Is it time to legalise prostitution?

With concern mounting for two further prostitutes in Ipswich and a string of similar deaths and disappearances in East Anglia in the past 14 years, LAURA DEVLIN asks whether the case for legalising prostitution has finally been proved.

With concern mounting for two further prostitutes in Ipswich and a string of similar deaths and disappearances in East Anglia in the past 14 years, LAURA DEVLIN asks whether the case for legalising prostitution has finally been proved.

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It is a shadowy scenario as old as time... Girl waits on street, man approaches, the deal is sealed and they leave together to have sex for money.

Working as a prostitute is riddled with the risk of physical abuse, rape and, as the past few weeks have revealed, murder.

And yet, every night, vice girls plying their trade in red light districts are faced with the paradox of putting themselves in what could be mortal danger to obtain the cash to pay for food for their children, to buy drugs, to appease pimps and for basic survival.

The vicious circle of prostitution being the only source of income for some women struggling through a life we can only begin to imagine belittles Suffolk police's call for women to stay off the streets for their own safety.

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It may be an obvious piece of advice to any of us working in a innocuous job with a guaranteed wage slip at the end of the month. But to a prostitute, running for cover - no matter how high the stakes - would make all the sense of asking to be fired.

The complex issues surrounding the welfare of prostitutes have, understandably, come under the spotlight with the murders of Gemma Adams, Tania Nicol and an unnamed, third prostitute.

Canon Mia Talbot works with the Magdalene Group, a Norwich-based charity which supports prostitutes, and has spoken to many women in the city concerned and agitated by the killings. She says the group does not view lawful prostitution or the licensing of brothels as a fail-safe way to protect prostitutes, but women can take steps to avoid obvious hazards.

“If we are talking in favour of it, the people working would be working in an open way and might be safer because there would be nothing illegal; they would not be soliciting,” she said. “Prostitutes tend to work in shadowy places and do not work if there are lots of people around, so if it were legal it would be easier to keep an eye on them.

“But there are always going to be disturbed people who have a pathological hatred of people working in prostitution, and legislation would not prevent that.

“It may also make it easier for people who put people into prostitution to operate because it gives them a cloak of legality, and we could end up with all sorts of other problems.”

Prostitution almost always runs parallel with drug dependency, and it would be unthinkable to give licence indirectly to pushers and pimps whose wealth could swell by encouraging women to sell sex without any criminal implications.

“Having a drug habit is a 24/7 job,” explained Canon Talbot.

“People are still going out to work, but we advise them to do it in groups and to keep an eye on each other; to raise the alarm when someone does not come back when they should; to never get in to a car that has more than one punter in it. If possible, you should arrange to meet somewhere where you could get help fairly quickly.

“Prostitutes do turn jobs down after weighing people up, but if somebody is new to prostitution they may not be so savvy and no environment is completely safe.”

The government's proposed strategy to licence mini-brothels operating with two people and a maid would offer girls the sanctuary of a roof over their heads but, again, not necessarily out of harm's way.

Carrie Mitchell, of the English Collective of Prostitutes, said the fear of a killer on the loose in Ipswich would not keep prostitutes off the streets. She added: “When the Yorkshire Ripper was active, women were still on the streets of Bradford and they said they were less terrified of being murdered than they were terrified of not being able to put food on the table for their children.”

Meanwhile, the Magdalene Group will have more nightshift outreach workers talking to prostitutes in Norwich and has a daytime drop-in service at its base in King Street, a helpline and website.

And greater police patrols in the red light district have probably prompted more prostitutes to stay at home.

“I would have to say that, if a woman is out on the street tonight, she must be desperate for her next hit,” said Canon Talbot.