By: Misha Brooks
Recently, much controversy has arisen about the legalization, or decriminalization, of prostitution throughout the world, with politicians and women’s rights organizations citing an increase of sex trafficking as a direct result of looser prostitution laws.
Under the belief that decriminalization of prostitution empowers pimps and traffickers to continue in their abusive ways, many groups and individuals call for harsher regulations on the sex trade
Germany, a country which legalized prostitution in 2002, has come under some scrutiny surrounding the potential link between their prostitution laws and their high rates of sex trafficking. The BKA, Germany’s National Central Bureau for Interpol, released a police situation report that listed Germany as the number one hub of sex trafficking throughout the world. 35 percent of all sex traffickers apprehended or discovered were of German nationality. These traffickers mainly ‘import’ women from Eastern Europe, taking advantage of Germany’s lax prostitution policies. Though the German government would ideally have most sex workers legally contracted and work independently, police often find pimps and traffickers lurking in the shadows of the industry.
Rachel Lloyd, a British ex-sex worker who now runs a program designed to help victims of sex slavery, recalled her experience in a German brothel: “I was, like many girls in the club, underage; most of us were immigrants, nearly all of us had histories of trauma and abuse prior to our entry into commercial sex. Several of us had pimps despite working in a legal establishment; all of us used copious amounts of drugs and alcohol to get through each night.” Lloyd claims that Germany’s legal commercial sex industry emboldens pimps and traffickers, and focuses penalization on sex workers rather than on the people who put these workers in illegal situations.
Many times, women like Lloyd will come to Germany to pursue jobs in a traditional career, but women also come to actively pursue work in the sex industry. Often foreigners, these women are not aware of government regulations on prostitution, and they are taken advantage of and sold off to pimps who force them to work under unregulated conditions. This process of entrapping young women is often accompanied by abuse. Lloyd says that, “between 70 percent and 90 percent of children and women who end up in commercial sex were sexually abused prior to entry.” The fault for this corruption lies with weak legislation. Though the sex work industry is overseen by the government, the law that legalizes prostitution has had little effect on how the industry is truly run. Of 300 German prostitutes interviewed after the law had passed, only three had legal work contracts – contracts that entitle them to things like safe work environments and healthcare. Germany’s prostitution laws, in a way, turn a blind eye towards pimps without lending a hand to the sex workers themselves. This creates a murky legal environment in which it becomes hard to distinguish abusive pimping from independently contracted sex work.
Germany may be an isolated example, but its problems appear in almost all countries that have legalized prostitution. Stella Marr, a woman with a similar story to Rachel Lloyd, shares an American perspective.
Marr is the founder of Freedom Connect– a network for women around the world who have been sold into sex slavery- and works with many ex-prostitutes who employed in Nevada’s legal brothels. The women she has spoken to compare these brothels to prisons where they faced abuse at the hands of legally empowered pimps and johns.
Marr, an ex-sex worker herself, says that this abuse is inseparable from pimping. She quotes anti-prostitution advocate Natasha Falle: “Where there’s high-track prostitutes, escorts, strippers and masseuses; there’s pimp violence.” When prostitution is legal, these pimps see no reason to stop their abusive ways.
With stories from places such as Germany and Nevada, it seems that there must be some scientific link between legal prostitution and sex trafficking. A study conducted by three European researchers confirmed this idea, and found that wherever prostitution is legalized, a increase in sex trafficking is found. “The scale effect of legalizing prostitution leads to an expansion of the prostitution market and thus an increase in human trafficking.” The researches looked at over 100 countries, and noted this apparent trend.
This statistic raises some questions about the exact connection between prostitution and sex trafficking. Is it simply the wording of legislation, or is there something about prostitution that inherently creates a rise in trafficking?
One organization that is particularly vocal about the detrimental effects of legal prostitution is the CATW (Coalition Against Trafficking in Women). The CATW believes not only that legalization empowers abusive pimps, but also commodifies women by turning johns into consumers. In their online pamphlet, The Links between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking, CATW declares: “Prostitution and the sex industry promote the myth that male sexuality must be satisfied by a supply of women and children who can be bought.” They say that when men have every type of woman at their disposal and know that the law is on their side, they feel comfortable buying and selling the women as objects through the dehumanizing process that is sex trafficking. Furthermore, the legalization of prostitution creates a high demand for sex work. Trafficking is extremely lucrative, and where demand is high, it will be met by supply. The CATW believes this is what creates the influx of sex trafficking in countries with legal prostitution.
As of now, there isn’t a particular international consensus on whether or not prostitution should be legal. Many countries have legal sex work, many more do not. Sex work is a morally confusing subject for most, and criminalizing the practice feels like protecting victims through condemnation – a counterintuitive idea. On the other hand, decriminalization has ties to abuse and sex trafficking. Though things tend to get muddled when legislation enters such a moral quandary, the reality is that demand for sex is unlikely to dwindle. In the end, it is up to world governments to determine how they handle this demand. Perhaps a solution would be a more comprehensive legal plan – one that focuses on the purchasers of sex, rather than the sellers. What should be kept in mind is that all legislation should be for the protection of the women who are currently enslaved, and for the prevention of future enslavement. There is no reason to punish victims, and the current legalization of prostitution seems to do just that.