Why prostitution should not be fully decriminalized

Posted by on February 26, 2016 in News

By Lina Nealon, Founding Director of Demand Abolition 

The Atlantic recently posted an article on sex trafficking, including a sidebar questioning whether legalizing prostitution would decrease this grave human rights abuse. The answer is no, it does not.

Extensive research—a study comparing 150 countries—that legalizing prostitution actually increases sex trafficking and expands the sex trade. Regions that have tried this approach proclaim it to be an utter failure. The Mayor of Amsterdam shut down a third of the infamous Red Light District, finding that in the shadows of the bright brothel windows, sex trafficking was rampant. Where prostitution is legalized or fully decriminalized, sex buyers descend in droves to buy vulnerable people with impunity. In Germany, for example, there are 15,000 square foot mega-brothels that cater to an estimated 1.2 million men every day where you can buy a bratwurst, a beer, and a body for 60 euro.  Enterprising pimps and traffickers are all too eager to accommodate the exploding demand with victims. After all, where prostitution is legalized they face no risks, but reap high rewards.

And in the meantime the prostituted individuals those laws were meant to (very rightly) protect, are no safer, no healthier, no more secure.

Economic desperation. Physical force. Psychological coercion. Crippling addiction. These are just a few of the reasons adults and children become trapped in prostitution. Many adults were first purchased as minors: finding themselves on the streets, living on their own after escaping violent homes—often already victims of sexual and physical abuse—making them especially vulnerable to traffickers. Once caught up in this exploitative system, adults and children alike are subjected to unthinkable levels of trauma, including beatings and rape.  While there is small minority that claims to sell sex consensually, the vast majority of prostituted individuals want to escape, but feel they have no other choice. The professed “right” of a few individuals to sell their bodies (those who advocate for full decriminalization) can’t be at the expense of the right of the vulnerable majority not to be bought.

Luckily, there is a proven, progressive approach a growing number of countries and US cities are emulating. In 1999, Sweden adopted laws decriminalizing the selling of sex and providing exit services for the prostituted, while cracking down on the sex buyers—the drivers of sexual exploitation. This is an effective way to protect the vulnerable while reducing the inherently exploitative commercial sex trade. Let’s discourage demand without punishing those who are being sold, as Sweden, Canada, Northern Ireland, and several others countries have done. Let’s provide viable alternatives for vulnerable populations and support to the many who want to find a way out of prostitution, all while holding accountable those who fuel this destructive trade.

If we accept that certain individuals can be bought, then we’re all on the market.