Criminalizing the Purchase of Sex Protects Sex Workers and Reduces Sex Trafficking


My favorite paper in college was the one that proved my original thesis wrong.

Like many young modern feminists, I was very much in favor of legalizing prostitution. Legalizing prostitution meant sex workers could seek protection against abusive johns, render the illegal sex slave trade unnecessary, regulate the industry so prostitutes can work safely, de-stigmatize sex workers, and allow people the freedom to choose whatever work they want to do, right?

Actually, legalizing prostitution does the opposite.

Legalizing prostitution doesn’t necessarily elevate the status of prostitution or make it “acceptable.” 5% of prostitutes register for taxes, to avoid publicly marking them as a sex worker. It is a market rooted in inequality and poverty and even in countries where it is legal, people go into prostitution as a “last resort.” As the executive director of the Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, Rachel Lloyd, writes:

It may be true that some women in commercial sex exercised some level of informed choice, had other options to entering and have no histories of familial trauma, neglect or sexual abuse. But, these women are the minority and don’t represent the overwhelming majority of women, girls, boys and transgender youth, for whom the sex industry isn’t about choice but lack of choice.

Furthermore, legal prostitution doesn’t really empower women and grant them ownership of their bodies. Writes Lily Rae of the International Business Times:

These women — or rather, their bodies — were being reduced to nothing more than a tourist attraction. The fact that a girl in this city is presented in much the same way as a burger in a fast-food joint is somewhat disturbing to me. […]

Prostitution, regardless of legal status, also tends to bring crime into an area. Legalizing prostitution doesn’t actually diminish sex slavery — in fact, it expands the market and attracts traffickers. Legal prostitution makes sex slavery much easier because sex slaves “blend in” with the legal sex workers and it’s much harder to catch. From The Spectator, Julie Bindel writes:

[In Amsterdam,] Pimps, under legalisation, have been reclassified as managers and businessmen. Abuse suffered by the women is now called an ‘occupational hazard’, like a stone dropped on a builder’s toe. Sex tourism has grown faster in Amsterdam than the regular type of tourism: as the city became the brothel of Europe, women have been imported by traffickers from Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia to meet the demand. In other words, the pimps remained but became legit — violence was still prevalent but part of the job, and trafficking increased. Support for the women to leave prostitution became almost nonexistent. The innate murkiness of the job has not been washed away by legal benediction. […]
Illegality has simply taken a new form, with an increase in trafficking, unlicensed brothels and pimping; with policing completely out of the picture, it was easier to break the laws that remained.

However, criminalizing prostitution is also not the answer, as sex workers are frequently in danger with nowhere to go. In 1999, Sweden, followed by Norway and Iceland, experimented with a new law: decriminalizing prostitution but making the purchase of sex illegal. This made prostitution less profitable, which meant prostitution went down, causing a slight decline in crime. Sex workers could still be protected from abusive johns, and most surprisingly, the shrinkage of the market meant that sex slavery also decreased. Chelsea-Lyn Rudder says:

In contrast, Sweden’s method of decriminalizing prostitution while criminalizing the purchase of sex and pimping has lead to a decrease in the number of human trafficking cases. The criminalization of the purchase of sexual services was made into law in 1999. In the decade since the law was enacted, reports indicate that Sweden appears to be the only country in the European Union where sex trafficking and prostitution have not increased. By criminalizing the purchase of sex, and decriminalizing prostitution authorities show that the law is on the side of the victim who is exploited in the process. In Sweden, prostitution is considered to be a form of violence against women. Under the Swedish law, jail terms are permitted. Although, to date most purchasers have been punished with fines. The primary deterrent of the law is being publicly labeled as a john.
When johns fear the loss of their privacy, prostitution becomes less profitable for traffickers. Sweden’s model shows that criminalizing everything about prostitution except for the prostitutes themselves, works.

It seemed so counterintuitive at first and it caused some cognitive dissonance on my end when I was going through the research but I was just mindblown at just how wrong I was. Sadly, I barely remember any of the papers I had written in college but this one stands out so vividly as it taught me so much. I ended up reversing my thesis and to this day, I will be quick to recall this stuff whenever people make the argument for legalizing prostitution.