Several years ago, I attended a film screening hosted by a reputable anti-trafficking organization. The documentary was about the reality of prostitution and the commercial sex trade. At the end of the film, the event organizers introduced a panel of subject matter experts and invited the audience to ask questions.
The very first question was, “so this is why we need to legalize prostitution, right?” I looked around at the audience of over a hundred people and saw that most of them were nodding their heads in agreement. I was horrified! This, after all, was a group of people that we could generally assume have good intentions and are perhaps more informed about the issue than most.
If this audience thought that legalizing prostitution was the answer, how much more misinformed is the general public?
This is on purpose. You see, the multi-billion dollar, global commercial sex industry works very hard to keep you confused about the issues of prostitution, sex trafficking, sex work and which legal model yields the best results. We hear the terms “legalization,” “decriminalization,” “full decriminalization” and “partial decriminalization” used interchangeably and sometimes incorrectly.
…the multi-billion dollar, global commercial sex industry works very hard to keep you confused about the issues of prostitution, sex trafficking, sex work and which legal model yields the best results.
They are offered as potential remedies to the problems that we experience with the criminalization of prostitution in our country but how many of us actually know how these policies are defined? Are you aware that there are legal models for prostitution other than criminalization and legalization? Do you know what the results of each of the models has been in the places where they have been implemented?
A bill titled the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019 is currently being proposed in the municipality of Washington, D.C. that would fully decriminalize prostitution in that city. The bill was originally drafted in 2017 by a single member of the district’s city council. It failed to pass. It has been re-submitted this year and now has the support of three council members as well as a number of sex workers’ rights organizations. It is currently under review and will be voted on this fall.
In case it isn’t clear to you what full decriminalization is and/or you aren’t aware of all the legal models for prostitution or what their results have been, here is a brief summary:
Under criminalization, all aspects of prostitution—the buying, selling, and brokering—are subject to criminal prosecution. Except for several designated counties in the state of Nevada, this is the current policy for prostitution in the United States.
- The sellers (“prostitutes”) are disproportionately arrested, even though prostitution logically requires at least two parties. Cultural factors like discrimination, sexism and the stigma associated with prostitution largely determine the manner of enforcement. As of 2010 in the U.S., 90% of arrests made in prostitution were of females (Mitchel et al., 2010). A report in 2019 found that 79% of arrests made in the state of Pennsylvania for prostitution were of the seller (Villanova Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation, 2019). In the U.K. the ratio of warnings and/or convictions given to prostituted individuals compared to buyers and pimps is 103:1 (Phoenix, 2007). Even in the case of minors sold in prostitution (who are by definition sex trafficking victims) in 40% of cases law enforcement conceptualized victims as criminals (Mitchel et al., 2010). These ratios are improving; however, prostitution continues to be the only crime in which female arrests outnumber male arrests and buyers continue to escape law enforcement attention that is proportionate to their involvement (Farley et al., 2011; Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2016; Mitchell, Finkelhor & Wolak, 2010; Monto, 2004; Weitzer, 1999).
Under criminalization… The sellers (“prostitutes”) are disproportionately arrested, even though prostitution logically requires at least two parties.
- Arrests, fines, jail or prison time, a criminal record, listing on a sex offender registry do not create a deterrent effect or address the underlying causes for involvement in prostitution. The effect exacerbates the problem, making it increasingly more difficult to get out of prostitution. Many prostituted women who are fined resort to further prostitution in order to pay the fine because their criminal record prevents them from finding legitimate employment.
- Our tax-payer dollars and criminal justice resources are used inefficiently and ineffectively through this model. We would all be better served through the provision of real alternatives to prostitution such as mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment, trauma therapy and affordable housing.
Under legalization, prostitution is legal in designated, licensed and regulated areas only. It is not legal just anywhere. For example, Nevada has a policy of legalization. Prostitution is legal in several counties, in brothels that are licensed. It is not legal in Las Vegas or anywhere outside of these brothels.
- Demand increases. Because there are never enough people who willingly engage in prostitution to meet the demand, sex trafficking for the purpose of prostitution increases. This leads to explosive growth in the illegal sex market that far exceeds the growth in the (supposedly safer and regulated) legal market. This has happened in Nevada, where most of the commercial sex market exists outside of the legal brothels. It also happened in Australia after prostitution was made legal in the state of Victoria. Human trafficking into the country of Australia for the purpose of prostitution increased and they experienced a three-fold growth in the illegal sex markets (Fergus, 2005; Sullivan, 2010). In the Netherlands, a 23% increase in human trafficking for the purpose of prostitution occurred after legalization (Raymond, 2013).
Under legalization… sex trafficking for the purpose of prostitution increases.
- Promises of increased safety and workers’ rights aren’t realized. Proponents of legalization argue that prostitution is an inevitable component of human nature and that if legalized could be regulated and therefore made safer, less stigmatizing, and workers’ rights could be granted. These arguments may seem reasonable on the surface, but ignore the reality that these promises are never actually realized when legalization is implemented (Brents & Hausbeck, 2005; Sullivan & Jeffries, 2001; Sullivan, 2010). In Nevada, legal brothel owners avoid having to provide things like workers’ compensation, health insurance, or retirement by simply hiring the women as independent contractors. In some countries, in order to receive employment benefits, the workers must officially register with the state as a “prostitute”; a status with long-term, stigmatizing implications that not many are willing to acquire. If a woman complains about abuse or contracts a disease, she is simply fired.
- The regulation and oversight provided is insufficient to provide adequate safety for the women. For example, in Nevada’s legal brothels, the rooms are audio monitored and have panic buttons (Brents & Hausbeck, 2005). Workers state, however, that these provisions are “a joke,” that the panic buttons often don’t work, and the audio monitoring is only provided so that the brothel owner can listen in on the price negotiations to ensure they are getting their “cut.” Legal brothels also boast that the women working in them are tested for sexually transmitted diseases. However, this one-sided testing only occurs every two weeks. There is nothing in place to prevent a man from coming into the brothel the day after the test and infecting a woman. The disease would spread until it is detected two weeks later. All that this policy does is create a façade of care, when in fact it does very little to protect.
- Crime in general increases, especially crimes of violence against women. The earnings potential associated with the growth of the commercial sex industry attracts criminal organizations of all types that commit other crimes in our communities like selling drugs and gun-related violence. It also normalizes the exploitation of women; something that has implications for all females. The state with the highest rate of violent crimes against women, in general, is Nevada (Albert, 2001).
- Many proponents of legalization point to evidence that prostitution in brothels is safer than street prostitution. Anyone willing to reason through this statement, however, would have to confess an apparent willingness to tolerate some level of this type of violence. No one should ever find it acceptable for some people to only be beaten and raped a few times instead of all the time. A just society should seek policies that do not find any level of this type of violence to be tolerable.
Under decriminalization, prostitution is legal anywhere, for all parties involved and is not regulated. It is legal to sell your own body for sex, it is legal to buy, and also legal to promote and facilitate.
- Decriminalization, like legalization, also results in an increase in demand and subsequently an explosive growth in the commercial sex market. Again, there are never enough people who are willing to engage in prostitution and so human trafficking for the purpose of prostitution grows in order to meet the demand.
- Decriminalization allows brothels to operate like any legitimate business. Following decriminalization in New Zealand, in order to stay competitive, brothel owners would lower prices and offer “package deals” that allow buyers to do anything they want for a set price. This has serious and dangerous implications for the women being sold in these places (Bindel, 2017).
- Without any legal oversight or accountability for the industry, it becomes even more difficult to identify and protect sex trafficking victims.
4) The Nordic Model (also known as the Abolition Model, the Sex Buyer’s Law, the Equality Model, or Partial Decriminalization)
Under the Nordic Model, prostitution is decriminalized for the seller only. It is illegal to purchase sex or promote or facilitate in any way. This asymmetrical legal model provides service referrals for trauma counseling, substance abuse, or mental health to those in prostitution rather than arrests. It deters demand by putting in place meaningful consequences for sex buyers, such as punitive fines and/or jail time.
- Demand is reduced. There are several countries that have implemented the Nordic Model. In the U.S. some cities have used principles from this model, focusing their policing efforts on deterring demand rather than on arresting “prostitutes.” When properly implemented (meaning law enforcement is trained on the policy), the impact and occurrence of prostitution is reduced by over half, and in some cases by up to 70% (Danna, 2012; Demand Forum, 2018; Farley, 2011; Rasmussen, 2014).
Under the Nordic Model… the impact and occurrence of prostitution is reduced by over half, and in some cases by up to 70%.
- Provides alternatives and assistance to those who are victimized and marginalized due to prostitution. This model recognizes the power imbalance that is present in a prostitution transaction and that the vast majority of those involved in prostitution meet one of the following criteria: 1) they are a minor under the age of consent, 2) they are under the control of a pimp, or 3) are doing so out of desperation or other circumstances that don’t meet the full criteria for the definition of consent. One study cited the occurrence of consensual prostitution at 1% (Davidson, 1998).
The Community Safety and Health Amendment of 2019 reads like the Nordic Model. The language used does not plainly discuss the decriminalization of buyers or pimps. It simply states that certain ordinance numbers will be repealed, requiring the reader to do further research into what those ordinances actually say.
Additionally, proponents of decriminalization in Washington, D.C. are using a public relations strategy that elevates the voices of consensual “sex workers” in a manner that is meant to represent the issue as a whole. Shaping our understanding around this “1%” of prostitution who say they choose their lifestyle and should have a right to sell their own body comes at great cost to the vast majority in prostitution as a result of marginalization and victimization.
I believe there are many people who mean well and recognize that arresting people in prostitution isn’t the answer. They see that our current policy of criminalization isn’t working. This does not mean that we should turn in the opposite direction and fully decriminalize it. We don’t have to guess or theorize about which model works. There are actual tangible results and data for us to examine.
We must be aware that the ultimate agenda of the commercial sex industry is to fully decriminalize prostitution and remove legal barriers to their business. The adoption of this policy by one city could trigger a domino effect around our country in a similar way that the decriminalization of marijuana is taking place. It would be difficult for our country to turn back from the effects of this. Our vulnerable women and young people would be most impacted. There is another answer. It is the Nordic Model!
The commercial sex industry and proponents of this bill are counting on you not reading “the fine print.” They want your understanding of prostitution to be based on the voices of a few consenting “sex workers.” They don’t want you to hear from survivors of prostitution, like Sabrinna Valisce, warning us about the reality of decriminalization: “I thought it would give more power and rights to the women, but I soon realised the opposite was true.”
The commercial sex industry wants you to embrace theory over the actual, real-world results of these policies. Through this strategy, good people with great intentions can be fooled into supporting the very thing that traffickers hope for most.
We urge you to take action! Please share this post, and reach out to your representatives, including your local city council members.
Alison Phillips is an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri Kansas City specializing in human trafficking.
Photo Credit: Steinar Engeland
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