Britain should not emulate France and the bill that is currently before the French Parliament, which will severely penalise anyone caught using the services of prostitutes. Instead, we should move in the opposite direction and legalise brothels.
True, this might seem odd coming from a rabbi – “aren’t you clergy supposed to be against sex outside marriage?” – but it is a matter of social reality not pious theology. The question is not do we wish the sex trade did not exist, but how do we best deal with it?
It is not for nothing that prostitution is known as the oldest profession. Those who read the Bible in full – as opposed those familiar just with the selected readings chosen for services – will know that it is there right in the beginning in the Book of Genesis, with the patriarch Jacob spending time with one (it turned out to be a case of mistaken identity, but that is irrelevant to the fact that the trade was clearly well established).
In the much quoted story proving how wise was King Solomon – having to chose between two women who both claimed to be mother of the same child – the crucial detail that both were prostitutes is often conveniently omitted in children’s versions of the Bible.
Of course, there are also verses condemning prostitutes, but the fact that the latter continue to appear throughout both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament indicates that those injunctions were often ignored.
The reasons are no doubt the same as today – a mix of some men wanting sex in a way that they cannot have with their spouses, and other men not having any partners in the first place.
Little has changed for the women (or the male prostitutes) over the centuries: with the vast majority being forced into it either because of poverty, or variant forms of slavery, or the additional problem today of the need to pay for drug addiction. What also has not changed is that they can be subject to mental or physical abuse, and liable to life-threatening disease.
So why do we not solve many of the problems by legalising brothels and making sure that some basic controls over safety and hygiene are implemented (but without monitoring activities too closely and thereby discouraging usage of them).
The religious disquiet over this type of sex will remain in some quarters, but there is a hierarchy of religious values, and the fact that lives will be bettered should take precedence over moral misgivings.
There will also be concern over the message this gives to society about the casualness of sex and relationships outside marriage, but in fact it is the other way round. The message has long been coming from society about a more relaxed attitude, and it seems daft to ignore practical steps for the sake of theoretical principles.
Of course it would be better not have men sexually frustrated in the first place, and certainly far better not to have women forced to use their bodies as income support, but if it mean prostitutes can operate in a way that is safer and certain backstreets are less dangerous, then these advantages would justify it. It may also provide an exit route for those desperate to change their situation.
It may be more messianic to want to end the sex trade altogether, but perhaps it is more religious to seek to channel it safely.