While sex trafficking and prostitution are complex social problems, the sex market is driven by sex buyers. Without the business of buyers, pimps and traffickers have no incentive or profit motive to supply vulnerable people to sex buyers. Buying sexual access to people is an abuse of power that violates human dignity and ignores human rights. Creating policies to prevent people from attempting to buy sex and holds buyers accountable for the harm they cause is the surest way to eliminate this harmful industry. It also corrects the historic imbalance in policing commercial sex, which has disproportionately focused on arresting prostituted persons.
The idea that legalization would reduce the amount of harm in the commercial sex industry is a popular myth. The claim is that if the industry were regulated and treated as any other business, that the problems of violence and trafficking would disappear. Research shows otherwise. Countries that have legalized prostitution have experienced a surge in trafficking and rates of violence. The three pronged model that has shown to be effective in reducing overall harm is to decriminalize the act of sex selling, criminalize the act of sex buying, and using the fines imposed on sex buyers to fund direct services to prostituted persons. Research also shows that men say arrests and jail time, increased fines, and sex offender registries will deter them from purchasing sex.
Evidence for Holding Buyers Accountable
- Interviews with prostituted individuals in New Zealand reveal that a majority of prostituted people in the country did not feel as if decriminalization had curbed the violence they experience, demonstrating that prostitution is inherently violent and abusive (Report of the Prostitution Law Committee Report; p.14).
- Prostituted persons are mostly women and face exceptional risks of murder (p. 784) and violence at the hands of male sex buyers (pp. 248), signifying that the practice is on the continuum of gender-based violence. This remains true even in areas where prostitution is legal or decriminalized (p.14).
Legalization Increases the Size of the Commercial Sex Market
- An investigation commissioned by the European Parliament found that in countries with legal prostitution, such as Austria, “the effect of regulation can be a massive increase in migrant prostitution and an indirect support to the spreading of the illegal market in the sex industry.” (National Legislation on Prostitution and the Trafficking in Women and Children: pp. 132).
- Denmark decriminalized prostitution in 1999, and the government’s own estimates show that the prevalence increased substantially over the decade that followed. (Prostitutionens omfang og former 2012/2013: p. 7).
- Interviews with prostituted persons in the Netherlands reported that “legalization entices foreign women to come to the Netherlands, causing an increase [in prostitution].” (Prostitution in the Netherlands since the lifting on the brothel ban: p. 38).
Legalization Has Not Improved Prostituted Persons’ Experiences
- After New Zealand decriminalized prostitution in 2003, there were still reports among prostituted persons of “continuing stigma” and “harassment by the general public.” In addition, there was little difference in disclosure of occupation to healthcare professionals before and after decriminalization. (The Impact of the Prostitution Reform Act on the Health and Safety practices of Sex Workers: pp. 11-12).
- One study with data from 150 countries found that those with “legalized prostitution experience a larger reported incidence of trafficking inflows.” (Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking?: p. 76).
- Another quantitative analysis similarly reported that sex trafficking is “most prevalent in countries where prostitution is legalized.” (The Law and Economics of International Sex Slavery: Prostitution Laws and Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation: p. 87).
Legalization Does Not Decrease Criminal Activity or Transparency
- Regulated prostitution increases the size of the overall market for commercial sex, which benefits criminal enterprises that profit from sex trafficking. (Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking?: p. 67 and National Legislation on Prostitution and the Trafficking in Women and Children: p. 132)
- A large-scale evaluation of the legalization of prostitution in the Netherlands, coordinated by the Ministry of Justice, found that licensed brothels did not welcome frequent regulatory inspections. This undermines their willingness “to adhere to the rules and complicates the combat against trafficking in human beings.” (Prostitution in the Netherlands since the lifting on the brothel ban: p. 11).
- A review of the empirical evidence on the Dutch legalization of prostitution found that many prostituted persons still rely on anonymity, secrecy, and cash transfers, demonstrating that a legalized prostitution market operates much like a criminal market. (Legale sector, informele praktijken. De informele economie van de legale raamprostitutie in Nederland: p. 115-130).
- New Zealand’s Prostitution Law Review Committee found that a majority of prostituted persons felt that the decriminalization act “could do little about violence that occurred.” (p: 14) The Committee further reported that abusive brothels did not improve conditions for prostituted individuals; the brothels that “had unfair management practices continued with them” even after the decriminalization. (p: 17)
- New Zealand’s Prostitution Law Review Committee found that after decriminalizing prostitution, there still is a problem with lack of respect for employment arrangements among brothel operators. (Report of the Prostitution Law Review Committee: p. 159)
- The German government’s own evaluation of the 2001 law that legalized prostitution suggested that fewer than 8% of prostituted individuals are “officially insured as a prostitute.” (Report by the Federal Government on the Impact of the Act Regulating the Legal Situation of Prostitutes (Prostitution Act): p. 26).
- It’s estimated that only 1% of prostituted persons in Germany have a contract of employment. (Report by the Federal Government on the Impact of the Act Regulating the Legal Situation of Prostitutes (Prostitution Act): p. 17).
- Evaluations have found that regulation of prostitution creates a façade of legitimacy that hides sexual exploitation, and that brothels can “function as legalized outlets for victims of sex trafficking.” (The challenges of fighting sex trafficking in the legalized prostitution market of the Netherlands: p. 227).
- An example of how sex trafficking can operate behind a veil of legalized prostitution is the so-called “Sneep case.” German pimps traveled across the border to the Netherlands and took over large parts of the Red Light District in Amsterdam, using intimate relationships and brutal violence to coerce women to sell sex and hand over their profits. (Relationships Between Suspects and Victims of Sex Trafficking. Exploitation of Prostitutes and Domestic Violence Parallels in Dutch Trafficking Cases: pp. 49-64, and Prostitution Market of the Netherlands: p. 218)
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