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THE selling of sex has been widely practised, and roundly condemned, throughout history. Even some who still disapprove of prostitution wonder, given the authorities' constant failure to curb it, whether it might be less bad to legalise and the profession. This would help to get it off the streets, take it out of the hands of organised crime, control the spread of disease and curb sex slavery and underage prostitution. Such reasons were given by parliamentarians from Belgium's new Socialist-Liberal coalition when, on Thursday July 10th, they promised a bill to legalise brothels.

At the moment, self-employed prostitutes are legal in Belgium but brothels are not. By proposing to legalise and regulate them, the country is following its neighbour, the Netherlands, which did so three years ago. Since Dutch brothel girls are now legitimate workers, they have had to start paying income tax, boosting the government's coffers.

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The wages of sin is tax, not death, it seems. Romania's parliament is already debating similar legislation, while New Zealand passed a law to legalise brothels last month. After years of heated debate, its parliament approved the measure by just one vote. In neighbouring Australia, the situation is more confused: Sydney has legalised brothels and Tasmania is planning to follow suit; but this month the state government of Western Australia abandoned its plans for liberalisation after concluding they would not pass in the state assembly.

Worried about the rising s of foreign prostitutes on the streets, Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, last year raised the possibility of bringing back d brothels, which were common in Italy until they were banned in Britain recently brought in tougher laws against street prostitution but many cities and their local police forces have bowed to the inevitable and introduced sluts for sale of tolerance, where the authorities turn a blind eye to soliciting. The London-based International Union of Sex Workers, which recently affiliated to the GMB, one of Britain's largest trade unions, is campaigning for changes in the law, arguing that the prohibition of soliciting increases the risk of violence, forcing prostitutes to rely on pimps for protection.

Though the case for liberalisation seems to be making headway in most liberal democracies, there are still many who oppose, on moral grounds, anything that smacks of official sanctioning of sex for money. Of course, the Catholic church immediately condemned Mr Berlusconi's talk of liberalisation.

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Prostitution is nothing more than paid rape. Church leaders and other opponents of legalisation point to Sweden—which, despite its reputation for being sexually liberated, tightened its laws against prostitution into make it illegal to try to buy sex though not to sell it. Men caught soliciting prostitutes now face up to six months' jail.

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The Swedish government claims its measure has been a success and is urging other countries to follow suit. The Russian parliament is expected soon to debate a proposal to do just that. Whatever the Swedish government claims, social workers who deal with prostitutes say the law has simply driven the sex trade underground, thereby making it harder to clamp down on trafficking in foreign women, one of the law's main aims.

A survey, after the law changed, by the National Board of Health and Welfare, seemed to contradict sluts for sale government's claims of success: most police districts surveyed found either that levels of street prostitution had not changed, or had only fallen temporarily. Nevertheless, the government continues its crusade: earlier this month it wrote to the Greek authorities expressing outrage at their plans to increase the of d brothels in Athens while the city is hosting next year's Olympics. Sex has always been a big business, but usually a shady one.

Sex has always sluts for sale a big business, but usually a shady one, dominated by criminal gangs. But in a few liberated places, such as the American state of Nevada, professionally run brothels have made great strides in ensuring their working girls are safe from violence and disease. In May, Daily Planet, a bordello in the Australian city of Melbourne, was floated on the stockmarket.

The firm now plans a sexual leisure park in Sydney and branches in America, Brazil and Colombia. Few cities have gone quite so far as Cape Town in South Africa, which decided in to publicise its brothels as a tourist attraction. But many parts of the world are taking a more relaxed attitude and either liberalising for the first time or returning to the tradition of allowing a limited of what the French call maisons closes : officially sanctioned but discreet brothels. Increasingly, governments are realising that paid sex is impossible to eradicate, and that it is better to concentrate on keeping the business clean, safe and inconspicuous.

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