Should prostitution be legal? Oh dear, that’s a tough one.
As we’ve explored the questions surrounding prostitution, I’m sure you’ve realized this issue is a complicated one. There’s so much gray area, so many complicated external factors, so many differences of opinion, it’s hard to know where to stand.
So far, we’ve been searching for answers, but when there are many answers to the same questions, it’s hard to know which is right. But that’s not the point. If we approach the question of legalization from a stance of right and wrong, we’ll end up frustrated and confused. When it comes to legalizing prostitution, we’re not looking for the right answer, we’re looking for justice. Wish us luck.
There are two main camps in the prostitution debate—those for legalization and those against—and a million shades of gray in between.
Proponents of legal prostitution hold the view that prostitution is a victimless crime. Many believe that criminalizing prostitution encourages illegal activity. Legalizing prostitution would ensure safer working conditions for sex workers and discourage the spread of disease. They believe that legalization would decrease violence against sex workers, discourage underage prostitution, and lessen cases of human trafficking.
Those against the legalization of prostitution feel that prostitution is inherently immoral. They believe that prostitution is violence against women and increases instances of rape and sexual assault. Many believe that prostitution encourages the spread of disease, involvement of sexual predators, and human trafficking.
Before we jump to pick sides, let’s take a look at some of these claims.
Legalize Prostitution, Decrease Rape?
In 1980, Rhode Island accidentally legalized prostitution. Just let that sink in for a moment.
State lawmakers were concerned the law was infringing on First Amendment freedoms, so they made prostitution a misdemeanor, also inadvertently deleting the language that criminalized the act of selling oneself. Streetwalking, pimping, and trafficking remained illegal, but prostituting oneself off the street was not. No one really noticed until 2003, when police raided two Providence spas in a sting known as “Operation Rubdown.” The women weren’t streetwalking, so the judge ruled in their favor.
While officials scrambled to correct their mistake, prostitution thrived in the biggest little state—and the results were surprising. In the 6 years prostitution was legal in Rhode Island, reported rape decreased by 31 percent. According to a paper written by Scott Cunningham of Baylor University and Manisha Shah of UCLA, legalizing prostitution prevented an estimated 824 rapes that would have been reported to the police, and most likely many more that would have gone unreported.
Good news, right? Except that when you think about it, legalizing prostitution didn’t diminish rape in Rhode Island, it just gave rapists a more acceptable outlet for their violence. That’s not solving the problem of violence against women, it’s just legalizing it.
The European Way
As more women entered the sex trade in Rhode Island, the price for a prostitute’s services declined. This has also been the case in Amsterdam, where prostitution has been legal since 2000. In Amsterdam, prostitutes are recognized as independent workers and must register with the Chamber of Commerce and pay income tax. Many women work in the red light district’s famous windows, where the cost of rent is extremely high—90 to 150 euros for an 8-hour shift—and many women are finding it hard to pay up.
You have to pay your rent and your tax, sometimes also your pimp. That leaves you with no money. Because the women are independent workers they can choose for themselves how much they work. If they need money they often make working days of sixteen hours. This is very exhausting for the body and the mind.
Wendel Schaeffer, social worker at Amsterdam’s Prostitution and Health Center
The Dutch government is considering reforms to the current system, including raising the age of entering prostitution from 18 to 21, but instead of deterring prostitution, this restriction will only encourage illegal activity.
I am also against putting the age up to 21 because the pimps will take more illegal routes. I have 22 year olds telling me that they are too old for the work because clients want younger women. Pimps will not wait until women are 21 so the illegal activities will grow.
Metje Blaak, former prostitute and head of a sex worker’s labor union
In the sex trade, the concept of the independent worker is a myth. Legal prostitutes face many challenges, including taxes, hight rent, and increasing competition. Legalizing prostitution has not increased autonomy for the sex worker, but has instead created a highly regulated system through which women are easily controlled by law makers, pimps, and customers.
[P]rostitutes’ emotional well-being is now lower than in 2001 on all measured aspects, and the use of sedatives has increased.
Prostitution and Trafficking
Many believe that legalizing prostitution will decrease the demand for sex slaves, but in countries where prostitution is legal, this has not been the case.
Germany has one of the most liberal prostitution policies in the world. In 2002, prostitution was fully legalized, regarded as a normal job subject to taxes and retirement schemes. Today, Germany has one of the largest prostitution markets in Europe, with 150,000 working in the sex trade. In an annual study for the European Parliament, it was found that while trafficking decreased in Germany from 1996-97, following the legalization of prostitution in 2002, the average number of estimated human trafficking cases jumped from 14,805 in 2001 to 16,620 in 2002 and again, to 18,525 in 2003.
On average, countries with legalized prostitution experience a larger degree of reported human trafficking inflows.
Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking?
In fact, the law does little to prevent human trafficking. A comparison of the sex markets in Sweden, Denmark, and Germany found that the percentage of human trafficking victims amongst sex workers in both legal and illegal markets is largely the same, suggesting that the only way to decrease cases of human trafficking is to decrease prostitution.
The Nordic Model
While legalization increases prostitution, prohibition has done little to discourage it, which leaves us with the million dollar question—how do we decrease prostitution? Sweden has found a promising answer.
In 1999, Sweden amended its prostitution law by outlawing the buying of sex, rather than the sale of it. The penalty for purchasing sex is a steep one—a fine or a maximum of 6 months in jail—the equivalent of a US felony. The law defines prostitution as an exploitation of girls and women and directly links prostitution and human trafficking.
Since the adoption of the law, prostitution has decreased from 2,500 in 1999 to 1,500 in 2002. Street prostitution in particular has decreased from between 30 to 50 percent. In a comparison of the sex markets of Denmark and Sweden, Denmark, which allows self-employed prostitution, has a sex market that is 3 to 4 times larger than Sweden’s, even though Sweden has a larger population overall. The number of trafficking victims in Sweden is estimated to be 500, while Denmark has 2,250—about 4 times more human trafficking victims than Sweden.
Sweden, meanwhile, has less prostitution than neighbouring countries and prices for sex that are the highest in Europe. Since the law was enacted, not a single sex worker has been killed while working.
Michelle Goldberg for The Guardian
The success achieved by the Nordic model has been so great, many countries are considering adopting similar policies. Norway adopted the model in 2008 and Iceland in 2009. Recently, the Canadian government has proposed a similar version.
The Real Issue
Before we choose sides, let’s take a step back and consider what it is we’re considering legalizing.
Prostitution. We’re talking about prostitution. We’re talking about women, some as young as 12, selling their bodies for money. We’re talking about runaways and teen mothers. We’re talking about ex-marines and college graduates. We’re talking about people. I’m not sure why it’s so easy for us to forget that prostitution is about people, but it is, and no matter what the cost, these people deserve the best lives we can give them.
Legalization offers a safer, cleaner working environment, giving sex workers greater protection against violence and disease, and yet, does a better working environment change the nature of the work itself? Do panic buttons and police officers remove the threat of rape and assault? Can health centers and social workers cure drug abuse and PTSD? Can governments regulate the control of pimps, johns, and societal stigmatization?
Criminalization controls the size of the sex market, reducing cases of human trafficking and discouraging women from entering the profession, and yet, does criminalizing the work change the nature of the work itself? Does outlawing prostitution discourage men from buying sex? Does criminalizing prostitution prevent childhood abuse, poor education, and poverty? When we send a prostitute to jail, are we convicting the right person?
We’re talking about prostitution. It’s not as simple as a yea or nay. It’s not as simple as pointing a finger or dismissing a demographic. It’s not an isolated issue that only affects someone else. Prostitution is about people and people are never black and white. There is no easy answer, but there is always justice. It’s time we found some.
Wish us luck.