The Logistics of Decriminalizing Prostitution

Did you know that there are bills being introduced that will put kids at greater risk of being trafficked? It’s true. The movement to legalize or decriminalize prostitution under seemingly innocuous, even beneficial, names, with the unintended consequence of harming kids is being considered in various parts of the country. These bills are well-intended, but are dangerously misguided.

Proponents say that the goals of the legislation include victim protection by improving police interaction with those who call themselves “sex workers.” They say that by removing barriers that prevent them from reporting abuse, violence, and sex trafficking, they’ll be better protected. Additionally, the movement is intended to address housing insecurity and to de-stigmatize the “work.”  

Children’s Law Center stated in their testimony, “Sex workers, especially Black, Brown, and LGBTQ sex workers, should have improved ways to keep themselves safe and healthy.  We support the decriminalization of the selling of sex, as we do not believe that sex workers should be further criminalized.” They went on to state opposition, which is explained below, but before we look at the various aspects of opposition, let’s take a moment to define “sex work” and “sex worker.”

By definition, no one under the age of 18 can be considered a “sex worker.” The movement to legalize or decriminalize prostitution codifies the term “sex worker” in an effort to legitimize the “work.” The following are some of the services of the “work”: “Being penetrated orally, anally, and vaginally with [genitali], fingers, fists, and objects, including but not limited to, bottles, brushes, dildoes, guns and/or animals; [b]eing bound and gagged, tied with ropes and/or chains, burned with cigarettes, or hung from beams or trees; [b]eing photographed or filmed performing these acts.”1

With this graphic, disgusting, and potentially deadly description of “sex work” in the era of “Me Too,” it’s remarkable to think that there is such a strong move to legalize and legitimize a women’s sexual exploitation as a profession.

In opposition to the bill proposed in Washington, D.C., The Children’s Law Center went on to say that they are “concerned that the bill will increase child sex trafficking in the District, making it more difficult for law enforcement to enter properties where trafficked children are being held, and by eliminating the safe harbor provision that requires the Police Department to refer victims of child sex trafficking to appropriate services.”

The Family Research Council stated in their recent statement in opposition to the same bill, “Empowering the business of exploitation doesn’t protect anyone except the exploiters. With everything we know about the abuse and violence that characterizes the commercial sex trafficking industry, equating unobstructed exploitation with victim protection is just as absurd as saying, “since many of those who endure rape feel the stigma of shame, let’s remove all penalties for rape and legitimize it so they won’t feel shame.”

“Prostitution is inherently violent,” said Ane Mathieson, a program specialist at Sanctuary For Families, a Manhattan-based organization that serves victims of domestic violence and is part of an anti-decriminalization coalition. “Sex buying promotes sex trafficking, promotes pimping and organized crime, and sexual exploitation of children.”2

We’re not the first country to consider decriminalizing or legalizing prostitution. The Netherlands and Germany have both legalized prostitution, which is different from decriminalization. Legalization means that prostitution is considered a business that is regulated like other businesses. The pimps who were previously seen as unsavory are considered to be business people rather than criminals. The income of the “sex workers,” as they are referred to there, is taxed like employees of any other business.

The problem with legalization is that it doesn’t change the fact that the people who act as pimps are often cruel to the people, mostly women and girls, in their “employ.” Legalization doesn’t remove the force, fraud, and coercion that is often used to get the workers to comply with selling themselves and with the physical abuse that often accompanies the sex. All legalization accomplishes is to allow traffickers to operate with impunity.

One trafficking survivor said, “I first learned about this bill from my pimp; he was excited about it.” If traffickers are excited about this bill, we should be concerned.

Another proposal has been to decriminalize prostitution. This is similar to legalizing prostitution with the distinction that the “work” would not be regulated. Decriminalization means that all criminal penalties are removed for any of the acts involved in prostitution, pimping, brothel keeping, and purchasing are no longer considered a crime, but no regulations are put in place. Under decriminalization, the entire arrangement is seen as a personal act that shouldn’t be anyone’s business.

The challenge here is that when prostitution is decriminalized, law enforcement has little or no authority to investigate what may be brutal, or even deadly, assault. The women, girls, and boys involved are almost entirely without any protection. It’s clear to see that under this model, it’s far easier for a trafficker to lure a young person into trafficking without fear of penalty or prosecution.

We know that abuse and violence accompany human trafficking, especially the commercial sexual exploitation of children. So, making it easier for traffickers to operate freely, and calling it “victim protection” is absurd on it’s face. Legalizing or decriminalizing prostitution doesn’t protect anyone except traffickers.

There is another, more humane, alternative. The “Abolitionist” model holds perpetrators accountable while providing services to victims. The women involved are treated as victims, while the pimps, brothel operators, and purchasers are considered violators of the law. This is the approach that is used in Sweden, and is often referred to as the “Swedish Model.” It is also in place in Israel, France, and other places throughout the world.

Many thanks to Dr. Sandie Morgan of Vanguard University’s Global Center For Women and Justice and to Dr. Donna Hughes of the Human Trafficking Academy. You can listen to their informative podcast and download your free ebook, 5 Steps To Ending Human Trafficking here: