The legality of prostitution is a decades-long debate. In the United States, the practice is only legal in parts of Nevada. However, prostitution is legal a number of countries around the world, including in Europe (1). One argument for legalizing prostitution is that women and men should be allowed to choose their lifestyle and if they want to sell sex, that’s their choice. Others argue that criminalizing prostitution harms the prostitute most, since they get thrown in prison when the real criminals–pimps and clients–walk free.
On the surface, the first argument for legalizing prostitution, that people should be allowed to choose their lifestyles and business, is appealing. Shouldn’t freedom include a person choosing how to spend their time and how they make money? What about free enterprise? This argument ignores the ill effects prostitution has on society. These include: spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), children born into unstable situations, and increased abortion rates–which carry numerous physical and emotional risks. Prostitutes are usually purchased (or “hired” depending on the situation) based race and sexual stereotypes. This puts “poor women of color especially at risk for the physical and psychological harms” and “formalizes women’s subordination by sex, race, and class,”according to Melissa Farley, director of the non-profit Prostitution Research & Education (2).
Aside from societal harm, prostitution hurts the person practicing it, whether or not they chose to engage in the practice. Prostitutes are regularly put at risk of physical and sexual abuse from a client. They experience “more frequent injuries ‘than workers in [those] occupations considered … most dangerous, like mining, forestry and fire fighting’” (2).
Other risks include “domestic violence, physical assault, and psychological sequelae of these traumatic stressors: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dissociative disorders, depression, eating disorders, suicide attempts and successful suicides, and substance abuse” (2). Many prostitutes turn to the practice to escape desperate situations such as poverty or domestic violence. They might also have unfilled emotional needs and a low sense of self-worth, and do not feel they deserve to be treated with respect. Prostitutes who come from abusive backgrounds might not even know what it means to be treated respectfully, so they do not know they can have a better life.
Some feminists argue that sex work, since it involves earning money and being sexually active, is empowering to a woman. This argument is nothing could be further from the truth. Being used as an object for nothing but money will not fulfill a person or instill a value of self-worth. As an article on the Nordic Model Now blog points out, no girl or boy aspires to be a prostitute (3). Some might “choose” prostitution because their options are to be homeless, owe large debts, or be in an abusive situation. A pimp will frame the work as the escape a person desperately needs. Due to their life circumstances, prostitutes often do not realize what other options or resources they have.
Take the example of Elena Eva Reynaga, an activist who organized the first sex worker union in Argentina and has spoken at places such as Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. She got married at age 15 and a single mother by age 18. An openDemocracy article said “sex work allowed Reynaga to have a home – and the means to raise her two children and build her activism.” Reynaga said “I owe it to sex work… That my granddaughter goes to university today, that she brings students over so they can interview me, for them to feel proud” (4). Ironically, Reynaga’s argument demonstrates exactly the desperation people face when they turn to prostitution. If Reynaga had other opportunities to earn money open to her, she would not have chosen the life in and out of drab prisons, exposed herself to STDs, or made herself vulnerable to violence from clients.
If Reynaga had other opportunities to earn money open to her, she would not have chosen the life in and out of drab prisons, exposed herself to STDs, or made herself vulnerable to violence from clients.
Why Are Laws Against Prostitution Controversial?
After reading about the problems prostitution has for society and the individual, it would seem like a no-brainer to make all prostitution illegal. But the answer is more complex than that. Laws that outlaw certain aspects of prostitution harm the the prostitute. Prostitutes are victims of crime–the pimps and the clients are the criminals in this case. When it is already frightening to escape violent trafficking rings, fear of having a criminal record or facing prison time further deters a prostitute from seeking help. A study by UCL Institution of Health Equity found that “criminalization stigmatizes sex workers, seriously reducing access to alternative forms of employment and other public services. This further impedes stabilization” (5).
The Solution: Still A Work In Progress
In Scandinavian countries, prostitutes are not punished under the criminal code, but clients and ringleaders are penalized instead. The countries offer extensive exit systems to help survivors rejoin society. Amnesty International released a study criticizing the Nordic Model which is often cited by critics. However, the study compared Norway to countries which have full prohibition and are more corrupt, meaning prostitutes “suffer violence and extortion at the hands of the police and other authorities, because selling sex is illegal” (6). The study did not compare Norway to any countries where prostitution is completely decriminalized. Additionally, Amnesty International carried out the study only 5 years after Norway implemented the model.
Despite Amnesty International’s criticism of the Nordic Model, other studies have found that the Nordic Model laws reduced prostitution when compared to similar countries (7, 8). The Netherlands, which has decriminalized prostitution, has become a hot spot for traffickers, according to the U.S. State Department. While the Nordic Model is not perfect, it is a step in the right direction for ending human trafficking. Decriminalizing all prostitution, as countries such as the Netherlands demonstrate, only makes the problem worse.
Decriminalizing all prostitution, as countries such as the Netherlands demonstrate, only makes the problem worse.
The Bottom Line
There is something we can learn from the Nordic Model. First, exit programs are essential for helping prostitutes escape traffickers. Second, once a person is trafficked, getting them back into mainstream society is very complex and messy. The only way we can completely solve the sex trafficking problem is to prevent it. Educating communities about the dangers of prostitution and helping those in poverty gain legitimate marketable skills are the number one defense against sex trafficking. The argument that a woman or man would choose prostitution is misguided. No rational person would choose a life of STDs and violence. Prostitution’s ill effects on innocent lives in our society, especially from slavery and spread of disease, also show that completely decriminalizing prostitution is not the answer either. But the legal system can only help so much. The ultimate answer lies in our communities and organizations willing to step up and stop the cycle.
6. It’s difficult for researchers to find the true prevalence of STDs among prostitutes. One study found that “Sex workers are 13 times more at risk of HIV compared with the general population, due to an increased likelihood of being economically vulnerable, unable to negotiate consistent condom use, and experiencing violence, criminalisation and marginalisation.” https://www.avert.org/professionals/hiv-social-issues/key-affected-populations/sex-workers.
7. Amnesty International compared outcomes in Norway to those in Papua New Guinea, Argentina, and Hong Kong in its study.