Sex work is illegal in 49 of the 50 states in the United States with Nevada being the only state with legalized sex work. In Tennessee buying sex as well as selling sex is a crime.
There has been a lot of discussion around the idea of further legalization in more states. The general argument in favor of this boils down to one point: It will be better for the women. There is a major problem with this argument. It is simply not true.
Proponents of prostitution often argue legalization will move prostitution out of the shadows allowing for proper regulation of the trade. A 2005 report from the European Parliament found the opposite to be true. The legalization of prostitution in Austria resulted in a greater increase in illegal sex work.
“It indirectly supports the spreading of the illegal market in the sex industry,” the report concluded. “Organised crime has flourished and increased its influence in the sex industry.”
One of the biggest problems associated with prostitution is trafficking in human beings (THB). Many who support legalization of sex work believe it will result in lower levels of THB. A peer-reviewed article in the journal “World Development” found the opposite to be true. The researchers studied prostitution in 150 countries and determined that legal prostitution did not equate to lower levels of THB.
“On average, countries with legalized prostitution experience a larger degree of reported human trafficking inflows,” the report concluded.
Legalized sex work not only empowers organized crime but provides it with legitimacy. With legal brothels, organized crime can actively participate in THB behind the façade of a regulated business.
“Legalization and regulation of the prostitution sector has not driven out organized crime,” a 2014 article in the journal “Crime Law and Social Change” stated. “On the contrary, fighting sex trafficking using the criminal justice system may even be harder in the legalized prostitution sector.”
The fact of the matter is sex work is dangerous in legal and illegal systems. The fear of human trafficking, organized crime, and violence against women exist in both systems. Any system that tolerates sex work tolerates crime against women.
So, what do we do? Systems that criminalize selling sex, like Tennessee’s does, forces women to hide violent crimes committed against them. These systems don’t recognize the women who are forced into prostitution as the victims they are. In a 2012 survey of 40 Alaskan sex workers, 52 percent of respondents had tried to report a crime to the police they had experienced while working illegally as a sex worker. Of those respondents, 33 percent of them had police officers threaten to arrest them for participating in sex work.
A better system is one in which selling sex is legal but buying sex is illegal. This is known as the Nordic model. Under these systems brothels and organized prostitution are also illegal.
In a report by Vista Analysis on behalf of the Norwegian Ministry of Justice, this Nordic model resulted in decreased demand for prostitution as well as a decrease in human trafficking.
“The ban on purchasing sexual services has reduced demand for sex,” the analysis found. “A reduced market and increased law enforcement posit larger risks for human traffickers.”
This system empowers women to report human trafficking and patrons who are violent because there is no fear of legal repercussion for the sex worker.
“It is the customer that engages in illegal action and thus has the most to fear if reported to the police by a prostitute,” the analysis continued.
This model recognizes sex work for what it is. It is filled with organized crime, violence and women who have been enslaved to selling their body. While not all prostitutes are victims, and some enter the trade voluntarily, it is nearly impossible for regulatory agencies to separate the two.
Those who claim to support women and decry the evils of human trafficking must also decry actions that enable it. Legal prostitution has been shown to serve simply as a disguise for organized crime and human trafficking.
I believe the United Nations said it best in their 1949 resolution on human trafficking and prostitution.
“Whereas prostitution and the accompanying evil of the traffic in persons for the purpose of prostitution are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person and endanger the welfare of the individual, the family and the community,” the UN proclaimed.