top of page

Is Legalizing Prostitution the Answer?

Some sex workers and women's rights advocates have suggested that legalizing  or decriminalizing prostitution will help eradicate human sex trafficking. The idea being that it would stop punishing the prostituting person and instead provide them with access to things like healthcare, legal protection, and choices. In order to be successful in achieving these goals a few realities must be assumed.

5 assumptions: 

  1. Prostitution is a choice and an activity among equals

  2. Legalizing would increase reporting of assault and decrease violence against sex workers

  3. Assumes two consenting adults and would eliminate the role of the trafficker

  4. Protects workers from criminal liability

  5. It would eliminate or minimize victimization

Lets consider each assumption...

1. Activity Among Equals I think most would agree that the goal is to do everything we can to protect and empower those who are either an independent sex worker or one who is engaged in prostitution as a result of force, fraud or coercion. When we consider sex work as a vocation, whether or not as a result of exploitation, the demographics of the involved parties are rarely balanced. 

A quick snapshot:

  • Buyers are typically white, male, married, educated, mid to high level socio-economic status, and feel entitled or deserving of the activity

  • Traffickers are majority male, often share an identity with the victim (national, cultural or ethnic), often are a family member or intimate partner, and have the intent to exploit

  • Victims or Sex Workers are generally economically and emotionally vulnerable, often minimally educated, and/or have limited employment options

An individual who is in a state of emotional or economic stress is making survival-based decisions, not ones that consider long term consequences or future planning. They are decisions that one feels forced to make: Eat or not eat, shelter or the streets, inclusion or isolation. To make matters worse, they are being double teamed by the forces of the trafficker and the buyer that intentionally leverage a power advantage for their own personal profit or desires at the expense of the disadvantaged or vulnerable. It is not an equal arrangement. It's a difficult position to be in the middle of these forces, and even harder to get out of - no matter how strong you are. The reality is that there are very few situations of prostitution that do not begin or end with exploitation.

Consider the theories against the reported data below to help inform your decisions and conversations around the question: Will legalizing prostitution eliminate commercial sex trafficking?

2. Legalizing prostitution to protect sex workers Think Amsterdam and Germany. The theories here assume that it:

  • Allows for regulation

  • Reduces trafficking through the Substitution theory, meaning that it reduces demand for trafficked parties in favor of legal /licensed workers

  • Provides access to benefits for workers

  • Is amongst consenting adults

  • Would decrease violence against workers due to Increase in reporting of assaults

  • And that it is based on freedom of choice. 

However, based on research in countries where sex work is legal and regulated, they have found that:

  • The Scale model prevails, meaning legalized prostitution leads to expansion of market and increase in exploitation through exponential growth in brothels

  • There is no reduction in assault

  • No increase in reporting

  • Limits law support and intervention since it is a legal activity

  • Traffickers become business owners

  • Illicit activity continues in parallel

  • Use of Force Fraud & Coercion tactics and illegal immigration increases to meet demand

3. Assumes two consenting adults Decriminalizing prostitution for the buyers and the sellers of sex follows the thinking that both parties engage willingly. Theories in this model include that: 

  • It prevents traffickers from benefiting from activity 

  • Licensing required will provide access to support services 

  • Sex workers can manage/pimp for each other to maintain control

  • It is among consenting adults therefore no criminal liability 

  • The Substitution model prevails 

In countries that have this approach in place, like New Zealand, what is reported to be happening in practice is that: 

  • Traffickers merely ensure their workers are licensed, further removing trafficker from exposure 

  • There is a lack of police support and intervention

  • Buyers are now validated in their activity leading to increasing demand 

  • The Scale model is demonstrated 

  • Victims are still not reporting assault/rape

4. Protects worker from criminal liability What is known as the Nordic Model or Equality Now Model model decriminalizes solicitation by the sex worker but is illegal to pimp or buy sex. The theories at play here are that: 

  • It protects workers from criminal liability 

  • Develops enhanced consequences for buyer and trafficker 

  • Deters buyers and traffickers due to enhanced consequences

  • Law enforcement is prepared to manage new process with a new mindset 

  • Takes a victim-centered approach 

However, countries that have adopted this approach, such as Sweden, have seen in practice that:

  • The police are restricted in offering support or intervention

  • Regulatory enhancements are not yet present 

  • Regulatory enforcement is not consistent 

  • Buyers are still committing assault

  • Workers are still not reporting assault 

  • Traffickers are still present and controlling activity

5. It would eliminate or minimize victimization - a goal which we all want to achieve. The Equality Now model is the closest to achieving this in theory but so far no viable enduring model to minimize victimization has been consistently observed. There is, as of yet, no demonstrated model of consistent regulation, and law enforcement representatives have been found to be buyers and traffickers themselves, which clearly impacts accuracy and courage in reporting. What remains is the reality that prostitution/sex work is still largely a vocation of survival and vulnerability, buying of sex is still largely an activity of extreme self-need and fantasy, and trafficking remains an activity focused on profiteering, greed, and control.

Before going forward with any of the above variants, resources need to pumped into training and paradigm shifting, removing the judgment of those who choose sex work as a viable means of support and into significantly enhancing consequences for trafficking and exploitation. The work of changing mindsets and supporting the infrastructure needs to happen before any of the legalization or decriminalization theories can be truly successful. 

Until then, pimps become managers, buyers become validated, and human sex trafficking remains a lucrative low-risk business model with victims as commodities to buy, sell, and manipulate.


71 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page