Prostitution. It is a profession allegedly as old as time. Since it will always exist, why not make it better? Or so say the “sex work” advocates and progressive politicians who push for either the decriminalization or legalization of prostitution. But both approaches are misguided.
To most of us, decriminalization and legalization might sound like the same thing. But in this context, decriminalization refers to removing government penalties for prostitution, while legalization refers to removing government penalties and imposing a regulatory structure on sex work (while something can be legalized and unregulated and also remain illegal, and civil penalties—as opposed to criminal penalties—can apply, that’s not what we are talking about here). While decriminalization and legalization are not the same thing, they are alike in that they hurt the very people they claim to protect.
According to Villanova’s Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation, the decriminalization of prostitution “decriminalizes the sale of sex, decriminalizes the purchase of sex, and does not impose a legal scheme to regulate the commercial sex industry.” To decriminalize something means that it is no longer a crime to do that thing. Simply put, the decriminalization of prostitution means it would no longer be a crime to participate in the buying and selling of human beings for sex.
The District of Columbia is currently considering legislation that would fully decriminalize the sex trade in D.C. This means pimping, purchasing sex, and operating brothels would no longer be crimes in the nation’s capital.
Yes, you read that correctly. The Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019 would decriminalize the sex trade, thereby enabling exploiters of women and youth and exacerbating sex trafficking within the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia metro area (locally referred to as the DMV area). Law enforcement would have no right to interfere with acts such as pimping, purchasing sex, and operating brothels, further isolating victims who are under pimp or trafficker control.
Rhode Island experimented with decriminalization in 1980 but eventually reversed course in 2009. Why? Because the state had transformed into a sex tourism destination and a hub for trafficking, violence, and crime. “The lack of law criminalizing or regulating commercial sex acts allowed for the growth of sex businesses in Rhode Island. By 2002, Providence was known as ‘New England’s red-light district.’ The lack of laws controlling prostitution impeded police from investigating and stopping serious crimes and prevented officials from arresting pimps, traffickers, and sex buyers.”
As our friends at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation encapsulate it:
Full decriminalization of prostitution, in which the laws regulating the activities of pimps, sex buyers and sellers are eliminated, represents the most egregious response to the commercial sex trade. Such an approach transforms pimps into entrepreneurs and sex buyers into mere customers. While decriminalization may redefine deviant and criminal behavior, it is incapable of transforming pimps into caring individuals who have the best interests of prostituting persons at heart, or metamorphosing sex buyers into sensitive, thoughtful, and giving sexual partners. Decriminalization of prostitution is powerless to change the essential, exploitive nature of commercial sex, and tragically grants it free rein.
The legalization of prostitution, on the other hand, “legalizes the sale of sex, legalizes the purchase of sex, and creates a legal scheme to regulate the commercial sex industry.” Like decriminalization, legalizing something means it is no longer a crime to do that thing. Unlike decriminalization, such acts would be regulated under the law. Several counties in Nevada have made prostitution legal and have laws that regulate the trade. These regulations cover brothel inspections and STD testing, among other things. New York recently considered decriminalizing certain statues related to the sex trade and legalizing other parts of the sex trade to, as they saw it, “bring [persons in prostitution] out of the shadows and ensure that they are protected.”
How does empowering the business of exploitation “protect” anyone? With everything we know about the abuse and violence that characterizes the commercial sex trade, equating unobstructed exploitation with victim protection is just as absurd as saying, “since many of those who endure rape feel the stigma of shame, let’s remove all penalties for rape and legitimize it so they won’t feel shame.”
No sensible person would say such a thing. “Protecting” victims by removing the stigma of exploiting them makes no sense whatsoever. Not seeing persons caught up in prostitution as what they are—victims of sexual exploitation—will misplace the application of justice. Legitimizing the buying and selling of human beings only makes it easier for pimps and traffickers to groom vulnerable women, boys, and girls into thinking that sexual violence is normal and acceptable.
Prostitution in the Netherlands is legal and regulated. The Dutch government legalized prostitution in 2000, and the entire community has felt the negative impact ever since. You can read numerous articles about the objectification and crowding prevalent in Amsterdam’s red-light district, known as “the capital of prostitution.” Prostitution has become so mainstream there that women stand in brothel windows like products to be bought. Yes, they are attracting customers, but now the district has become “the biggest free attraction park in the whole of Amsterdam,” as tourists come to gawk and snap pictures of the women for sale. Amsterdam is continually breaking up the organized crime that the business of the sex trade often attracts. The dehumanization of women, paired with the lack of effort to provide women with better options, has created problems on top of problems.
One article put it bluntly: “The Dutch approach to prostitution is largely practical: sex work will always exist, so better for everyone to legalise, control and tax it.”
Persons caught up in prostitution will admit, “I don’t like it (selling my body), but I have to.” Kristina has been working in the red-light district for a decade. She was persuaded to come by a Hungarian friend who had found her fortune in Amsterdam's seedy sex industry. “I’m saving for my two kids. For their future. They’re with my mother in Hungary. My kids don’t know what I do.”
So now, by legalizing and regulating the sex trade, the presiding government functions as Kristina’s pimp by exploiting an exploitation business for tax revenue—a never-ending cycle of exploitation. Advocates for sex trafficking victims in New York told CBS News that “Most often [legalizing prostitution] increases sex trafficking...If you legalize, you are condoning brothels to become businesses and pimps to become business managers. That’s what we’ve seen around the world. The argument about safety is false.”
Seeking to protect vulnerable individuals by either decriminalizing or legalizing prostitution is a misguided notion. The laissez-faire approach to protecting human dignity will always create more problems, not solutions.