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Ideological debates like these make it difficult to legislate sex work. Sex work is at a crossroads where multiple social issues intersect, from poverty and social inequality to the rights of women and minority groups. In such a complex field, legislation that can seem reasonable and straightforward in theory can have unexpected consequences in practice on, for instance, the safety of sex workers.
With this in mind, it is crucial to make clear distinctions between different legal frameworks and to examine closely their possible repercussions. In Canada, for example, prostitution is technically legal, but buying or advertising it is not. Under legalisation, prostitution is legal only under particular state-specified conditions and regulations; the sex-work industry is therefore controlled exstensively by the government. Sex-work-specific regulations are put in place, which may include measures such as the registration and licencing of sex workers.
An example of a country where prostitution is legalised is the Netherlands, where prostitution is regulated and subject to income tax. On the other hand, decriminalisation involves stripping away all prostitution-specific legislation, either to forbid or to regulate it although the sex-work industry and everyone involved in it must still abide by the laws of the land. The idea behind decriminalisation is to allow sex workers to manage their own industry and design their own regulations.
Legalisation and decriminalisation are often confused with one another, merged into one, or otherwise misunderstood. But the distinction between these two terms is critical. Prostitution in the UK —with the exception of Northern Ireland, where buying sex is illegal—exists in a legal grey area. While the selling of sex is technically legal, plenty of related activities are not, meaning a system of partial criminalisation is in place. Some of the banned activities include brothel-keeping, pimping, kerb-crawling, pandering and soliciting or buying sex in a public place.
It is legislation surrounding these banned activities that has attracted the most criticism—in particular, the criminalisation of brothel-keeping.