Why It’s Time to Legalize Prostitution

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A prostitute has a 45 percent to 75 percent chance of experiencing workplace violence at some point, according to recent research indicates, and a 32 percent to 55 percent likelihood that she or he was victimized the past year. Worker safety, along with concerns about exploitation and objectification, are behind much of the continued support for keeping prostitution illegal.

But there’s a movement afoot to challenge conventional wisdom about prohibition. Or, rather, to incorporate what we already know about black markets into our thinking about sex workers and their rights.

As with the drug trade, much of the violence associated with sex work is exacerbated by its illegality. Violent people are more likely to prey on sex workers, confident that they won’t be reported to police. This leaves workers dependent on pimps and madams for protection, which often leads to more violence. And then there’s abuse from police. In Ireland, where prostitution is still criminalized, one study estimates that 30 percent of the abuse that sex workers report comes from police. Some estimate that police actually abuse American sex workers more often than clients do.

Illegality also forces sex work outdoors. Craigslist and Backpage should be havens for workers to connect with and vet clients from the safety of their homes. Instead, cops monitor such sites to ensnare workers and their clients. Sex workers traded safety tips and rated clients on My Redbook until the FBI seized the site, destroying the data and forcing sex workers onto other sites, or the streets.

After Germany and New Zealand legalized sex work, violence against sex workers decreased, while workers’ quality of life improved. There, occupational health and safety laws protect sex workers. And the ability to screen clients and take credit card numbers has reduced violence. “It’s been just fantastic, really,” said Catherine Healey, national coordinator for the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective.

Some worry about legalized sex work leading to more widespread sexually transmitted infections. But in reality, after testing began post-legalization in Germany, researchers discovered no difference in sexually transmitted infection rates between sex workers and the general population.

In fact, the data are pretty clearly in favor of legalizing sex work to improve public health. The World Health Organization recommends that countries decriminalize sex work. According to a recent WHO report, “Violence against sex workers is associated with inconsistent condom use or lack of condom use, and with increased risk of STI and HIV infection. Violence also prevents sex workers from accessing HIV information and services.”

It’s not just the WHO. Editors of the top medical journal The Lancet wrote that there is “no alternative” to decriminalizing sex work in order to protect sex workers from HIV. In 1980, Rhode Island effectively legalized prostitution by accident when lawmakers deemed the state statute on prostitution to be overly broad. They accidentally removed the section defining the act itself as a crime while attempting to revise it, though lawmakers didn’t realize the error until 2003. Over the next six years new cases of gonorrhea among women statewide declined by 39 percent. Interestingly, reported rapes also declined by 31 percent.

As far as worker exploitation goes, working conditions in black markets are nearly always worse. In Germany, sex workers get to avail themselves of the same social-welfare infrastructure as all other German workers. Perhaps it makes sense that a country that has always taken workers’ rights seriously would choose that it should no longer exempt sex workers. There, they are represented by a union and are afforded full police protection when something goes wrong.

Another huge impetus behind the movement to legalize sex work is the current focus on ending the scourge of sex trafficking. People are waking up to the fact that laws against sex work actually help human traffickers. This is why the U.N. Human Rights Council published a report from the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women which criticizes anti-trafficking measures which restrict sex workers.

According to the report, “The criminalization of clients has not reduced trafficking or sex work, but has increased sex workers’ vulnerability to violence, harmed HIV responses, and infringed on sex workers’ rights.”

Furthermore, it said, “Anti-trafficking discussions on demand have historically been stymied by anti-prostitution efforts to eradicate the sex work sector by criminalizing clients, despite protests from sex workers’ rights groups and growing evidence that such approaches do not work.”

Human rights powerhouse Amnesty International concurs: “Amnesty International is opposed to the criminalization or punishment of activities related to the buying or selling of consensual sex between adults.” Thus begins a recently leaked document calling for an end to prohibitions on sex work. Criminalization discourages sex workers from reporting suspected sex trafficking to police.

Working with instead of against sex workers will lead to more slaves being rescued. In Germany, it already is. While prohibitionists claim that legalizing prostitution has increased human trafficking in the country, the data don’t support them. In fact the opposite happened. Germany legalized sex work in 2001. Between 2001 and 2011, cases of sex-based human trafficking shrank by 10 percent.

Now most German sex workers, 74 percent, are foreign born. But these migrant workers are hardly child sex slaves. The mean age of a sex worker in Germany is 31. A massive study of the sex trade in New York revealed a similar pattern. Researchers found very few underage sex workers actually working. When they started talking to pimps they found many won’t work with underage sex workers, not because of fear of arrest or moral qualms, but because teen workers don’t make enough money.

The claim that legalizing prostitution increased human trafficking also defies common sense. Whether you think bargain basement blowjobs are a good thing or a bad thing, the fact remains that criminalization makes things more expensive. In Germany, you’ll still pay a lot for high-quality service. But the days of paying more than 15 Euros for sex from someone who clearly doesn’t want to be there are over. Time spoke to one tourist who described the country as “The Aldi for prostitutes.”

This matters for trafficking because it costs a lot to kidnap someone and hold her against her will. This new economic reality means it makes zero sense for traffickers to keep their slaves in Germany, where prices are low. It’s true that traffickers must bring their victims through the country. But they are rewarded with higher prices if they keep going until they get to one of the countries where prostitution is still illegal, like France.

One other big movement behind the push for legalization is, ironically, feminism. Specifically, a new kind of feminism that acknowledges and seeks to defend women’s agency from all encroachments.

Much of the energy behind keeping sex work relegated to the black market comes from the unlikely partnership between radical feminists and evangelical Christians, both of whom object to the way prostitution makes the economics of sex explicit. Both see sex work as a special kind of work. Both put sex in a special category, that is, to be done with only certain people, under certain circumstances, among which they do not include “customers” and “for money.”

Stuart Chambers in the Montreal Gazette makes an excellent case that people’s impulse to put sex for money in a different category than sex for dinner or sex for an orgasm is the same impulse that led doctors and scientists to pathologize masturbation and homosexuality. That is, some people see sex that makes them uncomfortable to think about as wrong for other people to have.

Sex-positive feminists, on the other hand, argue that prohibitionists take this idea of sex being “special” too far when they mandate, through law, that everyone put sex in a special category.

Ultimately it should be up to the individual woman, or man, to decide whether having sex with someone is in an entirely different category than making them a latte or giving them a massage. This new feminism recognizes that some people would really rather have their feet worshipped in a brothel than work in a factory to make rent. It recognizes that sex work is exploitative. Workers are exploiting the fact that they have something someone else wants. Clients are exploiting the fact that they have something the sex worker wants. But, then, all work is exploitative.