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.
Prostitution is a choice and an activity among equals
Legalizing would increase reporting of assault and decrease violence against sex workers
Assumes two consenting adults and would eliminate the role of the trafficker
Protects workers from criminal liability
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.
A National Overview of Prostitution and Sex Trafficking Demand Reduction Efforts
United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime - GLOBAL REPORT ON TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS
What Kind of Men Go to Prostitutes?
A National Overview of Prostitution and Sex Trafficking Demand Reduction Efforts, Final Report
Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking?
Ten Reasons for Not Legalizing Prostitution and a Legal Response to the Demand for Prostitution
CA Law section
NV: State Law and Prostitution
New factsheets - Who are the traffickers
Legalized Prostitution Increases Human Trafficking
Human Trafficking: A Comparison of National and Nevada Trends
Human Trafficking: A Comparison of National and Nevada Trends