Legalized Prostitution Is a Mess. Here's Why It Has to Happen Anyway.

by Matt Hershberger Aug 21, 2015

ON AUGUST 11, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL, the world’s largest and most prominent human rights organization, voted to support the worldwide decriminalization of prostitution. It has been a tremendously controversial decision, with celebrities like Lena Dunham, Nick Kristof, and Kate Winslet speaking out against it, and with many (including another writer on Matador) arguing that decriminalization actually serves to make life easier for pimps and sex traffickers rather than the women they exploit.

But sex workers and sex worker advocacy groups tend to support decriminalization as a way to better protect their health and well-being while refocusing law enforcement’s attention not on the worker’s themselves, but on those who are trafficking or harming the women instead.

The one thing that everyone seems to agree on is that decriminalized prostitution is not even remotely close to perfect. No one — aside from truly terrible people — wants women to be abused, sold, killed, or exploited, and the world’s many experiments with decriminalizing prostitution have never totally eliminated these risks. It needs to happen anyway.

What are the options?

There are three basic options, all of which can be implemented in a billion different ways. They are total criminalization, partial decriminalization, and full legalization. Total criminalization (which much of the world subscribes to) is by far the worst approach. It leads to the targeting and arrest of the sex workers, who may have been forced into the industry, meaning they’re getting arrested for something they desperately do not want to be doing. It also means that, with the entire industry pushed underground, abused women are less likely to seek help from law enforcement, as they are technically complicit in a criminal act. Many sex workers in countries with total criminalization say that police will often demand they perform sex acts on them in order to avoid being arrested.

Full legalization is a lot trickier. The standard, go-to argument for the legalization of prostitution is that it’s the world’s oldest profession and it isn’t going anywhere, so we should try and bring it out of the shadows and reduce the potential harm as much as humanly possible. Legalization — which, we should note, is technically different from decriminalization, as legalization refers to the imposition of regulation while decriminalization refers to the removal of criminal punishments — would, ideally, bring prostitution into a place where it could be practiced safely and regulated so that the government could focus their energy instead on targeting traffickers. Legalization would also ideally make it easier to provide prostitutes with health services, thus preventing the spread of STDs.

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Opponents of legalization (aside from the people who simply oppose it for moral reasons) typically say that increased legalized prostitution leads to increased sex trafficking. The evidence for this is a bit shaky, though: often, as German Lopez points out in his excellent article on Vox it conflates sex trafficking with human trafficking, which are not one and the same, and human trafficking is notoriously difficult to reliably study, as it is illegal and is thus underground. It may simply be that, when prostitution is legalized, it becomes easier to track sex trafficking, and as a result, we may see a spike in it. If this is the case, our response shouldn’t be “let’s make prostitution illegal again to get these numbers down,” it should be, “let’s use this new information to make trafficking more difficult.”

The approach that people like Lena Dunham and Gloria Steinem support, partial decriminalization, is the approach Sweden and Norway have adopted. In 1999, Sweden decriminalized the selling of sex, while simultaneously criminalizing the buying of sex. So rather than targeting the sex workers, it targets the johns. Proponents claim this legislation has had a number of effects: first, it has drastically reduced the number of prostitutes working in Sweden, and second, it has drastically reduced the number of women being trafficked in Sweden.

The problem with the Sweden approach is that the evidence of actual improvements are pretty shaky, and pro-Sweden claims that full legalization in countries like Germany have led to an increase in sex trafficking have been proven to be totally wrong. Sex worker advocates oppose the Sweden model because it still stigmatizes sex workers, and because police will often target sex workers as a way of getting to the johns, making it a kind of indirect criminalization.

Legalized sex work in the U.S. is a mess

So what has legalization looked like in the U.S.? I actually have some first hand experience of this: Last summer, as part of a press trip, I went to Sheri’s Ranch, one of Nevada’s 19 legal brothels. Sheri’s Ranch is typically acknowledged as one of the “nicer,” and certainly one of the more expensive brothels in the state, in part due to the fact that it sits just across the border from California, and in part because at an hour and a half away, it is the closest a legal brothel can get to Las Vegas (most of the more populated counties in Nevada do not have legalized prostitution). An hour at Sheri’s Ranch can cost you as little as $1,000, and as much as $20,000.

The setup in Nevada is not what most advocates for legalization of prostitution are looking for. The women at Sheri’s Ranch are not employees but rather are contractors in the complex, which is owned by a madam. They pay for the right to stay there, they pay for weekly STD tests, they pay taxes, and they pay for a “sheriff’s card,” a kind of county permit which struck me as being remarkably close to a legalized bribe.

Nevada’s system works more in the favor of the brothel owners (who could be reasonably equated to pimps) and the customers, rather than the workers themselves, and there’s still no shortage of reports of abuse. 90% of prostitution in Nevada is still illegal, and while the brothels do provide a safe space for the women there, they often don’t do much to prevent illegal prostitution.

The vision I saw of legalized prostitution in Pahrump, to be honest, kind of grossed me out. There was an actual “Sex Menu” that included items like “Hot and Cold Blowjob” (“you will not know whether you are going or cumming!”), and a “Tongue Body Licking Massage” (“Erotic Sex Tongue Pleasure!”). Grossest of all, one of the rooms had an actual corporate sponsor: Landshark Beer. The room was covered in Landshark wallpaper and had its trademark sign — that surfboard with a bite taken out of it — hanging on the wall.

…But it’s still the best option

This “ick” factor is in part what makes this debate so damn hard to have. I don’t have to live as a woman or as a prostitute, so it’s easy for me to feel grossed out about Sheri’s Ranch. I have the luxury of being judgmental and condescending. And it’s hard to divorce this instinctive “ick” from any compassionate opinions I could have about prostitution and how it should be handled.

It’s also extremely difficult, in a world as shady as prostitution, to be sure what works and what doesn’t work. Legalization policies in one place may be horribly put together and horribly implemented, making the problem the worse, while legalization policies in another place may be really well done and may help protect prostitutes from trafficking and abuse. There’s so much nuance to this issue that categorizing policies as simply “good” or “bad” is a totally useless practice.

At the end of the day, the people who can best speak for sex workers are the sex workers themselves. And while sex workers as a whole are not united in their opinions about the sex trade — there are an estimated 42 million of them worldwide, after all — they and their advocates don’t support the Sweden model, calling it “indirect criminalization.” Because they are the people these policies are supposed to protect, they are the ones whose testimony we should give the greatest weight to, especially when the data the other sides are using is so unreliable.

Full legalization will still have its problems. It will not solve violence against women, and it will not end trafficking. It may, especially to us outsiders, still appear to be gross or morally reprehensible. But Amnesty is right: the only way to fix the problems with the world’s oldest profession is to finally bring it out of the shadows.

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