We have noted that demand for sexual services clearly drives the market for prostitution, and that prostitution seems inextricably linked to sex trafficking. More than any other single issue, the question of how to approach this problem divides the abolitionist community as it does the many jurisdictions charged with dealing with it. In its most simplistic form, the debate has revolved around criminalization versus legalization and regulation. Prostitution is legal in half the world’s countries, has limited legality in another 10%, and is illegal in the rest. In countries where it is legal, regulations may vary by locality. In many countries where it is illegal, enforcement is lax and prostitution remains widespread. In others it is often the case that enforcement is limited to prosecuting women, and punishment may range from simple fines to death by stoning.
Entangling this entire question are civil liberty concerns about individuals’ sovereignty over their own bodies, their right to choose to have sex on whatever terms they wish and with whomever they wish. Against this we weigh the profound abuse that we clearly see taking place in the vast majority of circumstances where people are being prostituted. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women pointedly calls prostitution the “world’s oldest oppression” and states “All prostitution exploits women, regardless of women’s consent.” This view sees all commercial sex as violence against women and a human rights violation. Can there be any resolution of such contrary views?
The argument for legalization/regulation goes beyond just the civil liberty issue of undue intrusion, that neither the government nor any church has the right to dictate sexual choices. It also envisions that by de-criminalizing the ‘world’s oldest profession’, people who choose to engage in this will be both less fearful and less stigmatized. They will not need pimps to protect them from the police or bail them out of jail. Sex work will come to be viewed as another honest profession like many others. Suitable for some perhaps to choose, even if distasteful to many. The public health implications of this scenario are enticing. Sex workers being licensed and having regular health check-ups as a requirement. Safe sex practices and sex education could be more easily promulgated. Police corruption and the influence of organized crime would be greatly curtailed. In some communities that have taken this approach, licensed sex workers have banded together forming unions or coalitions to work toward better pay and safer working conditions. In India, though not legal, sex workers are a vocal political force, leading marches and organizing public demonstrations.
This model exists in the United States only in some counties in Nevada, where brothels like the Mustang Ranch have become notorious. Amsterdam is probably the most notable city to have embraced this model of tolerance, creating a designated ‘red light’ district or ‘tippelzone‘. While this seemed manageable for quite some time, recent years have seen a great many difficulties causing a reassessment of the entire approach. The problems largely arose with the infiltration of organized trafficking rings that established a whole clandestine tier of unregistered prostituted women who could compete with the licensed brothels. This has brought things very much right back to the low point of many pimps, much abuse, corruption, disease, and sexual slavery.
Germany is another country that is currently in the decriminalized camp and results there too have been mixed. Prostitution is legal in Germany. Prostitutes may work as regular employees with a contract, though the vast majority work independently. Brothels are registered businesses that do not need a special brothel license. If food and alcoholic drinks are offered, the standard restaurant license is required.
Prostitutes have to pay income taxes and even have to charge VAT (Value Added Tax, equivalent to our sales tax) for their services, to be paid to the tax office. In a unique effort to move drug-addicted streetwalkers out of the city center and reduce violence against these women, the city of Cologne in 2001 created a special area for tolerated street prostitution in Geestemünder Straße. Dealers and pimps are not tolerated, the parking places have alarm buttons, and the women are provided with a cafeteria, showers, clean needles and counseling. The project, modeled on the Dutch tippelzones, is supervised by an organization of Catholic women.
Throughout Germany, pimping, admitting prostitutes under the age of eighteen to a brothel, and influencing persons under the age of twenty-one to take up or continue work in prostitution, are illegal. It is also illegal to buy sex from any person younger than 18. However this open system has not been without problems. Estimates of the number of prostitutes in Germany has increased up to 400,000 by the accounting of the prostitutes’ advocate organization HYDRA. More than half of these women are foreigners.
An Enlightened Approach
In 1999 Sweden embarked upon what may be the most enlightened approach, a compromise of two seemingly opposed notions, relying upon a bit of legal sleight of hand. In Sweden, it’s not illegal to be a prostitute, but it is illegal to hire one. Additionally the government established a comprehensive outreach program that encourages sex workers to change their livelihood. The law considers prostitution a form of violence against women. Visiting a prostitute is currently punishable with a six-month jail sentence. However, despite about 2,000 arrests, no one has been jailed and convictions have only led to minor fines – due mainly to difficulties with finding evidence and the low maximum penalty on the statute books. While this is clearly an attempt to address the demand side of the equation, it has had mixed results. Proponents point to an initial dramatic drop in street prostitution. Detractors claim that the trade has simply moved indoors via the internet making monitoring more difficult and reporting abuse less likely.
It may be hoped that ongoing research will help determine whether prohibition or legalization leads to higher levels of sex trafficking into, or within, a country. Clearly this is a complex issue that societies have wrestled with since time immemorial. But it is important to note that human rights groups and abolitionists share far more common ground than this dispute might lead you to believe. The question of the best approach to prostitution, and which approach best reduces human trafficking, will undoubtedly continue to be debated. Results of differing approaches will be analyzed and argued over. Healthy debate is all to the good. It may turn out that different approaches are best in different cultures, traditions, or societal circumstances.
What is largely agreed upon by all, is that exploitation by third parties is wholly unpardonable. Pimping and sex trafficking are crimes that should be universally recognized as deserving the harshest criminal penalties. This constitutes modern-day slavery. Likewise there is no fundamental disagreement about the sexual exploitation of minors being the most terrible crime deserving punishment in full measure. Most abolitionist groups are also in agreement that at least in those jurisdictions where prostitution is illegal, the buyers of sexual services should be no less criminally liable than the sellers. It is the view of Fight Slavery Now! that even though we may not reach full agreement on the best approach to the complex issues surrounding prostituted women, there is still ample common ground allowing us to march forward. We support all groups seeking to raise awareness about these issues and we welcome continued public discussion.
Some specific points to keep in mind:
- Prostituted women are rarely exercising a free choice, but rather are being manipulated and exploited by others.
- To lead people out of prostitution requires a strong commitment to offering supporting social services.
- The institution of prostitution is driven by the demand for sexual services.
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