A Canadian court recently ruled that laws preventing brothels endangered prostitutes by forcing them to work on the streets.
And as the recent Secret Service scandal makes clear, in Colombia, prostitution is legal in “tolerance zones.”
But in Spain, prostitution is essentially legal, and the nation has become a magnet for sex trafficking.
Can legalized prostitution ever be safe and free of exploitation? Or should laws against prostitution remain?
Prostitution laws in the United States were developed from confused and contradictory impulses, to punish and help sex workers at the same time, reflecting the society’s ambivalence and hypocrisy about sex, male desire and women’s sexual autonomy.
The idea that incarceration would be a prescription to “save” prostitutes seems more and more absurd and increasingly at odds with contemporary views of prostitution. There is a growing understanding of the right to sexual self-determination.
Social work now emphasizes non-judgemental approaches intended to reduce harm, rather than punish. Internationally these trends became apparent when the secretary general of the United Nations called for the decriminalization of sex work with an end to legislation that “prompted governments to treat people as second-class citizens or even criminals.” And human rights activists agree that those who are affected by these policies should also be in the lead when developing them. “Nothing about us without us” is the new ethic.
Sex workers are valuable members of the community who deserve legal rights, not punishment.
The recent Canadian court decision helps establish social justice for sex workers in Canada. The court ruled against laws that put prostitutes at risk by preventing them from working indoors, screening clients or hiring bodyguards. The decision also clarifies pimping laws so sex workers can enter business relationships, rent apartments, etc. An upcoming Canadian case challenges communication laws that endanger street workers.
Other countries should follow Canada’s lead. Now, when a sex worker is raped, she or he is unlikely to go to the police, fearing arrest. Rapists are well aware of that vulnerability, even claiming to target sex workers because they know they have no recourse. Exploitation and danger are exacerbated when sex work is criminalized. Studies consistently show areduction in violence when sex work is legal.
Of course, decriminalization is not the answer to all the problems. It’s only a starting place, so that sex workers can begin to protect themselves, organize and advocate.
In New Zealand, commercial sex is regulated not by criminal law, but by civil codes, business regulations and the range of fair labor protections.
Prostitution prohibition campaigns often associate legal prostitution with increased trafficking. But academics, journalists and activists have debunked these claims as manipulative, inaccurate and unscientific.
Contemporary prohibitionists prescribe the “Swedish model,” which criminalizes clients of sex workers. Although such laws are promoted as a solution to violence against prostitutes in Sweden, well-documented and independent studies have shown that these laws expose them to greater danger as they drive sex workers underground.
Contrary to popular stereotypes, sex workers are valuable members of our communities who contribute a great deal to their families, and to the economy of their countries. Accepting this would create a practical and fair approach to sex worker safety, and let us reject antique moralism that protected women from sex itself and used public order laws to control the poor.