Reporter's Notebook

Should Prostitution Really Be a Crime?
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Readers debate the question and more. Contribute via hello@theatlantic.com.

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Punish the Johns but Not the Prostitutes?

That’s the gist of the Swedish model of prostitution laws. A reader emails the @hello account “from an anonymous address to give you the perspective of a John”:

Call me biased, but it’s better for everyone to fully legalize prostitution rather than adopt the Swedish model (legalizing selling sex but banning the purchase of it). You’ve already noted that full legalization in Australia didn’t have the disastrous consequences that people thought it might. Indeed, many careful analyses of these laws, including this one [from Charlotta Holmström and May-Len Skilbrei], find that not only has demand for prostitution not decreased, prostitutes are still forced to practice in the shadows. The safest form of prostitution, regulated brothels, are banned.

If you were a prostitute, would you rather advertise on illegal websites to men who are breaking the law, or instead work at one of the highly regulated FKK clubs of Germany, where IDs are checked and people make sure the girls are safe?

Sadly, I think the desire to shame Johns gets in the way of good sense. Prostitution isn’t going away, and in many countries it’s widely understood that you aren’t a degenerate for visiting a brothel—sort of like how strip clubs are viewed here in the U.S. Let’s do the thing that’s right for everyone and legalize it.

Wendy Kaminer, in a 2011 piece for us called “Sex-Trafficking, Porn, and the Perils of Legislation,” touched on the Swedish model:

An American-British university student, Sarah Fletcher, defends the Swedish model criticized by an earlier reader:

As a lefty, I want to condemn a lot of liberals’ un-nuanced support of prostitution that’s justified by vague notions of “choice” and criticize how many aspects of third wave feminism erase the voices of the most vulnerable in prostitution.

Sex work is not work. This isn’t a fashionable statement these days, especially in those corners of the internet where sex positive feminism collides with confessional journalism, where college students who work as camgirls, sugar babies, or panty sellers can pen think pieces about vague abstract concepts like “empowerment” or “reclamation.” These women—who most of the time are involved in the most privileged type of sex work, sex work in which they can carefully choose their clients, if they interact with their clients in real life at all—often advocate for decriminalisation of prostitution.

But for most of the women in prostitution, “sex work” is not an abstract symbol of empowerment or exercise in intersectional feminism. It’s something they need to do to survive or to support their families.

In this short documentary, Reason profiles the Moonlite BunnyRanch, a brothel located in one of Nevada’s isolated counties—the only places in the U.S. where prostitution is legal and regulated:

Any thoughts on the Nevada model discussed in the video? This part of the Wiki page stood out:

The Nevada brothel system has been criticized by activists in the sex worker rights movement, who are otherwise supporters of full decriminalization of prostitution [41][42] for three reasons: [43]

  • the licensing requirements create a permanent record which can lead to discrimination later on;
  • the large power difference between brothel owner and prostitute gives prostitutes very little influence over their working conditions;
  • while prostitutes undergo legal and health background checks, their customers do not; the regulations are thus designed to protect customers, not prostitutes.

The latest reader to say hello@:

In the context of this debate, I think we need to remember that not everything we disapprove of needs to be illegal. For example, there is widespread societal disapproval of adultery outside the context of e.g. open relationships (disapproval of other people’s adultery, at least!), but it’s not illegal.   

Also, behavior that’s harmful to those voluntary participants isn’t necessarily illegal. Someone drinking themselves blackout drunk every night is certainly harmful to the drinker, but unless they do something that harms someone else, it’s not illegal.

I think the question is whether making something illegal is an effective and appropriate way of dealing with a situation that we disapprove of or is harmful to the participants. The Swedish model seems to be based on a feeling that we disapprove of buying sex more than selling it because the former is seen as exploitative, and maybe that’s a correct analysis of the situation. But is the Swedish model an *effective* way of decreasing this exploitation relative to legalizing or decriminalizing both the sale and the purchase?  

Earlier we heard from a reader who solicits prostitutes. Here’s an email from the other side of the transaction:

I consider myself a feminist and I also have worked as a sex worker. The two are not mutually exclusive. I have a college degree, but I had a job I hated that was sucking the life out of me. As something of a whim, I decided to try sex work. I was good at it and it was fun. I did not have a pimp or work for an agency. I got clients using Craigslist, back when they had an “erotic services” section. Most of my clients became regulars, so I only occasionally needed to put an ad out. I kept my ads to an absolute minimum to avoid potential exposure to law enforcement stings.