Some advocates who recognize persons in prostitution for who they really are—victims of sexual exploitation—support a position between legalization and decriminalization, called “partial decriminalization.” Under this legal model, the act of selling sex is no longer criminalized, but the buying of sex still carries heavy penalties in an effort to disincentivize demand.
This approach of criminalizing only the buying of sex is based on the Nordic model, which correctly understands prostitution to be sexual exploitation and asserts that criminalizing sex buying reduces the demand that drives sex trafficking. The name Nordic model refers to Sweden’s 1999 legislative change. Countries such as Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Canada, France, Ireland, and Israel have followed in Sweden’s footsteps.
Just recently, Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) introduced the bipartisan Sex Trafficking Demand Reduction Act, which contains a proposal—based on the Nordic model—that would amend the minimum standards of combatting sex trafficking (contained in the current Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000) to include language prohibiting the purchase of sex.
For a long time, our legal system penalized persons in prostitution, while mostly letting the purchaser (“Johns” ) go free. This imbalance has begun to change as our country becomes more aware of the issue of sex trafficking and how various forms of sexual exploitation are interconnected.
Persons in prostitution are often not consenting, as the evidence shows. They are frequently the victims of abuse and manipulation. Many are minors (which is legally considered child sex trafficking) or persons who believe they have no other financial options.
The partial-decriminalization model treats both consenting and non-consenting persons as victims and only penalizes the buyers who are exploiting them. However, this approach still does not satisfy the “sex work” activists who believe that treating all persons in prostitution as victims stigmatizes consenting women. The “sex work” lobby (supported by liberal billionaire George Soros) demands society accept the buying and selling of sex as a legitimate profession for consenting adults.
Yes, some persons willingly sell sex for money and are not forced by a pimp to do so. Some treat it like a normal job, even asking for references from sex buyers before agreeing to engage! But the Chair of Demand Abolition, Swanee Hunt, says it best: “establishing exactly who at any given time is in the minority of adults ‘willingly’ selling their bodies is not a pragmatic or reliable exercise, and it is an insidious distraction from stopping the abuse of the great majority.”
Full or partial decriminalization of the sex trade would only further complicate the distinction between those who are “voluntary” versus the vast majority who are forced, coerced, manipulated, groomed, abused, and controlled with drugs to perform.
New Laws Will Not Solve the Problem of Sin
Although there is much is to be explored with partial decriminalization, neither it, full decriminalization, or legalization preserves the sacredness of sex nor acknowledges the inherent sinfulness of humanity as a barrier to eliminating sexual exploitation. Partial decriminalization may reduce the demand, but it will not eliminate sex buying. Partial decriminalization says sex is a commodity to be sold, and it is not. We must not take the elitist position of thinking that prostitution is “okay” for “some” people.
We agree with Nordic Model Now on this point: “We do not accept prostitution as the answer for the poor and disadvantaged, for recent migrants, for single mothers, for women and children. Or indeed for anyone.”
In the Vita Nostra in Ecclesia blog post, “Trading in Human Bodies and Lives,” the author articulates a biblical sexual ethic that should be at the foundation of combating sexual exploitation:
“The trading in sex is objectively and inherently contrary to the dignity and truth of the nature of the human person, as well as the truth of the sex act itself. It advances the lie that sex is for personal satisfaction alone, and instead of a positive sexuality that is authentically human, it fosters a negative sexuality that is utilitarian and mechanistic.”
Laws encouraging wrong behavior never lead to the right outcomes. No country that legalized, decriminalized, or partially decriminalized sex buying has seen sex buying eliminated. Neither have the persons in prostitution enjoyed the protections and order such policies were allegedly supposed to bring them. No matter how you slice it, the sex industry is a business that thrives off the sinfulness of humanity, and there is no cure for that sinfulness except the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which has the power to change people from the inside out. As humanity exercises free will, it is inevitable that evil things will continue to happen in this world. Until Christ returns, we are called to act with justice, love, mercy, and to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). In applying that principle to our justice system, an attainable goal is to create a system that can benefit as many victims as possible and prosecute as many perpetrators as possible.
Working Toward Restorative Justice
As we pursue mercy and justice, a legal model that will benefit women and society is a model that not only supports the non-commodity of sex but also emphasizes restorative justice.
Our laws should recognize the procuring or pimping of any individual as the facilitation of sex trafficking. Penalties for such actions should reflect the gravity of the injustice. Family Research Council supports the bipartisan Sex Trafficking Demand Reduction Act. We affirm that prostitution and sex trafficking are inseparably linked, and one cannot be serious about combating sex trafficking if one is unwilling to go after the buyers that drive the commercial sex industry. (Learn more by reading Reduce the Demand for Sex Trafficking by Going After the Buyers and Sting Sex Trafficking at the Source... Its Buyers.)
Persons in prostitution are often accustomed to a lifestyle of addiction, acts of crime, violence, and homelessness. They often do not see themselves as victims due to the successful grooming and manipulation of their pimps/traffickers. Such individuals would benefit from restorative justice efforts like Ohio’s “CATCH (Changing Actions to Change Habits) Court” in Franklin County. Adults charged with prostitution have the option of entering this two-year restorative program. If participants complete the program, the charges against them are dropped—an essential component for starting one’s life over again. Persons with a criminal record face many obstacles that prevent them from re-establishing themselves into society. A paper published by the Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation at Villanova University, titled “Relief from Collateral Consequences of Prostitution-related Convictions: A Blueprint,” explores this in greater depth.
CATCH Court is changing lives by helping women who have been arrested for prostitution rather than condemning them. “The court views them as victims, not as criminals.” These women are getting clean, finding sobriety, escaping their exploiters, and starting over. More practical alleviations should be introduced to restore those in prostitution back into normal society, thereby lowering the recidivism rate and their risk for being exploited all over again. We need more programs like CATCH Court.
Restorative programs for convicted sex buyers, called “John” schools, have also been instituted across multiple cities. These programs are designed to teach offenders how their behavior is both dangerous and exploitative. According to Demand Abolition, “There are now over 60 separate john school programs in the U.S. that serve well over 100 cities and counties.” You can see a full list here.
A Better Way Forward
In conclusion, we should not enable the sexual exploitation industry in any way. Instead, Christians should bear witness that the buying and selling of human bodies for sex is outside God’s design and carries destructive consequences, seen and unseen. We need more Christian-based programs that rescue, advocate, re-educate, and restore those harmed by sexual exploitation.
Legalizing, decriminalizing, or partially decriminalizing the selling of sex is not a good way forward, nor a way forward at all. The better way forward is teaching the culture to value human dignity, applying a biblical sexual ethic, inspiring women to see themselves as made in the image of God—with strength, worth, and dignity—and for our laws to apply practical alleviations to victims of sexual exploitation.