By: Jacob Hanawalt
Another view on the prevention of sex trafficking directly contradicts the idea that stamping out prostitution is the only way to prevent trafficking. Instead, many hold the belief that decriminalization is much more effective. One of the defining beliefs of this view is that trying to put an end to prostitution isn’t just unnecessary, but entirely impractical to the point where efforts would do more harm than good.
The collateral damage of anti-prostitution efforts is apparent in many places. Even in the United States prostitutes face prosecution and harassment from law enforcement. Though many claim that bans on prostitution are meant to protect the people, mainly women, that are manipulated by the sex industry, the laws and police force treat them like the enemy. The result of sex workers’ understandable distrust of law enforcement is that they aren’t willing to go to police for help when they are abused. Advocates argue that if prostitution was no longer a crime, it could be regulated to the point where this would no longer be an issue. An amiable relationship with the police force is the only way workers who were being mistreated or even forced into prostitution could reliably receive help. This sort of relationship is impossible, however, in a system where the police are antagonistic towards sex workers.
It’s also argued that the only reason that there is a demand for unwillingly trafficked sex workers is because there is no alternative market. Because soliciting sex is already something that must be done with discretion, clients often aren’t very mindful of the situation of the worker. In the same way that someone buying a controlled substance doesn’t often stop to ask whether or not the product is sustainably grown, clients of sex workers will take what they can get. If there were legal alternatives, decriminalization advocates reason, the average person wouldn’t choose to support a brothel with potentially illegal methods and prostitutes. Our laws have created a market with demands that can only be met by criminals, and it doesn’t seem as if the demand is likely to die out, one in ten men in the world have solicited sex from a prostitute.
For those in support of the legalization of prostitution, New Zealand might be a vision of the ideal. For years, prostitution was, generally speaking, an accepted practice in New Zealand. The lawfulness of selling sex, however, was far from clear. A number of murky laws essentially made running an underground brothel legal unless the police decided to raid it. Finally, in 2003, the Prostitution Reform Act was made law, repealing the half-measure legislation that preceded it and officially decriminalizing prostitution. Rapidly, the law spurred a number of changes that are obvious in New Zealand’s sex industry today. Brothels no longer advertise themselves as massage parlors, and accompanying the transparency is the application of regulations making safe sex a requirement. Another encouraging sign is the empowerment of the sex workers. Prostitutes now feel more free to speak up on a variety of issues to law enforcement. Alliances between the police and sex workers have been found to be a valuable tool in preventing violence, and sex workers are able to pursue legal action against brothels with abusive or unsafe policies.
Concerns about the potential ill-effects of the institutional destigmatization of sex work have also been proven to be unfounded. Despite early, quickly discredited reports that the number of prostitutes had skyrocketed in a number of areas, further investigation revealed that there hadn’t been a significant increase in the number of sex workers following the passing of the Prostitution Reform Act. Trafficking has also become less of an issue. The unique position of sex workers to be in active dialogue with the police makes New Zealand inhospitable to traffickers who rely on sex workers’ silence. Though the law hasn’t absolutely wiped out sex trafficking, and it’s unreasonable to expect it to, it has discouraged the practice to an impressive degree. There have been no reports of foreign trafficking victims since 2001.
The success of the Prostitution Reform Act may lie in the progressiveness of its country. New Zealand’s acceptance of sex work as an occupation meant that they were willing to take an honest look at the everyday issues of the average prostitute. The laws are strictest on the people in a position to take advantage of sex workers instead of on the prostitutes themselves. This type of legislation acknowledges that prostitutes are rarely the aggressors, but very often the victims of violence, rape, and other forms of abuse. Brothel owners, instead of the prostitutes themselves, are the ones who have to apply for permits to do business. Sex workers are also empowered to give and, more importantly, deny consent to clients that they aren’t comfortable with. As mentioned before, protection from sexually transmitted infections are also treated as a top concern. Regulations that encourage safe sex, and punish clients that refuse to take the proper precautions, have resulted in the rate of sexually transmitted infections found in sex workers being almost the same as the general population.
The position that following New Zealand’s lead is the best course of action is held and promoted by a number of organizations. The taboo nature of prostitution discourages groups like large corporations from promoting a stance, meaning the bulk of support comes from small non-profits dedicated to the rights of sex workers and, to a lesser extent, larger organizations interested in human rights in general. The Global Network of Sex Work Projects, or NSWP, is a notable example of the former. The group works to make prostitution safer and to dispel stigma surrounding sex work internationally. The group stages various campaigns and protests in hopes of raising awareness of the injustices suffered by sex workers. Despite some success, their legacy is tempered by its lack of legislative breakthroughs. This is the case with many such organizations, where much of the impact made is profound, but very localized. Change on a larger scale more often comes from support from bigger groups that have interests in human rights in general. The World Health Organization’s promotion of a regulated sex industry has lent much credibility to the idea that prostitution is better regulated than banned.
Surprisingly, given the sex industry’s often unsavory reputation, organizations promoting decriminalization of prostitution are straightforward with their motives. Because of the almost universal discomfort people have surrounding sex work, large financial interests, like companies, have more to lose in terms of public opinion than they have to gain monetarily from getting involved in prostitution. Further limiting the potential for ulterior motives in supporting sex worker rights is that a push for legalization means putting the industry into the public eye. This directly opposes the interests of those trying to take advantage of prostitutes without being caught. Instead, in most cases, groups promoting this view are legitimately focused on human rights and sexual health. In fact, the majority of people active in organizations entirely focused on sex worker’s rights are women with experience in the industry. These demographics are entirely contradictory to what opposing interests have cast as a group of men bent on legalizing prostitution for their personal conquest or profit.
Despite New Zealand’s success, much of the world remains obstinate in its views of prostitution. As of today, there is little outcry for decriminalization of sex work in the United States. Pushback is most apparent in religious groups that object to prostitution on a moral level, as well as groups claiming that sex work is inherently oppressive. Though a more intelligent analysis of the benefits and drawbacks of a legal sex industry may be in the near future, for now prostitution remains something to be done in the shadows, a scandal. Many questions remain unanswered. Is sex work always a crime against women? If so, ending prostitution is a moral choice. On the other hand, if prostitution is impossible to truly stamp out, what more can be done than to improve the conditions of those employed by it? In the end, very little can change until a nuanced look at the realities of sex work is accepted by the public. In a culture that pretends prostitution doesn’t exist, however, this is an impossibility.