Punish the Johns but Not the Prostitutes?

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

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:

[The model] legitimizes singling out for prosecution men who solicit sex, and the anti-trafficking movement in the U.S. is eying the Swedish model: arrest the johns and aid the prostitutes. This may seem like rough justice, considering the lamentable tradition of arresting the prostitutes and ignoring the johns. But I’d arrest neither, while targeting people who knowingly collaborate directly or indirectly in trafficking.

Whether commercial sex ought to be decriminalized is both an ideological and empirical question. I favor decriminalization in the interests of civil liberty, but I recognize the likelihood of unintended and unwanted consequences. Whether some women freely engage in prostitution or all are forced into it is an empirical question, too often presented as an ideological one. Anti-trafficking activists tend to regard prostitution as at least effectively or virtually coercive for most if not all women--a reflection of sexual inequality and gender roles if not actual extortion or abuse. If you adopt this expansive view of coercion, you can justify the unequal punitive treatment of johns pragmatically, as a necessary means of reducing demand for a presumptively abusive sex trade. Anti-trafficking activists claim that prostitution in Sweden has dropped as a result of criminalizing buying and decriminalizing selling sex.

I don’t intend to try to resolve empirical questions about the nature or prevalence of sex trafficking. Further, given the beliefs about both held by anti-trafficking activists, I am not suggesting that many of them are motivated by something than outrage at the sex trade or that they share the disdain for male sexuality and hostility to civil liberty of anti-porn dogmatists. But I am asking that they consider the costs of uncritically allying with the anti-porn movement (and not just because for some activists on the right, opposition to trafficking is another weapon against reproductive choice; Planned Parenthood has been accused of sex trafficking.)

Disagree? Do you favor the Swedish model? Drop us an email.