Monday, April 20, 2009

Can Legalizing Prostitution Help Prevent Human Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation?

Recently, a lot of attention has been paid to US drug policy, on the heels of comments by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on US complicity in the violence on the US-Mexican border and a recent President Obama town hall meeting which detoured to the role of marijuana in stimulating the economy. Amongst my friends, this has led to numerous discussions of the liberalization some of America’s more “puritanical” policies on drugs and commercial sex work. As a result of my experience in the immigrant advocacy and anti-human trafficking fields, I am somewhat leery of the legalization approach. What would happen if the US was to legalize sex work? What has been the experience of countries that have legalized prostitution? Would this somehow help victims of human trafficking?

I have had some exposure to the British and Swedish approaches to prostitution and models for fighting human trafficking during a 2007 fellowship in the UK and Albania with the
Advocacy Project. The British model is somewhat similar to the US system where prostitution is illegal, although they do not have an option similar to the T-visa for victims of human trafficking. British policy was recently updated on April 1st when the Council of Europe Convention Against Trafficking in Human Beings took effect in the UK.

The Swedish approach to prostitution, much lauded by advocates in the UK, is somewhat different. Prostitution has been legal in Sweden since 1999 but it is illegal to buy sex or to pimp. Not only has Sweden made buying sex punishable by fines and jail time, they also humiliate the purchasers of sex by publishing their names in the newspaper. But what has happened in countries where prostitution is legal and the shaming approach of Sweden was not adopted? I recently ran across an informative opinion piece called “
Does Legalizing Prostitution Work?” by Helen Mees, a Dutch economist and lawyer, that goes some way towards answering this question.

Mees argues that, even in the liberal city of Amsterdam with its open outlook on prostitution and soft drugs, women are forced into sex work while police stand by and watch.
Even in the Netherlands, women and girls who sell their bodies are routinely threatened, beaten, raped, and terrorized by pimps and customers. In a recent criminal trial, two German-Turkish brothers stood accused of forcing more than 100 women to work in Amsterdam's red-light district (De Wallen). According to the attorney who represented one of the victims, most of these women come from families marred by incest, alcohol abuse, and parental suicide. Or they come from countries in Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia and have fallen victim to human trafficking, lured by decent job offers or simply sold by their parents.

These women are Amsterdam's leading tourist attraction (followed by the coffee shops that sell marijuana). But an estimated 50 to 90 percent of them are actually sex slaves, raped on a daily basis with police idly standing by. It is incomprehensible that their clients are not prosecuted for rape, but Dutch politicians argue that it cannot be established whether or not a prostitute works voluntarily. Appalled by their daily routine, police officers from the Amsterdam vice squad have asked to be transferred to other departments. Only this year, the city administration has started to close down some brothels because of their ties to criminal organizations.

According to a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the average age of death of prostitutes is 34. In the United States, the rate at which prostitutes are killed in the workplace is 51 times that of the next most dangerous occupation for women, working in a liquor store. Other studies show that nine out of ten prostitutes urgently want to escape the job. Almost half have attempted suicide at least once.

Apparently Norway examined the Dutch and Swedish approaches to prostitution and decided that the Swedish approach was superior and changed its legislation accordingly. According to Mees, the shaming approach of the Swedish has been so successful because the fear of humiliation for purchasing sex is quite real.

According to a study in California, most men who bought sex would be deterred by the risk of public exposure. For example, 79 percent said that they would be deterred if there was a chance that their families would be notified. And a whopping 87 percent said that they would be deterred by the threat that the police might publish their photographs or names in the local newspaper.

Most of these men showed pathological behavior towards women. One in five admitted to having raped a woman, while four out of five said that going to prostitutes was an addiction.

While it is important to realize that prostitution and human trafficking are two separate phenomena that can sometimes intersect, the importance of protecting the safety of both sex workers and trafficking victims cannot be overstated. Ultimately, the approach to prostitution and fighting trafficking adopted by countries should be the model that best protects women and girls. Some argue that this is an approach, much like the Swedish model, that would humiliate and criminalize those that pay for sex or pimp women. The first step, surely, is to raise awareness and to realize that even in countries where prostitution is legal, sex trafficking and forced prostitution do not disappear.


  1. Anonymous4:31 PM

    Online hobbyists communities like Naughty Reviews show us that a viable business already exists...What we need to achieve via legalization is better health conditions for providers and clients...legislation that enforces safety and protects confidentiality, etc.

    Sadly, white trafficking and child slave trade will probably still be a problem, even if prostitution is legalized. The people that practice that are NOT the people in the mature, adult, consensual sex worker industry.

  2. Anonymous4:43 PM

    I'm saddened by the conditions in Holland. If anyone could make it work I would have thought they would.

    What about the Mustang Ranch model? That seems to work (Hey, I haven't studied it, just know what I see on TV). Businesspersons running a business with employees who are there voluntarily working for acceptable wages.

    In other words, how do you separate out the human trafficking and punish that.

  3. I think there are a lot of women that would like prostitution to be legalized because it will give them more rights as labourers. If they are empowered in a way that they can trust the system, maybe they will have the courage to denounce the correct perpetrators. I agree that if there is more punishment on the demand side it will be a different story. I'm tired of the fact that the women are always looked as the victims, yet they are the ones going to jail every time there is a raid by the police. The day that I say a undercover female police officer trying to get the man who want the service I will be happy.

  4. Anonymous6:32 PM

    Apparently some people who commented didn't read your post.
    What part of "Other studies show that nine out of ten prostitutes urgently want to escape the job. Almost half have attempted suicide at least once" could you not understand?
    The simple fact is that legal prostitution actually increases STDs. And guess who's going to be getting those STDs after its legalized? You, ladies, when you're with a guy who's been to a prostitute.

    And legalized prostitution actually INCREASES sex trafficking.
    As to Deborah. Watch the show COPS. There are plenty of episodes where female officers are catching and arresting Johns.

  5. Anonymous9:38 PM

    i actually think legalizing prostitution will help many women in this profession because it would be done in a control enviroment and away from city limits.Women could actually benefit from this if they get checked often