Last Updated 23 Nov 2022

An Examination of the Issues Regarding the Decriminalization of Prostitution in the United States

Category Prostitution
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When it comes to prostitution, most people have inaccurate and prejudiced views of those who sell sex for money, and what it really means to be a sex worker. Too often, we either think of prostitutes as troubled, drug- addicted women or as living a glamorous lifestyle such as the one depicted in the movie Pretty Woman. Neither of these notions tell the whole story. Every day, laws, programs, and ideas about sex workers are influenced negatively by those who want to pigeonhole prostitutes by either shaming them or saving them. While there is no universal answer for addressing prostitution, the best approach is the "Nordic model," which decriminalizes the selling of sex but upholds criminalization for buyers.

Contributing to the social stigma and misinformation is a general lack of knowledge about sex workers and the industry in general. The industry is so far underground that most of society is removed from the reality of the sex trade. Statistics and concrete numbers about the sex industry are hard to come by and even harder to verify: "No one even knows what proportion of the male population [buys sex]; estimates range from 16 percent to 80 percent" (Bennetts). Even with a scarcity of information, one thing is clear: the majority of people arrested in the sex industry are sex workers, making up 90% of all arrests, while buyers make up less than 10% (Hedlin and Ohlsson).

Fondation Scelles, a French organization dedicated to fighting sexual exploitation, estimates that there are 42 million sex workers in the world--80% of them female--and 1 million in America alone (Lubin). There is also a lack of awareness in respect to the terms used to identify sex workers. The word "prostitute" is commonly understood yet carries an extremely negative connotation and is usually used by people who disapprove of sex workers. Instead, those who sell sex prefer the simple and more modernized term "sex worker." As one such worker puts it, "To me the word 'prostitute' is used by people who look down on what I do, who seek to characterise me as either a criminal or a victim'" (qtd. in Holland).

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Current laws regarding prostitution vary by state, but the federal government is extremely opposed to the selling of sex. The State Department, when calling for new prostitution law proposals, stated, "The U.S. Government is opposed to prostitution and related activities, which are inherently harmful and dehumanizing, and contribute to the phenomenon of trafficking in persons'" (qtd. in Ahmed). This shows that there is little chance for prostitution ever to be completely decriminalized in the nation. In Washington state, the buying or selling of sex constitutes a misdemeanor (9A.88 RCW: Indecent Exposure--Prostitution).

The Department of Justice recommendations for state laws about prostitution include penalties of fines between $500-$1000 and/or imprisonment between 90 and 180 days for each offense of engaging in or soliciting for prostitution (William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008). Compelling a person to engage in prostitution is considered a federal felony and includes a maximum punishment of 15 years imprisonment and/or a maximum fine of $15,000. If the coerced person is under 18, penalties rise to a maximum of 20 years or a $20,000 fine (William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008).

Another important factor to consider when dealing with prostitution laws is the approaches made by other countries to these issues, and how successful they are. According to Appendix A, Germany is currently one of the only countries that completely allows and regulates prostitution, and considers it voluntary work (Willsher). Other countries, such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, and Greece, allow prostitution with some restrictions and regulations (Willsher). The "Nordic model" or "Swedish model" originates from Norway, Sweden, and Iceland, where clients are punishable by law, but sex workers are not (Willsher). Opinions on the effectiveness of these approaches are mixed.

Reliable, straightforward reports on the success of Europe's varying approaches to prostitution are difficult to find due to the lack of available statistics. Some claim that partial or full decriminalization of the sex trade does very little to stop violence and stigma, yet others insist that criminalization only encourages corruption and violence against sex workers (Bennetts). Whatever their view, those involved in the discussion about prostitution laws have strong opinions about right and wrong, and sometimes these opinions can get in the way of actual fact.

Opponents to decriminalization include determined abolitionists who believe there is no distinction to be made between sex work and human trafficking, as both involve a lack of choice and control over one's own body. Many opponents of decriminalization share the view that "sex work and sex trafficking cannot reasonably be separated. Sex work fuels the demand for commercial sex, which is the indisputable driving force behind the sex- trafficking industry" (McCain). Lack of information regarding sex work causes inaccurate perceptions of the sex industry, which leads to the creation of harmful ideas and laws without sex workers' best interests in mind.

According to Virada Somswasdi, president of the Foundation for Women, Law and Rural Development (FORWARD), "It is almost impossible to draw a line between prostitution and trafficking in women when misinformation plays a critical factor." It is easy to group sex workers and trafficked persons into one all-inclusive group when the difference is not obvious. But this failure to make a distinction causes blanket laws to be passed that address every prostitute and trafficked person in the same way, even when circumstances such as race, class, and gender identities among these people are drastically diverse.

In Ireland, “policymaking in relation to sexual commerce... appears to be premised more on ideological and religious beliefs, rather than a concrete evidence-base” (Maginn and Ellison). In order to successfully address prostitution, one must understand there is a distinction between human trafficking and sex work, and even within these categories we cannot address all cases in the same way.

Most opponents to partial or full decriminalization also view all sex workers as victims who need to be rescued immediately. Many of these speakers treat sex workers as uneducated, shameful people who cannot make decisions for themselves. One such opponent, Barbara Kay, insists, "the pathetic demi-monde of lower-tier prostitution -- streetwalkers, drug addicts, child-trafficked aboriginal children... These women don't need the 'harm reduction' of legal enablement. They need rescue. Their plight would only worsen with legalization, because it would discourage efforts to save them." This is the type of harmful statement that stems from the mistaken idea that sex trafficking and sex work are the same.

It is true that many sex workers choose their profession due to a lack of other options, but comparing them to victims such as "child-trafficked aboriginal children" is absurd. Yes, trafficked people need to be "saved," but applying this same idea to people who choose to sell sex is extremely flawed and can have monumental consequences within society. This is exactly the line of thinking that causes the violence against sex workers: the idea that they are unrespectable individuals living shame-filled lives; the line of thinking that suggests they are less human than the rest of society. In addressing an article about a typical Canadian prostitute, Kay also remarks, "Jade respects herself, we're told. [The author] seems to imply that because she respects herself, we should too. Not going to happen."

This is a prime example of the marginalization sex workers face every day. In creating laws without being conscientious about the truth of sex work, without talking to sex workers, without treating them as people, "we're approaching [prostitution] with an unjustified confidence we know what we're doing in passing laws and creating programs without really knowing what the best approach is" (qtd. in Beitsch).

Abolition, when applied to prostitution, is unrealistic and harmful to sex workers. One proponent of decriminalization, when addressing claims like Kay's, states, "Abolitionists say they want to protect human rights, but their efforts often undermine those rights: Campaigns and programs to end prostitution in fact lead to violence, stigmatization, and other problems for the exact people they claim to be helping" (Ahmed). The truth is, abolition gets us nowhere. This is our current system in the United States, and the fact of the matter is that it's simply not effective. Using simple logic, "History tells us that prohibition is an ineffective policy remedy. Look at what happened with the prohibition of alcohol in the US during the 1930s. A similar outcome is likely to occur within the sex industry" (Maginn and Ellison).

And it has: A zero-tolerance policy in addressing the lifestyles of sex workers has caused immense marginalization of sex workers, especially transgender individuals and people of color, who are already marginalized on a daily basis without being a part of the sex trade. Said a lawyer who defends sex workers, "The hardest piece I've dealt with... is trying to represent individuals who don't fit the model. They aren't a 12-year-old girl, or whatever the portrayal is”” (qtd. in Grant). This "portrayal" is part of the problem: our sympathy is limited to the stereotypical young, white female prostitute. Sex workers of all races, genders and income levels must have access to the resources and help they need. We cannot continue to ignore, stigmatize, and target sex workers who are not to blame for the violence they experience.

Historically, policy and law enforcement have worked against prostitutes. Ted Bunch, cofounder of an organization working to end violence against women, explains, “The system has been set up to blame women for the violence men perpetrate... But men's silence about the violence men perpetrate is as much as a problem as the violence itself" (qtd. in Bennetts). Sex workers have always been targeted and arrested, whereas most buyers are not held accountable. Some states, including Washington, are working to change this. King County prosecutor Valiant Richey reports, "In Seattle and King County... the focus is now on reducing demand.

In 2009, officers in the county charged many people with prostitution and few with patronizing, but those numbers have essentially flipped, with about 250 charges for patronizing and fewer than 100 for prostitution in 2014" (qtd. in Beitsch). However, most other states still approach prostitution in the old manner, by targeting sex workers. Washington is setting a good example by informally focusing on arresting buyers and not sellers, but there is still much more change needed nationwide to reduce violence and stigma against sex workers.

Richey clarifies the new procedure in Washington by explaining that police are still encountering the same number of prostitutes, but abstain from charging them, especially minors. "It's stuff like asking, 'When was the last time you ate?' and, 'Where are you staying tonight?' Police are asking nonjudgmental questions and getting fascinating answers"" (qtd. in Beitsch). Instead of immediately arresting prostitutes in hopes of "saving" them, police are taking less drastic approaches by offering compassion and help.

This should be the norm throughout the country, but many opponents to decriminalization still insist that sex workers need to be "saved". According to a previous victim of sex trafficking in Washington, "it's only possibly to help victims when they're ready to leave the sex trade. Rescue missions are not possible" (qtd. in Beitsch). Instead of forcing rescues that are bound to be ineffective and degrading, states need to offer help and resources to sex workers.

While decriminalization of the selling of sex is necessary, full decriminalization of selling and buying is problematic and should not be enacted. While some sex workers may enjoy their work and the sexual freedom involved, they are among the few and privileged, and often choose their profession for lack of better financial options. Many sex workers interviewed in Ireland voiced a common experience-- sex work for them isn't horrible, but they wouldn't have chosen it without financial motives. One such woman explains, I was a single mother with two children. I had no support... Working the canals gave me independence, self-respect and gave my kids a decent chance. It was what I had to do... I won't say I enjoyed it especially, [but I] am proud of how hard I worked (qtd. in Holland).

Another woman took on sex work as supplemental income to support her music career: ""Suddenly paying my bills wasn't a problem'" (qtd. in Holland). It's clear that sex work may be a "choice" for some women, but is a choice made in absence of better options really a choice? In a study conducted by psychologist Melissa Farley, a man explained his reasoning for not buying prostitutes: "You can see that life circumstances have kind of forced her into that... It's like jumping from a burning building--you could say they made their choice to jump, but you could also say they had no choice"" (qtd. in Bennetts). Some sex workers may believe they chose their line of work, but most women would not have entered the sex industry if they had better career opportunities.

The truth is, prostitution and other types of commercialized sex are oppressive, particularly of women, and detrimental to society. Says Somswasdi, "Prostitution is not about women's choice and agency nor women enjoying rights over their own bodies; on the contrary, it is an expression of men's control over women's sexuality." Melissa Farley, when commenting on her study, states, "It doesn't matter whether it's on silk sheets, legal or illegal--all kinds of prostitution cause extreme emotional stress for the women involved"" (qtd. in Bennetts).

Another important result of Farley's study, "In their interviews, sex buyers often voiced aggression toward women, and were nearly eight times as likely as nonbuyers to say they would rape a woman if they could get away with it" (Bennetts). The very nature of prostitution is degrading-- women are viewed as objects, commodities even. When one pays for sex, he is paying for the use of another person's body; he is paying for a person whose job it is to cater to his desires. This carries over into real relationships and causes unrealistic and harmful expectations from unpaid sexual partners. One sex buyer admitted, "Prostitution can get you to think that things you may have done with a prostitute you should expect in a mutual loving relationship"" (qtd. in Bennetts). Prostitution means inescapable dehumanization of women and unreal expectations from romantic partners.

This type of objectification isn't limited to relationships; over time it impacts society and everyday interactions between men and women. Says Farley, "Our social conditioning is to see women as objects, as property-- that's what commercial sexual exploitation is all about. It's a multibillion- dollar industry; it makes more money than the NFL, the NBA, and Major League Baseball combined" (qtd. in Bennetts). Additionally, "Legalization of prostitution sends the wrong message to men and boys that... prostitution is harmless fun" (Somswasdi). Sex workers aren't to blame for the violence they experience; they are not the "bad guys" in the scheme of the sex trade.

According to a 2013 study of American men who frequently purchased prostitutes, almost half had a yearly income of $120,000 or more (Hedlin and Ohlsson). Many buyers are among the privileged, while sex workers often struggle to make ends meet. Buyers who take advantage of a person's lack of choice for their own sexual gain are only contributing to this system of degradation and violence and should be criminalized. The large-scale exploitation of women and people that is the sex trade is inherently harmful and should not be promoted through legalization of purchase.

The most practical solution, then, is enactment of the Nordic model. While it isn't perfect, it is the best holistic approach to sex work in the United States. According to Hedlin and Ohlsson, “in countries where buying sex has been decriminalized, sex trafficking typically is more prevalent... When it is easier to purchase, demand for commercial sex goes up and more money can be made from exploiting victims." Others support this claim: "[The Nordic approach in Sweden] dramatically reduced trafficking, whereas the legalization of prostitution in the Netherlands, Germany, and much of Australia led to an explosive growth in demand that generated an increase in trafficking and other crimes" (Bennetts). When the buying of sex was decriminalized in New Zealand, violence in the sex trade saw no substantial decrease (Hedlin and Ohlsson).

Logically, our focus should be on reducing the demand for commercial sex by criminalizing buyers, but allowing sex workers access to the resources they need without fear of arrest. According to Aziza Ahmed, an associate professor of law, "Decriminalization would allow sex workers access to government and international resources so they could better respond to threats like violence and trafficking, while also helping to [alleviate] the social stigma and prejudice." We cannot continue to let sex workers live in fear of violence, marginalization, and stigmatization.

We must offer help to those who need it, but not force "rescues." Correcting these issues will mean "improving laws... dedicating more resources... addressing the social and economic conditions that make minors vulnerable... [and] respecting and engaging adult sex workers and their advocates as part of the solution, not the problem" (Ahmed). We need laws that work cooperatively with sex workers and not against them. The Nordic model is the only way we can prove to sex workers that we are on their side.

If we want to end the systematic violence, marginalization, and stigma directed at sex workers, we must decriminalize the selling of sex to allow sex workers to gain access to the legal, economic, and emotional resources they need. We must cease to criminalize and target sex workers and instead focus on pursuing buyers who are the source of the brutality, both directly and indirectly. However, we cannot stop at legal changes.

We must offer social programs for sex workers including counseling, support centers, and job opportunities for those ready to leave the sex trade. But before these things can happen, we must change our line of thinking from one of shaming and ignorance to one of acceptance and willingness to make a change. We cannot continue to push sex workers into the dark corners of society. We must work cooperatively with them to bring awareness to their cause. Together, we can work to end the war on sex workers.

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