Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

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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When Prostitution Is Preferred Over a Sweatshop

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.