Reporter's Notebook

Should Prostitution Really Be a Crime?
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The Divide Over Prostitution on the Feminist Left

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.

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:

From a reader who has worked with sex workers in several countries:

Your reader with mixed feelings about prostitution states:

My concern is that legitimizing [sex work] might make it more common because being poor is becoming more common in this society. If we had a more robust social safety net, I’d be less concerned.

In many parts of the world, prostitution is legal, and in many of those places—Colombia and the Dominican Republic, for example—there are many poor women who work in the sex trade. In Cambodia, where sex work is not legal but largely tolerated, there are occasional crackdowns on sex workers by the police working with NGOs, often in response to U.S. State Department pressure. The NGO solution is to divert the women to the garment industry to make cheap clothes for Americans and other Westerners. However, many women return to sex work because the working conditions and pay are so poor in the garment industry:

Another reader addresses the question:

I’ve always had really mixed feelings on this subject. I think bringing it out of the shadows would end certain types of exploitation, and it is absolutely clear that there is no prohibition that will end the practice of prostitution.

My concern is this: Will legalization make more desperate, poor women turn to prostitution because we offer them no other alternative? Are we turning poor women’s bodies into commodities to be legitimately bought and sold, and further dehumanizing them? It doesn’t feel like empowerment so much as another form of coercion and exploitation to me.

Years back I worked in criminal defense law and represented “gentlemen’s clubs” and the dancers who worked in them.

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.