Beware the new trend of decriminalizing prostitution

The research team I work with is currently knee-deep into categorizing the legal approach that each nation takes with regard to prostitution. This project has really opened my eyes to the wide variety of approaches taken. For example, in some countries, buying sex is perfectly legal but providing that sex for money is strictly illegal. In other cases, we’ve seen countries do abrupt legal U-turns as they discover that the approach they are taking is making things worse.

In other words, there’s a lot of complexity here, and the legal approach taken depends on how you view prostitution. You can tackle this from the philosophical level, of course — is prostitution merely another form of work? Is prostitution inevitable, ineradicable? Is this a “my body, my choice” situation? Or is prostitution one of the only socially sanctioned gross human rights violations remaining?

While the philosophical debate rages, at a different level of analysis — outcomes for women who engage in prostitution — there is no controversy. It’s appropriate to focus on women in prostitution, because it’s estimated that females make up more than 80 percent of prostitutes. Decades of research show that women in prostitution fare far worse on pretty much every imaginable physical and mental health outcome measure.

To give but one example, the homicide rate for prostitutes is 229 per 100,000, which is higher than the highest workplace homicide rates of any regular occupation, such as liquor store workers (8 in 100,000), taxi drivers (27 in 100,000) and U.S. soldiers (counting combat-related deaths: 27 in 100,000 between 1980-2010). Yes, you read that right — prostitutes are almost 10 times more likely to be killed than soldiers in combat. There is literally no category of “work” with a homicide rate as high as prostitution. This should tip us off that this is not “work,” but in fact a form of socially sanctioned violence.

The list of physical damages from prostitution is lengthy and disturbing. Traumatic brain injury is rife. One study of prostitutes notes, “Ninety-five percent had sustained head injuries, either by being hit in the head with objects and/or having their heads slammed into objects. Fifty percent of the women who had been hit with objects had been hit in the head with hands or fists. They also reported being hit in the head with bottles, bats, sticks, hammers, guns, telephones, canes, screwdrivers, belts, rocks, bed slats, steel tubes, and ash trays. Thirty-four percent of the women who had had their heads shoved into objects had been shoved into walls, with others reporting having their heads slammed into floors; against dashboards, steering wheels, or windows of cars; against furniture or sinks; against other people; or against vehicles, buildings, doors, or stairs.”

Consider also that analysis demonstrates sex work would be deemed strictly illegal under OSHA standards designed to maintain safety in the workplace.

Psychological injury is also prevalent, leading to high rates of suicide and PTSD. Indeed, studies show prostitutes suffer more than combat veterans from PTSD. Prostitution chews up and spits out women. This is a form of violence against women, and it is a sex-based crime, because 99 percent of sex buyers are male.

So, philosophical wrangling aside, if we focus on the actual fate of women in prostitution, we   have to come to the conclusion that the sex trade should be abolished. Just as in the US, it is illegal for individuals to sell their organs to the highest bidder, or offer themselves for sale as slaves — because even if “chosen,” such trade is abominable, and “consent” is highly problematized in these situations — the states have largely adopted the legal approach of prohibition of prostitution. That is, with the exception of certain counties in Nevada, both the buying and selling of sex, as well as ancillary activities such as pimping, are all illegal in the United States.

That, however, is beginning to change. Both New York and California, as well as the rest of Nevada, are inching toward the decriminalization of prostitution. Now, decriminalization is not the same thing as legalization of prostitution. Under legalization models, prostitution supposedly comes above ground, and prostitutes are taxed like any other worker, and purportedly fall under workplace safety requirements. In practice, of course, prostitutes in countries where it is legal report no increase in safety, and trafficking actually increases. Governments are simply not capable of, nor interested in, providing the type of oversight that would be necessary.




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So a new wave of policy thinking has emerged: the decriminalization model. Under decriminalization, nothing about prostitution comes under the purview of law. The buying, selling and pimping of sex all lie outside of the law’s interest. No one involved — prostitutes, johns, pimps, brothel owners — would be subject to arrest for involvement in the sex trade. Police and judges would not have to spend any time on such cases. Astonishingly (or not), the United Nations and the Council of Europe, as well as NGOs such as Amnesty International, have all come out in favour of the decriminalization model.

Of course, if your foremost concern is the safety of women, all that decriminalization can offer is that police will no longer arrest you for being a prostitute. However, all the forms of male violence against prostitutes not only remain untouched, but are offered a tacit social sanction. Pimps are now “managers,” for example. The police are to take a hands-off approach; indeed, even if a prostitute is killed, it’s hard to imagine the police would be very interested in such deaths.

If we open our eyes to see the physical and mental harm done to women in prostitution, we must reject the decriminalization model. But I think it’s also true that we must rethink the U.S. approach of prohibition, which is Utah’s approach as well. There is a farther, better shore: abolition.

When the US abolished slavery, the slaves were freed. They were not imprisoned for having been part of the slave trade; they were viewed as individuals who had been caught in a cruel trade; indeed, the US offered 40 acres and a mule to emancipated slaves. However, anyone caught attempting to buy slaves or who continued to hold slaves, on the other hand, was severely punished. Those demanding/facilitating the noxious trade were targeted; those victimized by it were not.

Could such an abolitionist model be applied to prostitution? Such a model would still seek to punish johns, pimps and brothel owners, but prostitutes would not be arrested or jailed; instead, they would be given meaningful support to leave prostitution. It’s not far-fetched: Seven nations and two sub-national entities have adopted the abolition approach: Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Canada, Northern Ireland, France, Ireland, Israel, and the US state of Maine. None that have adopted the approach have subsequently dropped it. Others have partially followed the model; for example, Texas is the first state in the union to make the buying of sex an automatic felony. (In Utah it is a misdemeanour.)

Anna Fisher, one of the leading figures advocating for the abolition model, discussed the positive consequences seen in nations that have adopted the model. Research shows the number of people involved in prostitution in any capacity severely contracts under this model, and murder rates of prostitutes plummet compared to countries where prostitution is legalized or decriminalized. Fisher notes that while it takes money to help women out of prostitution, the savings to the nation are immense when you factor in the children who now do not need to be sent to foster care, or the costs associated with handling the increased drug trafficking and other crimes such as robbery and muggings that always attend areas of prostitution. It is telling that Germany, the mega-brothel of Europe since it legalized prostitution in 2002, is now considering moving to an abolitionist model.

It’s time for people of good will to ask our legislators for an abolitionist approach to this enormous violation of the human rights of women. Decriminalization has been mooted in anticipation of Utah hosting the Winter Olympics in the future, so this legislative issue may shortly be on the state’s doorstep. There are organizations, such as EqualityNowUS, that are fighting this good fight for abolition, and whose efforts are worth supporting. We must hold the line against the push for decriminalization and legalization of prostitution in Utah and in the nation.

I’ll leave the last word to Robert Jensen, emeritus professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of numerous books on the subject:

“You are constructing a society from scratch, with the power not only to write laws but also to write the stories people tell about themselves, each other, and the larger living world. Would you write stories about how one sex/gender class routinely buys and sells another sex/gender class for sexual pleasure?

“You are speaking with a girl who is considering future vocations. You want her to live in a world with sex/gender justice. She asks you, ‘What do you think I should be when I grow up?’ Do you include prostitute on the list?” 

Controlling or eradicating prostitution is one of the thorniest social policy issues. What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below. 

Valerie M. Hudson is a university distinguished professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and a Deseret News contributor. Her views are her own.

This article has been republished with the author’s permission from Deseret News.

Image credits: Bigstock   



Showing 9 reactions

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  • Claudia Minnich
    commented 2024-03-20 02:44:52 +1100
    I say “yes” to the abolitionist model. It offers good and just methods to help put a stop to prostitution, to help protect those at risk (mainly women/young girls), and to offer support that they will need to heal.
    After reading the comments below, I get the impression that it’s only “the women” who need help to change what they are doing. How about we educate the men of the world to change since it is primarily men who are buying the services of prostitution? RESPECT for women and respect for the act of intercourse. Sex education should include the topic of how to value this wonderful act- not treat it as a sports activity or something one does just because he/she can just to satisfy one’s own physical needs.
  • mrscracker
    I think Mr. Steven you may want to discuss contributing social/economic issues with someone else. That’s not the case where we live, excepting for migrants who become trafficked while seeking better opportunities.
    The solution here is law enforcement investigation & shelter for trafficking victims. Solutions will differ per region & per era.
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-03-16 12:03:53 +1100
    I repeat, why not offer “meaningful support” before before women resort to prostitution.
  • mrscracker
    Hello Mr. Steven. The type of support will vary depending upon the circumstances behind the prostitution.
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-03-15 09:39:19 +1100
    Many are trafficked. And many, perhaps the majority, are not I assure there was no shortage of prostitutes before the advent of large scale trafficking.

    So, I repeat, why not “meaningful support” for women before they engage in prostitution?
  • mrscracker
    Mr. Steven, prostitution is often trafficking & the victim needs support to be freed from their trafficker. Many trafficking victims didn’t decide to resort to prostitution, they were coerced into it.
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-03-13 08:41:36 +1100
    “…but prostitutes would not be arrested or jailed; instead, they would be given meaningful support to leave prostitution”

    How about “meaningful support” that would stop women thinking they need to resort to prostitution in the first place?

    Surely this is a case of prevention being better than cure
  • mrscracker
    Thank you for sharing this but please, let’s not adopt newspeak terminology like “sex worker”. Verbal engineering always precedes the social kind.
  • Valerie Hudson
    published this page in The Latest 2024-03-11 15:46:44 +1100