Overstating the case for full decriminalization of prostitution

Perhaps the most controversial portion of the previous guest video was the assertion that sex work is often dangerous and harmful to women, in contrast to certain testimonials that suggest it is a relatively mundane profession. The backlash to this claim has been swift, fierce, and thoroughly informative. Along with assorted criticism of the idea that prostitution is itself a problem, the most common response was that the decriminalization of buying and selling sex would reduce the harms associated with prostitution. All of these views are certainly worth examining.

One of the first objections to arise was the suggestion that you shouldn’t talk about sex workers at all if you aren’t a sex worker yourself or if you haven’t spoken to sex workers. First of all, people often discuss topics that they may not be personally involved in, and while firsthand experience can provide unique and valuable insight, it does not necessarily make you any more correct on a given point. Furthermore, to assume that someone’s position on sex work must mean that they’ve never spoken with any sex workers implies that doing so will reliably alter someone’s views and induce them to adopt a particular stance on the subject. It suggests that it would be outright impossible for them to maintain their present position after, or even because of, speaking to sex workers. For anyone to insinuate that the experiences of sex workers will invariably support their own stance seems very overreaching.

Others pointed out that sex worker rights advocates are often also involving in fighting for causes such as immigration reform and transgender rights. This is indeed a praiseworthy endeavor, but the validity of these causes does not make the remainder of their positions correct by contagion. Conversely, many noted that prostitution is also seen as harmful by fundamentalist Christians and certain severely transphobic feminists, as if to say that anyone who shares this view is just as bad as these groups. But the wisdom or idiocy of someone who holds a certain stance does not change the validity, truth value, or factual support of the position itself. The Catholic Church may oppose the death penalty as a matter of official policy, but this obviously doesn’t mean that this view is inherently linked to them or forever contaminated by its association with them.

Further, some drew attention to the fact that various so-called “rescue” groups seeking to help sex workers leave prostitution are often run by evangelical Christians who frequently engage in religious indoctrination, and are otherwise insensitive to the actual needs of sex workers. This is clearly a problem, as is the invasion of religion into a multitude of charity and assistance roles in society. But just as with feeding the hungry, it does not mean that the very idea of helping sex workers who want to leave the trade is irredeemably flawed – only that its execution has often been compromised by ignorance and blind dogma, and this needs to change.

It’s also been mentioned that studies by anti-prostitution researchers such as Melissa Farley and Janice Raymond often contain methodological flaws which severely undermine their validity. But regardless of the nature of these errors, the flaws in studies purportedly showing that prostitution is dangerous do not mean that it must therefore be safe, just as flaws in a study showing it to be safe would not mean it was harmful. Instead, it indicates that the study in question simply does not tell us anything useful about the facts of prostitution.

Many people also seemed to suggest that claiming prostitution is harmful must mean passing some kind of moral judgment upon sex workers themselves for their activities. Finding this unacceptable, they concluded that it must therefore be wrong to say that prostitution is harmful. But regarding prostitution as harmful does not necessitate condemning sex workers. After all, many people have cited the dangerous working conditions for sex workers as a reason why criminalization is an inadequate and harmful policy. Passing judgment on workers would require some kind of ethical theory beyond the factual question of whether prostitution is dangerous, and I personally do not see the condemnation of sex workers as warranted or appropriate in any way.

On a related note, some people seemed imply that to criticize testimonial ads such as those from Turn Off The Blue Light in Ireland is tantamount to supporting social stigma against sex workers. Apparently, since these ads aim to diminish the stigma against sex workers, then taking issue with these ads must mean endorsing that stigma. But this doesn’t follow, and holding to such logic only serves as a way of using one’s well-intentioned motives to preclude any criticism of the actual results.

While it may not have been their goal, these posters neglect to mention the very real dangers faced by many sex workers as part of their job. In doing so, they give the impression that it’s not much different from any other profession – that it’s a safe, uneventful, and thoroughly ordinary way to make a living, chosen freely and on its own merits rather than due to a lack of alternatives. But for many sex workers, it is not a job that suits their needs, in terms of workplace safety, a living wage, freedom from exploitation, and, yes, not wanting to have to sleep with paying customers just to survive. Instead, these posters depict sex work as a satisfying, voluntary and harmless job like any other. That may be the case for some sex workers, but certainly not for many others. And unless misleadingly portraying such circumstances as typical of sex work is actually the only way to reduce stigma, no one is opposing such efforts by simply objecting to this approach.

Many people did say that prostitution shouldn’t be seen as different from any other job, in that many people are forced to hold unpleasant jobs because there are no better alternatives and they need money. But prostitution is different: it frequently comes with an inordinate risk of assault, robbery, sexual harassment, rape, and murder, unlike that of practically any other job. Workplace safety is often lacking, if not absent entirely. For this, workers receive no hazard pay whatsoever. Given the conditions under which many of them work, it’s plainly inaccurate to say that there’s no more coercion in choosing prostitution than there is in any other undesirable job. Such circumstances do not tend to attract willing employees.

Sex workers themselves have attested to this. In a commonly cited study by the Pivot Legal Society in Vancouver, many workers said that prostitution should not be a job that anyone could be required to take as part of a search for work in order to receive income assistance:

“Well I should say sex work, being in the sex trade is not an option; it’s just like a survival thing. I mean… it’s usually… not by choice…. If someone were forcing you to go back, …that’s like a pimp, that’s kind of saying, oh you have to go risk your life.”

“I don’t think they should be forced into the trade [by an income assistance worker] because of things that could happen in the industry as being a sex worker – harmful to the mind like bad dates and drug use…”

“Because not everybody has the emotional control to be a sex worker, or detachment. Detachment to be a sex worker.”

“I believe that it is a very hard job to do, you are basically a sexual surrogate… and I agree that it takes a certain… personality type to do that kind of job. It’s a very, very specialized occupation.”

“There’s a difference between selling your ass and selling a hamburger. The hamburger’s not personal.”

If listening to sex workers is key, then it would seem that even sex workers consider prostitution to be different in kind from other types of employment.

People have often claimed that the hazards of prostitution arise from the criminalization of selling or buying sexual services, operating brothels, procuring and soliciting, and that many of these risks would be ameliorated if all of this were decriminalized and treated like any other fully legal profession. And there is quite a lot to be said for this position. When prostitution is against the law, this discourages workers from reporting any crimes against them for fear of prosecution, leaving them extremely vulnerable to abuse. It also leaves their jobs completely outside the realm of any kind of workplace safety regulations, and their employers aren’t required to operate within the applicable labor laws, creating an environment where exploitation flourishes.

In theory, decriminalization would remedy most if not all of these issues, and prostitution finally would become a job chosen because it suits people’s needs, with no more coercion than any other. But has this actually happened? New Zealand is often upheld as a model for full decriminalization, yet in a five-year review (PDF) of the 2003 Prostitution Reform Act, many workers reported having experienced assault, violent threats, being held against their will, theft, refusal to pay, and even rape. Few of them reported this to the police, and most who were surveyed felt that the Reform Act “could do little about the violence that occurred.” “…less than a quarter – felt there had been an improvement.” While there seem to be very few studies comparing the general well-being and safety of sex workers before and after this kind of reform, decriminalization does not appear to have been enough to prevent workers in New Zealand from continuing to experience violent abuse and mistreatment, especially those working at street level.

If prostitution should be treated like any other job, then it’s worth considering that we wouldn’t accept such unsafe conditions in any other job. Most people don’t have a problem with recognizing that some working conditions are simply too dangerous to be allowed, and such businesses are regulated or prohibited accordingly. Yet many advocates for decriminalization claim that too much legal regulation would only drive the sex trade underground once more and leave workers unprotected again. Clearly, determining the proper stringency of regulation is a challenging and delicate task, and the actual impact of a policy on workers should be the bottom line. But to suggest that anything which could conceivably impede the transaction must be done away with for fear of fueling the black market is simply negligent. Having the law look the other way on this does not make sex workers any more safe.

If decriminalization does actually improve the safety and welfare of sex workers, then this is a great start. If it doesn’t, and their working conditions remain just as dangerous, then other options are worth considering. Many advocates for decriminalization approach this issue with a goal of harm reduction, and so do I. And if these unacceptable dangers are simply inherent to prostitution (or a certain variety of it) and cannot be minimized while leaving the profession itself intact, then reducing the harm of prostitution requires reducing prostitution itself.

We can agree that certain legal regimes have been shown to be unsuccessful at accomplishing this, and even harmful to sex workers without addressing their needs, but it does not mean that this can’t be a valid goal. It shouldn’t be outside the bounds of acceptable discourse to believe that nobody should be exposed to such hazards in the course of employment. This does not have to imply an unbending adherence to any particular policy, whether it’s full criminalization, criminalization of clients, full decriminalization, or legal regulation. Many people contend that all efforts at reducing prostitution have failed, but just as with any other problem we’re faced with, past failures are no reason to stop developing new strategies.

Finally, some people pointed out that because prostitution is often the only option for sex workers, then working to eliminate prostitution would be taking their only option away from them. That may be the case, but there are a plethora of circumstances where people are deprived of income because something is too dangerous or inhumane to be legally allowed, such as child labor and sweatshops. Even if someone claimed that they had a wonderful experience working at an unsafe coal mine, and wanted no legal interference in this arrangement, such conditions would still not be permitted. The answer is not to remove the laws which prohibit these kinds of employment, but to remedy the lack of options which is forcing people into unsafe jobs such as prostitution. Sex workers have often attested to the inadequate social support they receive, which leaves them with nowhere else to turn. If nobody ever had to enter sex work, then it seems likely that fewer people would.

The question of which legal framework is most effective for dealing with prostitution is far from resolved, but full decriminalization appears to fall short of being the panacea that many have presented it as. The presumptuousness of people who expect and then demand complete support for this policy position is vastly out of proportion to the actual evidence of its efficacy. Contrary to prevailing opinion, it has not been established as a proven fact that would be as foolish to question as evolution. There is room for disagreement here, and recognizing that prostitution remains a dangerous field does not constitute a blemish upon one’s rationality.

Overstating the case for full decriminalization of prostitution

8 thoughts on “Overstating the case for full decriminalization of prostitution

  1. 1

    Well said.


    “Many people did say that prostitution…Such circumstances do not tend to attract willing employees.”

    Is an excellent argument for legalization.

    And this;

    “New Zealand is often upheld as a model for full decriminalization, yet in a five-year review (PDF) of the 2003 Prostitution Reform Act, many workers reported having experienced …decriminalization does not appear to have been enough to prevent workers in New Zealand from continuing to experience violent abuse and mistreatment, especially those working at street level.”

    Is not a compelling argument for ceasing attempts at legalization. Based on this argument the Little Rock Six should have called it a loss after their first year at school and we should have given up the Civil Rights movement as a bad idea that’ll never work.

    Changing over 2,000 years of sick thinking and all the bad that comes with it will not happen overnight.

    And yes – I’m aware of the difference between decriminalization and legalization. Decriminalization only lessens the justice system punishment that is doled out. It does little to address the endemic problems that arise from the prostitution industry.

    Nice post though. Quite refreshing and thought provoking. 🙂

  2. 2

    I can’t believe what I’m hearing!
    It almost sounds like you’re defending the continued legal structure that drives prostitutes underground, and out of the protection of the legal system!

    I agree with you about how exploitive prostitution is, but, we shouldn’t be empowering the exploiters.

    There are plenty of harmful and self-destructive practices that people engage in, but, restricting their freedoms is wrong.
    People are allowed to smoke themselves to death, people are allowed to induce diabetes by eating only fast food.
    People are allowed to gorge themselves on prescription drugs.

    We should work to get these people help, not throw them in jail.

    Even if 100% of prostitutes were exploited, the practice itself isn’t inherently flawed, just the implementation of it.
    If there was a way that we could “reduce prostitution”, I’d like to hear it.
    But, at best, the proposals of your side have been abstract and lacking.
    So, it seems, you’re defending the status quo.

    I completely conceded that legalization is far from ideal, and, if there was a way we could have a society which had a healthier attitude toward sex, and we could reduce the demand for prostitution, I’d be all for that.
    BUT, in the mean time, legalizing sex work WILL reduce harm.
    I don’t care if it didn’t work so well in New Zealand.
    Look at private brothels, where sex workers have armed security, and rock-solid job contracts.

    Vices shouldn’t be banned, they should merely be discouraged, and heavily taxed.
    Once you start trying to ban vices, you fall into the same traps as any other prohibitionists.
    There WILL be a human trafficking black market.
    If it were legalized, there would be LESS exploitation.
    If it were implemented properly, with strict oversight, including, for example, mandatory psychological evaluations for sex workers.

    What if *I* wanted to become a sex worker?
    As long as a camera is rolling, it’s kosher, but, turn off the camera, and it suddenly becomes bad?
    You’ll fall into the same traps as pornography prohibitionists.

    Legalizing sex work doesn’t mean that we’re defending it!!
    Trying to give our society a healthier attitude toward sex, and getting people to respect women’s dignity (and everyone’s dignity) is not at all in conflict with legalizing prostitution.

    Anyway, sorry if I’m repetitive, I’m too tired to edit..
    I’ve followed you for years, and I have to say, I don’t think you’ve given this subject due diligence.
    It seems very much like you’ve already decided your opinion, and have been cherry-picking facts to support it.

    Each paragraph seems to follow the same pattern:
    X is a compelling argument, however, here’s one single counter-example, therefore, X is wrong, kthxbai.

    You don’t even bother changing the wording!

    1. 2.1

      A lot of the time, X isn’t a compelling argument (or only superficially), for reasons later explained. If you recognize that decriminalization is far from a solution on its own and that a variety of tactics are worth considering, I’m not sure we even disagree.

  3. 4

    what an amusing attempt at logic working backwards from your unstated repulsion for paid sex with strangers. Of course you are defending the abuse of sex workers through criminal law and lack of legal personhood. It is stupidity to say prostitution is inherently dangerous – as if being a bank teller without security is safe as if being a taxi driver is safe as if being a maid is safe. ( etc etc squared) . You haven’t listened at all to the labor argument – no matter who it has come from . We are not saying sex work is a job like any other as some silly self delusive assertion, we are saying that the laws that prevent dangers in other industries can do the same in the sex industry. Dangers that we experience and you clearly know nothing about other than the ‘boogie man’ fantasies dished up by Farley and Hughes. It is risible that you say they might be right even though their research is a fraud and no other research shares their conclusions. I hope you take medications that are tested by such logic. I did some research that shows cyanide is good for you. I just made it up but take a gulp anyway.

  4. 5

    This is a nice post. I realize I’m reading it late, but I still have to comment because this is something I feel strongly about.

    Firstly, I am not a conservative, a fundamentalist Christian, and I have no moral issue with people having as much sex as they want with whomever they want – but I do not see any reason that they must be “free” to charge for it.

    We do not allow people to sell their kidneys, or eyes, or any other body part that can be used for transplants. For good reason. It is not a good idea to commodotize the human body. This was touched upon in the post, but I think it is a more important point than the “danger” aspect. The commodotization is inherent in the practice, and is a danger not just to the individual prostitute, but to society as a whole. Things that are “rights” are vulnerable to becoming “responsibilities.” If prostitution is seen as a valid job for women, then they may be held responsible for turning to that before being granted unemployment insurance or other kinds of aid. Forget the dangerous aspects – being blackmailed into having sex, having something inserted into you that you don’t want there, is rape.

    Another problem, an abstract one but extremely important, is the cultural ramifications of turning sex into a job for women. We’ve come a long way towards liberating women regarding sex, to allowing women their own sexuality rather than simply serving that of men. Sex for hire undermines decades of progress by restoring sex as a “job” for us – for all of us. So you aren’t taking money for sex? Ah, you’re a volunteer worker.

    I’m an American living in the Netherlands, where prostitution is completely legal and widespread. I don’t see that it has solved any problems at all. The Netherlands is one of of the leading countries in the world in the area of human trafficking. Studies have concluded that somewhere around 80% of the prostitutes in the Netherlands are trafficked, largely from Eastern Europe or Asia. There is a widespread practice here, men who are called “loverboys.” They meet young girls, seduce them, get into relationships – then use emotional blackmail to pimp them out. Women are rather on the whole rather un-empowered here, so it seems it works a lot of the time. And for the cultural aspects? Let me tell you about one of the popular Dutch reality shows. They take a group of good-looking young men and women to an exotic location where their assignment is to drink, party and have sex with each other. If a female goes two weeks without having sex with one of the guys, she gets kicked out (the men have no such requirement.) Now, I already hear the objection that these women went on the show willingly, ‘eyes open.’ But that’s not the point. This is a symptom of the very objectification of women that you have ranted about so eloquently… that you have experienced for yourself. And I do blame it on the cultural atmosphere created by acceptance of prostitution as a normal aspect of society.

    I don’t like to say that I think sex work should be criminalized, because I have known many prostitutes and did not think for a second that they should be jailed. Several that I met were in jail, after I was arrested for forgetting to pay a traffic ticket. One was 14 years old, and she was not prostituting out of her own free will (and she wasn’t made more vulnerable to exploitation just because it’s illegal either.) She was prostituting because the guy who saved her from her abusive family was a pimp. And there she was, in jail. On the other hand, legitimizing this activity is dangerous. I’m not sure what the answer is, but the activists for legalization are also very short-sighted.

  5. 7

    Escort Agencies surely possess the capacity to minimise harm to sex workers. Agencies check the veracity of the information provided by the client (name, address and telephone number) and only after having done so send the sex worker to the client’s home or hotel room. A client would be stupid to abuse a sex worker provided by an Agency as the company holds his/her details and can inform law enforcement agencies of the abuse. In the UK the police very rarely take action against Agencies as they cause little (if any) public nuisance and they do (as pointed out earlier) provide a safe working environment for escorts. Prohibiting Escort Agencies would make the sex industry less safe.
    What consenting adults do in private (whether money is involved or not) is a matter for the individuals concerned. In a free society the state and society should stay out of people’s bedrooms.

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