Is Legalizing Prostitution the Best Way to Tackle Sex Trafficking?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That seems to be the consensus among readers of our new piece on trafficking in the U.S. The most up-voted comment:

Over the course of his tenure, [Detective Bill Woolf with the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force has] interviewed over 300 victims. In many cases, those who have been exploited believe that they are offenders, Woolf told me. “They fear law enforcement…because they’re technically committing a crime and that is prostitution,” he said.

Which is one reason why prostitution should not be a crime, and laws against prostitution play into the hands of the traffickers. Just as with drug laws, and prohibition laws about alcohol, all laws forbidding consensual sex for pay should be struck down. The prostitute needs to be able to get help from the police, and should not be subject to criminal penalties.

Another reader emails a long piece published in The Washington Post by Maggie McNeill, a former call girl and blogger: “This essay seems like a good place to start a discussion on fuzzy and conflated definitions, as well as shoddy research and misrepresented findings, found in alarmist articles about commercial sex work and sex trafficking.” Here’s McNeill:

Sex-work prohibitionists have long seen trafficking and sex slavery as a useful Trojan horse. In its 2010 “national action plan,” for example, the activist group Demand Abolition writes,“Framing the Campaign’s key target as sexual slavery might garner more support and less resistance, while framing the Campaign as combating prostitution may be less likely to mobilize similar levels of support and to stimulate stronger opposition.” But as sex worker rights organizations have repeatedly pointed out (as have organizations like UNAIDS, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International), those who are truly interested in decreasing exploitation in the sex industry would be better off supporting decriminalization of prostitution.

New South Wales, Australia, decriminalized sex work in 1995, and a subsequent government-sponsored 2012 study found “ . . . no evidence of recent trafficking of female sex workers . . . in marked contrast to the 1990s when contacted women from Thailand were common in Sydney . . . ” New Zealand legalized prostitution in 2003. A study by the New Zealand Ministry of Justice five years later found “no incidence of trafficking,” and sex worker advocates say the law has made it easier for sex workers to report abuse, and for law enforcement to make arrests for crimes against sex workers.  

McNeill also insists that “most of the scary articles about sex trafficking are larded with inflated figures and phony statistics that don’t survive any serious analysis.” A few of her examples:

Another common claim is that there are 100,000 to 300,000 children locked in sex slavery in the U.S. (For just a few examples, see here, here, here, here, and here. ) That number is a distortion of a figure from a 2001 study by Richard Estes and Neil Weiner of the University of Pennsylvania, which estimated that number of “children, adolescents and youth (up to 21) at risk of sexual exploitation.” (Emphasis added.)  “Sex trafficking” was the least prevalent form of “exploitation” in their definition. Other forms included stripping, consensual homosexual relations, and merely viewing porn. Moreover, two of the so-called “risk factors” were access to a car and proximity to the Canadian or Mexican border. In a 2011 interview, Estes himself estimated the number of legal minors actually abducted into “sex slavery” was ” very small . . . {w}e’re talking about a few hundred people.”

Yet the myth persists. The Dallas Morning News recently took the figure to new levels of preposterousness, claiming in an editorial last November that, “In Houston alone, about 300,000 sex trafficking cases are prosecuted each year.” As defense attorney Mark Bennett pointed out on his blog, the actual figure was two. Not 200,000. Just two.  The paper did print a correction, though the correction simply deleted the original 300,000 figure from the editorial. The paper still didn’t bother to mention the actual number, perhaps it didn’t support the alarmism in the rest of the editorial.

One of the most prolific skeptics of the new crusade against sex trafficking is Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown. In a November piece for her magazine, she makes a direct parallel to the disastrous War on Drugs:

The tactics employed to “get tough” on drugs ended up entangling millions in the criminal justice system, sanctioning increasingly intrusive and violent policing practices, worsening tensions between law enforcement and marginalized communities, and degrading the constitutional rights of all Americans. Yet even as the drug war’s failures and costs become more apparent, the Land of the Free is enthusiastically repeating the same mistakes when it comes to sex trafficking. This new “epidemic” inspires the same panicked rhetoric and punitive policies the war on drugs did—often for activity that’s every bit as victimless.

Forcing others into sex or any sort of labor is abhorrent, and it deserves to be treated like the serious violation it is. But the activity now targeted under anti-trafficking efforts includes everything from offering or soliciting paid sex, to living with a sex worker, to running a classified advertising website.

What’s more, these new laws aren’t organic responses by legislators in the face of an uptick in human trafficking activity or inadequate current statutes. They are in large part the result of a decades-long anti-prostitution crusade from Christian “abolitionists” and anti-sex feminists, pushed along by officials who know a good political opportunity when they see it and by media that never met a moral panic they didn’t like.

What do you think? Are skeptics like McNeill and E.N.B. misguided? Drop us an email and we’ll post the strongest counterpoints.