chest for sale in the local newsagents. She lived in rural Scotland…) It’s possible, thanks to Travellodge and Premier Inns and the like, to find inexpensive hotels where clients can be relatively anonymous.

The pavement, as a result, has become a choice of last resort, and it’s arguable that sex work needs no more regulation than currently exists.

However, this blog began as the germ of an idea about the thing I know a lot about. Alcohol sales.

The history of licensing law in England and wales is primarily the history of well intentioned meddling in the hope of achieving good order and common sense before a decline, in the 1980s, into ideologically inspired fuckwittery that has achieved almost exactly the reverse of the outcomes intended.

The sale of alcohol was not always tightly regulated, and was not always seen as an issue for government, It became such an issue in the nineteenth century, and gradually a hierarchy of regulation emerged in England and Wales. Public Houses were representative of the old inns and taverns, and sold beer, wines and spirits, often with food or entertainment. I may be wrong, but in my head I seem to remember inn as being the name for a place where food and cheap accommodation might be found, and a tavern as being a more urban venue likely to provide entertainment. Beerhouses, on the other hand, sold beer and cider, and were more down market. They were also an entry market for individuals wishing to try and make a business out of selling alcohol.

The growth of the brewing trade went hand in hand with increasingly restrictive licensing laws, restricting hours and conduct. De facto quotas on the number of licensed premises in an area meant that licensed premises assumed a value beyond their true value as property, because they were licensed. Attempts were often made to circumvent the rules on new premises under the mask of private members clubs, but in the main the result was that the licensed trade was controlled by breweries who were able to control the local licensed trade through a mix of financial power and their links with the local magistracy.

The annus mirabilis for the brewing trade was 1964. The Licensing Act of that year abolished the distinction between beerhouses and public houses, and allowed for the removal of a licence from one set of licensed premises to another more easily than had been the case in the past. Add this to the impact of improved road transport that allowed for the nationwide distribution of beer (undermining the regional breweries) and you had a recipe for a licensed trade that was, by the 70s, dominated by the cash rich national brewers whose beer was so awful they prompted a consumer revolt in the form of the Campaign for Real Ale.

What’s this got to do with sex work?

Well, one of the aspects of the restrictive licensed trade was the degree of toleration that went on within the law. Even though the Licensing Acts made clear that licenses could be lost for premises where prostitutes or thieves habitually gathered, the reality was that the police knew, in every town, which pubs were the haunts of thieves, prostitutes and others they liked to know about. The breweries knew about it too. the big brewers knew which licensees to put in which premises, and controlled the trade hand in glove with the police.  In effect the very people who should have been enforcing the regulations subverted them, because they were unworkable, and because they were inconvenient. Just as the police knew, and tolerated every prostitute in every town, so they tolerated the pubs that were badly run as being part of the full picture. When the Krays murdered George Cornell at the bar of the Blind Beggar it was not the first time the  police had heard that the pub was the haunt of notorious gangsters – they just found it convenient to know where the Krays were likely to be.

In the 1980s the ideological fuckwits were set loose on the pub trade, bringing with them the de-restriction of off-sales, all day opening and then the indescribable foolishness that was the beer orders, separating brewers from landlords and ensuring that the pub trade went into the decline from which it has never recovered, losing control of alcohol sales in the process. As a result we have had a succession of legislative interventions intended to address anti social behaviour linked to alcohol, with the latest wizard wheeze likely to be minimum pricing, as if that will succeed where regulation has failed.

Very few of the changes in licensing laws over the last 150 years have achieved the objectives described in their aims. As with much regulation, the law of unintended consequences has intervened. It’s why the first principle of regulation should be ‘do as little as necessary’ – not because it’s an ideological imperative, but because experience teaches us that the more you try to do, the greater the range of unintended consequences.

It’s why, I would argue, that there should be space for a debate about whether the problem of street prostitution is not a problem with sex work, but a problem of a skills shortage. If the women and boys who engage in street prostitution could organize their sex work in a safer, more healthy way, would they? If those women and boys had other choices, would they take them? Greater regulation of sex work would actually make it harder for those sex workers to get out of the lives they’re in.

Oddly, it may be that I agree with charities like A Way Out in some of their prescription for how to address street prostitution, even if I disagree with their motives and principles. We’d possibly disagree, too, over whether sex work is a choice people should be free to make. However, I’ll also say this.

The problem of street prostitution is almost always misrepresented. It is not a crime to stand on a street corner, nor is it a social problem. Some of the people who are offended by street prostitution are also offended by kids playing football, strangers driving down their street, junk mail and free newspapers. They probably swear at Jehovah’s Witnesses as well. Not all clients are the worst kind of kerb crawlers, accosting any woman they see. Most  would prefer to find sex workers in other, safer ways -and the small subset who have fetishized kerb crawling and its associated inconveniences can also be managed within existing law. Just as we don’t ban pubs because some people get drunk and behave like arses, it would be perverse to prohibit sex work because some  lack some very basic social skills or the ability to understand consent as a principle (and it is a breach of consent to proposition someone who isn’t looking for sex, or a punter)..

Licensing and its special case, prohibition (and prohibition is only a special case of licensing) will not fix the problems of some sex workers being substance misusers, or having chaotic lives. Believing that it will is ignoring the facts.


Posted in: The Nordic Model