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).
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.
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 “criminalisation stigmatises sex workers, seriously reducing access to alternative forms of employment and other public services. This further impedes stabilisation” (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.
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.