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MYTH VS. FACT: 6 Common Myths About Prostitution and the Law

1. MYTH: If you make prostitution illegal it will go underground.

  • The argument that criminalizing the purchase of sex will drive it “underground” is not based on any evidence. On the contrary, in Sweden and Norway—where the purchase of sex has been criminalized—the number of men buying sex has declined. Therefore, prostitution on the whole has declined.1
  • “Underground” is another word for “indoor,” “out of sight,” or “below the law.” Because the very nature of prostitution requires that it be visible to the clients who are seeking women for purchase, it is not possible for it to go so far underground that it can no longer be detected. If the men who purchase women are able to find the women, then trained police can surely locate the activity and arrest the johns.
  • In 2009, after the law criminalizing the purchase of sex was enacted for the whole of Norway, the number of prostitution-related advertisements fell by 28 percent. This means that “underground” or “indoor” prostitution could not have increased as advertisements would have been necessary in order for buyers to find the women.2
  • The same people who argue against criminalization because they believe it will drive prostitution indoors are the same people who argue that brothels should be legal because indoor prostitution is safer than street prostitution.

2. MYTH: Legal/decriminalized prostitution will enable women to have better health and safer working environments, helping to prevent the spread of STDs since mandatory health checks can be implemented. Women won’t be afraid to carry condoms, ask for help from police when in danger, or seek help from health professionals.3

  • Those who advocate for legalization and decriminalization are advocating for a model of law that protects the johns from the prostituted women so they can keep using them without becoming ill. This model would do nothing to protect the women from the buyers who are giving them life-threatening diseases and psychological trauma.
  • For example, under laws that legalize and try to regulate prostitution, health check cards are often given to women. In theory, the cards can be presented to buyers as proof that the women have been tested and are disease free. Under these same laws, the buyers are never required to have health check cards to present to the women. This is a biased, sexist and unjust approach.
  • Even when the women are tested for medical conditions, the tests are unreliable and invalid because many tests take days or weeks before the results are available. During that time, the women see more men who could be infected. STD health checks cannot reasonably detect or protect against STDs. The hazards are even more significant when considering the preferences of the male buyers. Throughout the world, study after study documents that about half of all johns request or insist that condoms are not used when they purchase sex.4
  • The argument to legalize in order to “protect health” doesn’t take into consideration that no matter how many condoms are used or how many “health checks” a woman gets, you cannot protect her from the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and physiological/emotional trauma that 68 percent of all prostituted women will face.5 PTSD results from going through atrocities that you cannot mentally sustain.
  • Arguing that STD testing prevents disease is like arguing that pregnancy tests prevent pregnancy. It is a fundamentally flawed line of reasoning to begin with. The argument to legalize in order to protect health also does not take into consideration the mental, emotional, and spiritual health of prostituted women. The only way to truly protect the health of a prostituted woman is to GET HER OUT OF PROSTITUTION.

3. MYTH: Nothing is fundamentally problematic about prostitution itself. There is no intrinsic harm in prostitution; it is just consensual sex for money.

  • Prostitution is inherently harmful and multiple studies over the last 30 years have proven this point.
  • A recent field research study surveyed 854 prostituted women in nine countries. In five of these countries, prostitution is legal and regulated. The study concluded that 60–75 percent of women in prostitution were raped, 70–95 percent were physically assaulted, and 68 percent met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder in the same range as treatment-seeking combat veterans and victims of state-organized torture. 89 percent of the 854 prostituted women told the researchers that they urgently wanted to escape prostitution.6
  • According to a UK Government report, more than half of women in prostitution in the UK have been raped and or seriously assaulted and at least 75 percent have been physically assaulted at the hands of pimps and johns.7
  • The sexual service provided in prostitution is most often violent, degrading, and abusive. It can include sex between a buyer and several women; slashing the woman with razor blades; tying women to bedposts and lashing them until they bleed; biting women’s breasts; burning the women with cigarettes; cutting her arms, legs and genital areas; and urinating and defecating on women.8
  • A report in the British Medical Journal about client violence towards women in prostitution stated that of the 125 women in indoor prostitution contacted, 48% had experienced client violence. The types of violence experienced included: being slapped, punched, or kicked; robbery; attempted robbery; beaten; threatened with weapon; held against will; attempted rape; strangulation; kidnapped; attempted kidnap; forced to give client oral sex; vaginal rape and anal rape.9
  • An article in the Michigan Journal of Gender and Law states, that, “It is not possible to protect the health of someone whose ‘job’ means that they will get raped on average once a week.”10
  • A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found the mortality rate of women in prostitution to be 200 times higher than that of the general population.11
  • A mortality survey of 1,600 women in US prostitution noted that “no population of women studied previously had the percentage of deaths due to murder, even approximating those observed in our cohort. ” In this survey, murder accounted for 50 percent of the deaths of women in prostitution.12
  • Women who have worked in prostitution exhibit the same incidents of traumatic brain injury (TBI) as a result of being beaten, hit, kicked in the head, strangled or having one’s head slammed into objects as has been documented in torture survivors.13
  • Another “fault line in the denial of intrinsic harm appears when it is universally agreed that children should not be prostituted. Why not? If there is no inherent harm in prostitution and if it is just like any other job, why is it forbidden for children?”14

4. MYTH: You cannot conflate sex trafficking with prostitution.

  • “Prostitution and sex trafficking are linked. Sex trafficking happens when and where there is a demand for prostitution and a context of impunity for its customers. Legal prostitution sanitizes prostitution, making the harms of trafficking for prostitution invisible. Suddenly, dirty money becomes clean; illegal acts become legal. Overnight, pimps are transformed into legitimate businessmen. Men who would not have previously considered buying a woman in prostitution think, “Well, if it’s legal, it must be okay.”15
  • In the 2007 “Trafficking in Persons Report,” the US Department of State reported, “Sex trafficking would not exist without the demand for commercial sex flourishing around the world. Prostitution and related activities—including pimping and patronizing or maintaining brothels—encourage the growth of modern-day slavery by providing a façade behind which traffickers for sexual exploitation operate. Where prostitution is tolerated, there is a greater demand for human trafficking victims and nearly always an increase in the number of women and children trafficked into commercial sex slavery.”
  • According the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) and the Palermo protocol any child who is prostituted is automatically a victim of human trafficking. Study after study has demonstrated that a significant portion if not a majority of prostituted people enter prostitution underage. This means that most prostituted people, by definition, were victims of sex trafficking when they started prostituting. This begs the question, at what point does a person stop being a victim of human trafficking and turn into a “sex worker”? What happens to the nature of prostitution during the 24 hours between when a child is 17 years old and when she is 18 years old? Legal scholar Catherine Mackinnon points out that, ”Prostituted women are prostituted children who were lucky enough to live long enough to become women. They are not two separate groups of people. They are the same group of people at different times in their lives.”16
  • Across cultures, at all levels of economic development, whether street or house, when people in prostitution are asked, “What do you need?”, the answer of 89 percent of them give is to “[l]eave prostitution.”17 The vast majority of women in prostitution want to leave but believe they cannot or do not know how. It has been argued that being in a situation of prostitution that you cannot get out of has been defined by Kathleen Barry as sexual slavery.18

5. MYTH: The United Nations supports the decriminalization of prostitution.

  • Resolution 317 adopted by the United Nations General Assembly titled the “Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others” directly and expressly opposes prostitution, pimping, and the maintenance of brothels.
    • Article 1: The Parties to the present Convention agree to punish any person who, to gratify the passions of another:
      • Procures, entices or leads away, for purposes of prostitution, another person, even with the consent of that person;
      •  Exploits the prostitution of another person, even with the consent of that person.
    • Article 2: The Parties to the present Convention further agree to punish any person who:
      •  Keeps or manages, or knowingly finances or takes part in the financing of a brothel;
      • Knowingly lets or rents a building or other place or any part thereof for the purpose of the prostitution of others.
      • “Exploitation of prostitution,” includes maintaining or knowingly financing a brothel19, that is to say a place in which one or more people are practicing as prostitutes, or knowingly letting or renting “a building or other place . . . for the purpose of the prostitution of others.”20
  • UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, explicitly stated in its 2009 guidance paper on HIV and Prostitution, “…in many countries, official policies principally focus on reducing or punishing the suppliers while ignoring the consistent demand for paid sex. The demand for sex work may be affected by social and cultural norms and individual circumstances, including work-related mobility and spousal separation; social isolation and loneliness; access to disposable income; and attitudes based on harmful gender norms, including a desire for sexual dominance and sense of entitlement, which may manifest in sexual and economic exploitation and violence against sex workers. When addressing HIV in the context of sex work, policies and programmes should not only focus on the needs of sex workers themselves but also address factors that contribute to the demand for paid sex.”
  • The argument that UNAIDS–through their 2011 report entitled “The Report on the UNAIDS Advisory Group” supports decriminalization is a misrepresentation of information. This report is often cited by pro-prostitution groups who claim that UNAIDS supports prostitution. In fact, the 2011 report was created by an “advisory group” whose authors were among others the “Global Network of Sex Work Projects.” The document is prefaced with these words in large, bold print, “This document does not necessarily represent the views of all members of the Advisory group on HIV and Sex Work, nor the stated positions, decisions, or policies of the UNAIDS Secretariat or any of the UNAIDS Cosponsors.”21
  • When presented with the two options of criminalizing (both the prostituted person and the buyer) and decriminalization, the World Health Organization (WHO) chose to advocate for decriminalization based on the reasoning that criminalizing the prostituted woman causes her/him to fear approaching authorities for help, going in for health checks, and reaching out for medical care because of fears of being arrested and mistreated. However, the Nordic model does not criminalize the sale of sex. Therefore, the prostituted woman is protected and is able to reach out for help and health services without fear. In addition, the Swedish model goes a step further by offering prostituted women a way of escape and rehabilitation if they so choose.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) has not spoken out against the Nordic model. Because the model promotes the protection of prostituted women, it is reasonable to say that the WHO would in fact support the Nordic model of legislation.
  • The WHO has recognized that prostituted women are at a much higher risk for HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases than the general population. The WHO states, “Sex workers, their clients and regular partners are key populations at risk for HIV infection.”22
  • The WHO has recognized the extreme physical and psychological harm inherent in prostitution. The WHO website publicized a recent research article that states: “Over and over again, conversations with sex workers worldwide reveal that the lack of personal safety is one of their main worries. Common examples of violence that sex workers face are verbal abuse or beatings from neighbours or passers-by, forceful arrest and harassment by police officers, robbery, gang rape, ‘date rape’ and even (attempted) murder. Other forms of violence are extortion by the police or criminals, blackmailing to get free or unprotected sex, and forced drug and alcohol use in brothels or other venues. Finally, sex workers can also suffer violence from the hands of fellow workers who compete for a good spot on the streets or the favours of a client, or from the hands of their intimate partners. Violence not only makes sex workers’ working life more difficult, but also threatens their health and wellbeing. For instance, rape almost always takes place without the protection of a condom, raising fears about becoming pregnant or infected with an STI. Also their psychological health may be affected by extreme incidents of violence,”23
  • In 2008, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon stated that there is a need for legislation that would protect vulnerable groups such as prostituted women. The Nordic model not only protects women in prostitution but offers them services for escape and rehabilitation. At the same time, it addresses the demand side of prostitution, recognizing that the industry is inherently harmful and dehumanizing. Ban Ki-Moon said, “…I call on all countries to live up to their commitments to enact or enforce legislation outlawing discrimination against people living with HIV and members of vulnerable groups…In countries without laws to protect sex workers…only a fraction of the population has access to prevention. Conversely, in countries with legal protection and the protection of human rights for these people, many more have access to services. As a result, there are fewer infections, less demand for antiretroviral treatment, and fewer deaths. Not only is it unethical not to protect these groups: it makes no sense from a public health perspective. It hurts us all.” Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations.24

6. MYTH: Prostituted women choose to be there and that choice is an expression of their freedom.

  • “Prostitution is a product of lack of choice, the resort of those with the fewest choices, or none at all.”25
  • Children are not capable of making life-altering choices. US and International law recognizes this fact. Studies demonstrate that a majority of prostituted persons enter the sex trade underage.26 Therefore, they enter when they are not capable of such a choice.
  • Everywhere in the world the majority of prostituted women are overwhelmingly suffering from poverty and there is no disagreement about this fact. Urgent financial need is the most frequent reason mentioned by prostituted women for being in the sex trade. No one chooses to be poor when given other options.
  • In countries where prostituted women have been studied in depth, sexual abuse in childhood prior to entry into prostitution is a significant precondition for entry into the sex trade.27 One rarely meets women in prostitution who were not sexually or physically abused beforehand.28 No one chooses to be abused.
  • The vast majority of people in prostitution are women and this is because of gender inequality. “If prostitution were a choice, one would think more men would be found exercising it. Nobody chooses the single attribute most prostituted people share, the single most powerful determinant of being sold for sex: the sex they are born with.” No one chooses to be born a female.
  • Disproportionately, women in prostitution are members of socially disadvantaged racial or ethnic groups (or lower castes in India, for example). No one chooses to be born into a disadvantaged racial group or lower caste.
  • Additionally, women who supposedly consent to their prostitution, rarely, if ever, give informed consent. Informed consent would be presenting them with all of the available data on the inherent harms of prostitution before they are in a position to make the “choice”.


  • 1. Selected extracts of the Swedish government report SOU 2010:49: “The Ban Against The Purchase of Sexual Services. An evaluation” 1999-2008 Swedish Institute & Ministry of Justice. Also see The Swedish Law That Prohibits the Purchase of Sexual Services Best Practices for Prevention of Prostitution and Trafficking in Human Beings Gunilla Eckberg Ministry of Industry, Employment, and Communications Violence Against Women, Vol. 10 No. 10, October 2004 1187-1218 DOI: 10.1177/1077801204268647 2004. Also see “Targeting the Sex Buyer The Swedish Example: Stopping Prostitution And Trafficking Where it All Begins.” Kajsa Claude 2010 The Swedish Institute. “New Conditions, New Opportunities” Annual Report, Pro Sentret (2009)
  • 2. “New Conditions, New Opportunities” Annual Report, Pro Sentret (2009)
  • 3. A portion of the material for the arguments presented here is based on works by legal scholar and women’s rights expert Catherine Mackinnon.
  • 4. For example Cunningham, L.C. & Christensen, C. (2001) Violence against women in Vancouver’s street level sex trade and the police response. Vancouver: PACE Society
  • 5. Farley, M., Cotton, A., Lynne, J., Zumbeck, S., Spiwak, F., Reyes, M. E., … & Sezgin, U. (2004). Prostitution and trafficking in nine countries: An update on violence and posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Trauma Practice, 2(3-4), 33-74.
  • 6. Farley, Melissa et al. “Prostitution and Trafficking in Nine Countries: An Update on Violence and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.” Journal of Trauma Practice, Vol. 2, No. 3/4: 33-74, 2003; Farley, Melissa. Prostitution, Trafficking, and Traumatic Stress. Haworth Press, New York. 2003.
  • 7. UK Home Office (2004) Solutions and Strategies: Drug Problems and Street Sex Markets: London: UK Government
  • 8. Raymond, J., D’Cunha, J., Dzuhayatin, S. R., Hynes, H. P., Ramirez Rodriguez, Z., & Santos,
A. “A Comparative Study of Women Trafficked in the Migration Process: Patterns, Profiles and Health Consequences of Sexual Exploitation in Five Countries (Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Venezuela and the United States)”. N. Amherst, MA: Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW). 2002. Retrieved March 15, 2003, from catw/readingroom.shtml?x=17062
  • 9. Church, S., Henderson, M., Barnard, M., & Hart, G. (2001). Violence by clients towards female prostitutes in different work settings: questionnaire survey. Bmj,322(7285), 524-525.
  • 10. Hunter, S. K. “Prostitution is cruelty and abuse to women and children.” Michigan Journal of Gender and Law, 1, 1-14. 1993.
  • 11. J. Potterat, D. Brewer, S. Muth, R. Rothenberg, D. Woodhouse, J. Muth, H. Stite, and S. Brody, “Mortality in a Long-term Open Cohort of Prostitute Women,” American Journal of Epidemiology 159:778–785, 2004. Longitudinal study of prostitution in Colorado Springs – sample size: 1,969 people in prostitution from 1967-1999.
  • 12. Ibid.
  • 13. Jacobs, U., & Iacopino, V. “Torture and its consequences: A challenge to clinical neuropsychology.” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 32, 458-464. 2001.
  • 14. Mackinnon, Catherine.
  • 15. A portion of the ideas presented here are based on the works of Melissa Farley, PhD, an expert in the field of prostitution research and education.
  • 16. Mackinnon, Catherine.
  • 17. Farley, Melissa et al. “Prostitution and Trafficking in Nine Countries: An Update on Violence and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.” Journal of Trauma Practice, Vol. 2, No. 3/4: 33-74, 2003; Farley, Melissa. Prostitution, Trafficking, and Traumatic Stress. Haworth Press, New York. 2003.
  • 18. Kathleen Barry Phinto six languages. Her follow-up to Female Sexual Slavery, The Prostitution of Sexuality (1995) makes an important contribution to political philosophy and feminist theory by discussing the idea of “consent” in liberal modern American discourse and concluding that “every form of oppression is sustained” through apparent consent by the oppressed group or class to their exploitation. She further concludes that the normalization and acceptance of prostitution based on arguments of a prostituted persons consent ignores the human-rights principle that violation cannot be consented to. She states that women, as members of an oppressed class under patriarchy, are compelled to “consent” to their own sexual exploitation by society.D is the author of “Female Sexual Slavery” and “Prostitution of Sexuality”. Barry’s first book, Female Sexual Slavery (1979), prompted international awareness of human sex trafficking and has been translated
  • 19. Suppression of Traffic Convention, supra note 83, art. 2(1).
  • 20. Ibid., art. 2(2). Note that article 6 of the Convention requires States parties to put an end to licensing or “special
    registration” of prostitutes.
  • 21. The Report of the UNAIDS Advisory Group on HIV and Sex Work. 2011.
  • 22. “Sex Work.” World Health Organization. 2015.
  • 23. Ibid.
  • 24. Secretary-General, In Address to the International AIDS Conference, Urges Enforcement of Legislation Outlawing Discrimination Against People Living with HIV.
  • 25. Mackinnon, Catherine.
  • 26. Nadon, S.M., Koverola, C., Schludermann, E.H. (1gg8). Antecedents to Prostitution: Childhood Victimization. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 13. 206-221 : Silbert, M.H.& Pines, A.M. (1g82a).Entrance into Prostitution. Youih & Societv 13: 471-500:nssistant Oeputy Ministers’ Committee on Prostitution and the Sexual Exploitation of Youth, (2000) Sexual exploitation of vouth in British Columbia. Vancouver: Ministry of the Attorney General;Mclntyre, S. (1995) The youngesf profess ion: The o/dest oppression Doctora, dissertation, Department of Law, University of Sheffield
  • 27. Farley, M., Cotton, A., Lynne, J., Zumbeck, S., Spiwak, F., Reyes, M. E., … & Sezgin, U. (2004). Prostitution and trafficking in nine countries: An update on violence and posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Trauma Practice, 2(3-4), 33-74.; Farley, M, Lynne, J, and cotton, A (2005) prostitution in Vancouver: Violence and the Colonization of First Nations Women. Transcultural Psvchiatrv 42:242-27
  • 28. R, Hunter, S. K. (1994) Prostitution is cruelty and abuse to women and children. Michiqan Journal of Gender and Law 1:1-14

6 Comments on “MYTH VS. FACT: 6 Common Myths About Prostitution and the Law”

  1. blackdreamhunk Says:
    April 4th, 2015 at 8:45 am

    I am going to step back and read all this

  2. blackdreamhunk Says:
    April 8th, 2015 at 6:51 pm

    I dislike prostitution for another fact the image of black men and promoting of white supremacy. Also I don’t want black males to be pimping any kind of women. Love article been doing some research on this matter.

  3. Chelan Rene' Russ Says:
    April 9th, 2015 at 5:08 pm

    Thank you Laila for your hard work and important research – dispelling lies is the groundwork for establishing truth and you know how the truth is what sets free! Much honor to you and the team at EC as well. Re-posting to my blog, with due credit and a BIG virtual high-5. 😉

  4. Defensa Porstitución Says:
    November 24th, 2015 at 5:46 am

    Hello, I’ve seen that u have documented very well ur points but, bsides the studies u mention, have u been with prostitutes? Do u know them, their lifes, their homes, their relatives, their workplaces, did u have any friendship relation with them, did u manage to explore their world from inside or all ur info comes from studies?

  5. Zero “MagicAfterMidnight” Jone Says:
    February 18th, 2016 at 2:58 pm

    These myths are so wrong…. in just so many ways.

  6. JA Says:
    June 17th, 2016 at 5:24 pm

    Clearly, anyone who advocates for the Nordic Model has not thought it through. I have never seen a well presented explanation of how the Nordic Model protects anyone. In fact its a guarantee that it will do harm to some. Might I suggest a healthy helping on critical thinking.