Sep 6 10 10:31 PM

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The Economist Magazine in the UK is sponsoring a Live Debate today for and against the Legalization of Sex Commerce and Sex Work (i.e. Prostitution).
Sienna Baskin of the Sex Worker Project (New York) against Melissa Farley of Prostitution Education and Research (Las Vegas)....
Interestingly 80% of the respondants are for the motion and only 20 % are against.
Here's the link: http://www.economist.com/debate/overview/182

In 25 hours...rebuttal statements from the speaker and moderator. Get alerts

Opening statements

Sienna Baskin
Defending the motion

Sienna Baskin
Co-director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Centre

While calling for "legalisation" is perhaps too simple, it is time for a serious conversation about the effects of criminalisation on the human rights of sex workers and survivors of trafficking.

Melissa Farley
Against the motion

Melissa Farley
Executive director, Prostitution Research & Education

Before we decide whether to legalise prostitution, it is important to know what it is and what it is not. It is not a job like any other job. Whether or not it is legal, prostitution is extremely harmful for women.

John Parker
The moderator's opening remarks
Sep 6th 2010 | Mr John Parker

Prostitution raises both moral and legal questions. Our debate focuses on the legal question: should the practice be legalised? But the moral one—is it wrong to buy and sell sex?—cannot easily be avoided. Melissa Farley, the opposer of our motion, starts from the moral perspective, arguing that the practice is wrong because "in prostitution, men remove women's humanity." Men, she says, turn a prostitute into nothing more than "a rented organ".

A sense that there is something intrinsically wrong with what is often called the world's oldest profession informs her argument against relaxing anti-prostitution laws. "It's not a job like any other job," she says. "Pimps don't suddenly become nice guys because prostitution is legal." "Legal johns aren't nice guys looking for a normal date." The argument is that if prostitution is morally and intrinsically wrong, no amount of legal reform will remove the damage it does.

Hence, Ms Farley, who is a clinical psychologist who has researched the impact of prostitution, attributes the violence that it part of it to the practice itself. She quotes a study in the Netherlands (where prostitution is legal) which found 60% of women in the business had been physically assaulted. The implication is that, if violence is at such high levels in a country where prostitution is legal, legalisation will surely do little or nothing to reduce violence.

Not so, says Sienna Baskin, who argues for the motion. She focuses on the extent to which violence is associated with criminalisation. "Criminalisation," she says, "creates a culture permitting violence against sex workers and sanctions violence and discrimination against them."

Ms Baskin, who is a public-interest lawyer acting for sex workers, quotes a study from America which found over a quarter of women selling sex on the streets had been subject to violence by the police. She also points to the experience of Cambodia, a country with a large sex industry. When it criminalised prostitution in 2008, she says, women were sent to so-called rehabilitation camps were women were raped and, according to Human Rights Watch, three people died. It is case of the cure being as bad as, or worse than, the disease.

Criminalising sex work fails to reduce levels of violence, she suggests, because it makes sex workers afraid to report crimes against them and discourages even victims of sex trafficking from going to the police because they fear being treated as criminals themselves. Its main effect, she implies, is to drive violence underground.

In contrast, she points out two examples where relaxing legal barriers has worked. One comes from Britain, where a chief constable categorised violence against sex workers as a hate crime and half a dozen local organisations have begun to support sex workers in reporting violence against them to the police. The other is New Zealand, where decriminalisation seems to have encouraged safer working conditions.

However, Ms Baskin also makes a point that followers of our debate may wish to take up in greater detail. The blanket term "legalisation" is perhaps too simple and sweeping. There are different forms of legalisation and of criminalisation and some of these forms may be worse or better than others. As she says, "it is time for a serious conversation about the effects of criminalisation".