By Lina Nealon, Founding Director of Demand Abolition
The New York Times Magazine has just published a cover story titled, “Should Prostitution Be a Crime?”
The title is framed as a question, but make no mistake—author Emily Bazelon clearly believes buying a person for sex shouldn’t be a criminal act, but celebrated as a human right.
She writes: “The traditional feminist argument against decriminalization is that legitimizing prostitution will harm women by leading to more sexual inequality. The human rights argument for it is that it will make people’s lives better, and safer.”
Advocating full decriminalization of the illegal sex trade (which includes impunity for sex buyers and pimps) as a “human right” isn’t just misguided—it’s offensive. Demand Abolition joins many of the world’s leading human rights champions and gender equality groups like The King Center, Equality Now, the European Women’s Lobby, and former President Jimmy Carter in opposing the legalization of prostitution. It’s insulting to imply that we all are at odds with human rights simply because we’re working to abolish an industry that perpetuates oppression, gender-based violence, racism, classism, and murder.
Economic desperation. Physical force. Psychological coercion. Crippling addiction. Those are some of the key drivers of prostitution. It’s irresponsible and misleading to imply that this is an issue of choice when it’s grounded in so much exploitation. (Even the photos used in the article depict mostly white individuals, ignoring the reality that, by and large, women and girls of color are being bought by privileged white men.)
The bottom line is the illegal sex industry thrives on vulnerability—decriminalizing it will only normalize and expand the exploitation of the vulnerable.
I agree with Bazelon and the “sex work” advocates she interviewed that women and men bought for sex should not be criminalized or stigmatized. But I fail to see how the professed “right” of a small minority to sell themselves trumps the rights of the vulnerable majority of prostituted individuals that want to escape, but feel they have no other choice. Don’t they also have rights, namely the right not to be bought against their will? Do they not have the right to options for a fulfilling life that won’t reduce them to an object rented by the hour?
Reports from Germany and the Netherlands, countries with some of the world’s most profitable legal sex trades, show that enterprising pimps and traffickers are all too eager to meet the exploding demand by serving up more victims. After all, if prostitution is legal they face no risks, only huge rewards. And what of the prostituted individuals, those whom legalization is designed to protect? They are no safer, no healthier, and no more secure after these laws are enacted. In fact, for many it’s the opposite: the sale of trafficked women and children increases exponentially in areas with thriving legal sex trades.
So while some might view the legalization or full decriminalization of prostitution as a “human rights” victory, I prefer the example of countries like France, Canada, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland—where sex-buying is criminalized but prostituted people are protected and offered options. These countries report substantially fewer instances of sex trafficking and related crimes. Let’s follow their lead and do more to provide true choices and larger safety nets for society’s most vulnerable. Let’s give them options beyond being bought for sex. And, as in the “Nordic Model” countries, let’s collect fines from convicted sex buyers to foot the bill for victim services.
Holding the exploiters accountable while protecting the vulnerable—that’s the true path to expanding human rights.
If you also disagree with the notion that decriminalization of the illegal sex trade represents a human rights perspective, please comment on the story and write an email to the editor to ensure your voice is heard in this critically important debate.