The case for legalizing prostitution
August 18, 2015 7:07 AM   Subscribe

Vox presents a case for legalizing prostitution. In other news, Amnesty International recently announced they were developing global policy proposals advocating for the decriminalization of prostitution as well. Previously
posted by scunning (28 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Also previously. Dunno whether this would count as a double, but that other thread is still open.
posted by Etrigan at 7:14 AM on August 18, 2015


This whole current iteration of the debate seems close to pointless now, as far as I can see, because it consists of a group of Amnesty's critics saying "we absolutely oppose the criminalization of sex workers, but we think that buying sex, pimping and operating brothels ought to be illegal"… and then their opponents replying "how dare you support the criminalization of selling sex?" Complete cross-purposes and confusion.

The confusion is redoubled in this rambling piece: for example, the first Rhode Island study which the author uses as an argument for "legalizing prostitution" seems to refer to a period when selling sex was not criminal in the state, but pimping and operating a brothel were.
posted by oliverburkeman at 7:50 AM on August 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


I can understand outlawing pimping and brothels. I don't oppose brothels on the model I understand some operate on here in Germany, where they're basically providing services (hygiene, security, rooms) for individual sex workers, but I can understand some people might still want to outlaw that.

However. I have never understood how you can, with a straight face, say as they do in Sweden: it's legal to sell sex, but illegal to buy it. Does not compute.
posted by brokkr at 8:11 AM on August 18, 2015


I have never understood how you can, with a straight face, say as they do in Sweden: it's legal to sell sex, but illegal to buy it. Does not compute.

If you only punish buyers, you're providing a disincentive for the entire transaction while not further injuring people who are forced into prostitution (by violence or by poverty).
posted by Etrigan at 8:18 AM on August 18, 2015 [8 favorites]


The confusion is redoubled in this rambling piece: for example, the first Rhode Island study which the author uses as an argument for "legalizing prostitution" seems to refer to a period when selling sex was not criminal in the state, but pimping and operating a brothel were.

I'm actually the author on that Rhode Island study. Pandering was illegal, but the running of massage-themed prostitution parlors was legal. Indoor private exchanges would also have been legal.
posted by scunning at 8:22 AM on August 18, 2015 [10 favorites]


Can we drop the idea that there's a proper global policy to put in place about prostitution? Context matters.

The Dutch policy was all well and good in mitigating the brutality that's inherent to the sex trade. Until, that is, they discovered that the Romanian and other Eastern European women staffing the red-lit windows are under a duress they can't mitigate. The pimps that have once again inserted themselves into the sex trade in Holland and Germany don't have to threaten the prostitutes themselves. They can just remind the women that they know where their loved ones live. And there's not a damned thing the Dutch police can do about it.

Hence the Swedish approach. Sweden can't fix whatever drove a woman from Kaliningrad to rent herself out in Stockholm. But they can suppress would-be Swedish participation in the buy side.

Context matters.
posted by ocschwar at 8:25 AM on August 18, 2015 [6 favorites]


Several philosophers discuss Amnesty International's proposed policy on sex work at Daily Nous.
posted by Justin Weinberg at 8:45 AM on August 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is one of those difficult problems where there is plenty of room for disagreement from a feminist perspective.

That said, I'm firmly in the legalize camp for a couple of reasons. To begin with, criminalizing prostitution hasn't done anything to address the problems, and it undeniably harms sex workers when sex work is criminalized. Legalizing sex work would provide immediate relief for sex workers from the threat of being imprisoned or fined for doing their jobs. It would also make it safer for sex workers to contact the police to report abuse, theft, or other crimes committed against them.

I'm also pretty firmly in the legalization camp because when people ask actual sex workers whether they think sex work should be legalized or not, there is almost universal agreement from sex workers that it should be legalized.

That said, there are good arguments on the anti-legalization side. I disagree with the people in that camp, but I don't think they're bad feminists.
posted by sotonohito at 10:11 AM on August 18, 2015 [4 favorites]


I feel like the net human good is on the legalization side.
I actually think it would be easier to fight human trafficking and abuse if prostitution was legal. At least in the US.
posted by French Fry at 11:50 AM on August 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


I actually think it would be easier to fight human trafficking and abuse if prostitution was legal. At least in the US.

The current situation -- where trafficked women face prison records and deportation -- certainly seems to be the worst of all possible worlds.
posted by Slothrup at 12:32 PM on August 18, 2015 [5 favorites]


If you only punish buyers, you're providing a disincentive for the entire transaction while not further injuring people who are forced into prostitution (by violence or by poverty).

Except for taking away their source of income and making their customers (more) paranoid and thus potentially (more) dangerous.
posted by atoxyl at 12:41 PM on August 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


I have moved towards legalization, despite some existential angst about the nature of consent when paired with labour, because the overwhelming testimony of sex workers during and after the Bedford decision suggests that it's essential for their safety. My existential angst doesn't compare with their safety.

That said, it's difficult to isolate the affect on trafficking without looking at immigration policy, which is very xenophobic across Europe, with a contradictory proximity and integration between widely economically divergent regions. Australia might be a better example to look at the affect of legalization in the US and Canada than anywhere in Europe for that reason.
posted by Kurichina at 12:43 PM on August 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


Continuing prohibition is harmful to women, but (as the Dutch and Swedish examples reveal) so is legalization -- although arguably "less" harmful, I'll admit.

Prostitution -- or the idea of prostitution -- isn't harmful per se, but as long as society puts women in a situation where they must sell access to their bodies to survive, women will be exploited, no matter the legal regime which seeks to either protect or punish them.

The problem is not with prostitution, but rather with the culture which views women's bodies as saleable commodities and women's lives as components of capitalism. Prostitution will be dangerous for women as long as that is the reality.
posted by Avenger at 12:48 PM on August 18, 2015 [6 favorites]


If you only punish buyers, you're providing a disincentive for the entire transaction while not further injuring people who are forced into prostitution (by violence or by poverty).

Except for taking away their source of income and making their customers (more) paranoid and thus potentially (more) dangerous.


But that's also done by criminalizing both aspects of the transaction (buying and selling). By decriminalizing the selling, you're at least not throwing women in jail for being trafficked and threatened.
posted by Etrigan at 12:50 PM on August 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


But that's also done by criminalizing both aspects of the transaction (buying and selling). By decriminalizing the selling, you're at least not throwing women in jail for being trafficked and threatened.

Which is why I'm not arguing for continued criminalization but (at least with that particular point) for decriminalization of both selling and buying.
posted by atoxyl at 12:55 PM on August 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


Or against re-criminalization of the demand side in places where it has previously been decriminalized.
posted by atoxyl at 12:57 PM on August 18, 2015


Which is why I'm not arguing for continued criminalization but (at least with that particular point) for decriminalization of both selling and buying.

Ah, okay. I was responding to brokkr's question about why any system would do it that way, not advocating for it. There's a reason, even if it's not the best one.
posted by Etrigan at 12:59 PM on August 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


If you only punish buyers, you're providing a disincentive for the entire transaction while not further injuring people who are forced into prostitution (by violence or by poverty).

The thing is, though, that the majority of sex workers want and need to make money, even - or especially - if they are only doing sex work because of poverty. How is it not "injuring" sex workers to cut their income? Additionally: In countries with legalised or decriminalised sex industries, the majority of clients are just regular, law abiding people. By criminalising clients, Sweden is making it more likely that the clients who continue to visit sex workers are those who don't have anything left to lose, making the occupation more dangerous.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 2:33 PM on August 18, 2015 [7 favorites]


Again, in comparison to both buying and selling of sex being criminalized, the thinking behind the Swedish system is that not further punishing the seller is preferable. It's not like they had a fully decriminalized system and then regressed. This was an improvement, pushed through primarily by women. Yes, I think it would be better to decriminalize it entirely and police it heavily to ensure trafficking was minimized. But I'm not the King of Sweden. I couldn't pull off the hats.
posted by Etrigan at 4:23 PM on August 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yes, I think it would be better to decriminalize it entirely and police it heavily to ensure trafficking was minimized. But I'm not the King of Sweden. I couldn't pull off the hats.

Well we're not necessarily arguing against you then, just against the position that you happened to be the one to provide a summary of. The way the thread was unfolding I did think it was your personal opinion originally but you've made it clear that it's not.

By criminalising clients, Sweden is making it more likely that the clients who continue to visit sex workers are those who don't have anything left to lose, making the occupation more dangerous.

I don't know if it changes the client base so much per se but it incentivizes controlling or even violent behavior from them. I'm by no means an expert on this subject but this is the position I see sex-workers-rights proponents tending to take. An important thing to recognize is that someone who turns to prostitution out of poverty may well be making a fairly rational choice of their least bad option. These decisions are of course compromised by factors like drug addiction but then we should focus on doing what we can to help people with such underlying problems.

The most convincing argument against legalization/decriminalization to me is that it might increase demand for human trafficking and coercive prostitution.
posted by atoxyl at 4:45 PM on August 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


The most convincing argument against legalization/decriminalization to me is that it might increase demand for human trafficking and coercive prostitution.

Those things are already illegal, whether or not sex work itself is or is not illegal. I don't buy the slippery slope argument in this case.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:19 PM on August 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


I don't doubt that some of those who oppose legalization have sincere good intentions, but I don't see how you can get around the notion that criminalizing prostitution is telling the prostitutes that you know what's best for them and you're taking away their agency for their own good. That is not a respectful way to treat people.
posted by sineater at 7:00 PM on August 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


@snickerdoodle, prostitution is illegal in most of South East Asia. So yes, it's mostly dominated by really unpleasant criminals who take advantage of the fact that while it's technically illegal, the police are willing to look the other way if they offer bribes, or find a political patron, or whatever. That, I'd argue, is the worst possible combination of law and social/economic conditions when it comes to bad things resulting from sex work.

I'm not going to say that legalizing prostitution is a panacea, but it looks to me like in many places where it is technically illegal, but tolerated for various reasons, the sex worker is often in a much worse position than they would otherwise be in. For example, in Thailand the maximum penalty for a woman convicted of being a prostitute can officially include years in prison followed by a year of "rehabilitation". Adding that legal threat to a woman already trapped in a bad situation is not, in my view, very helpful to the sex worker.

I'm not going to argue that legalizing sex work is a panacea that will make things universally better, but it's hard to see how it can hurt at this point. The result of sex work being criminalized hasn't really been what I'd call beneficial.
posted by sotonohito at 7:25 PM on August 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


I don't doubt that some of those who oppose legalization have sincere good intentions, but I don't see how you can get around the notion that criminalizing prostitution is telling the prostitutes that you know what's best for them and you're taking away their agency for their own good. That is not a respectful way to treat people.

I agree with you, but I would think this isn't a very convincing argument for lots of folks. After all, there are plenty of folks out there perfectly willing to tell people what's best for them regarding their employment. Just ask folks what they think about people employed by outfits like Uber or Walmart. Or working for free, as in unpaid internships. Then all of a sudden, there are reasons why such opportunities shouldn't even exist. Agency plays no part in the matter.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:47 PM on August 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


The most convincing argument against legalization/decriminalization to me is that it might increase demand for human trafficking and coercive prostitution.

Seems like the logical way to do that is to legislate that sex-provision-businesses must run on the same model as legal partnerships--no outside ownership allowed.

Then all of a sudden, there are reasons why such opportunities shouldn't even exist.

usually those reasons are called labour laws, which exist to protect workers from exploitation, or at least the very worst of it. Sex workers would benefit greatly from workplace protections--health and safety, in the USA healthcare coverage, worker's comp even.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:55 PM on August 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


Etrigan: "If you only punish buyers, you're providing a disincentive for the entire transaction while not further injuring people who are forced into prostitution (by violence or by poverty)."
But then you have people who make a legal, taxable income off an illegal transaction. In any other context that would be shut down immediately.

Also, while I am aware that victims of trafficking and coercion are almost exclusively female, nobody ever talks about statistics showing that more males than females (as a percentage of the general population) report having sold sex at some point. I don't mean to be #NotAllMen here, but all discussion I've ever heard on this topic pretends that there are only female sex workers. Outlawing prostitution is also going to hit a large number of male sex workers who - judging from the discourse - are deemed to have no problems worth discussing anyway. Why don't we just outlaw prostitution for females then? I think this, at its core, is where you can see that criminalizing prostitution is mostly about controlling the female body and sexuality.

As my last point, making prostitution illegal also puts pornography in a weird place - "It's okay to receive money for sexual acts, as long as you're having sex with other people who also gets paid for it rather than paying for it themselves. Oh, and someone must be filming and publishing it."
posted by brokkr at 2:06 AM on August 19, 2015


nobody ever talks about statistics showing that more males than females (as a percentage of the general population) report having sold sex at some point

cite, please
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:31 AM on August 19, 2015


Can't find anything in English, sorry.
De undersøgelser, der er gennemført, er yderst sparsomme og stritter i mange forskellige retninger. To ting ved man dog med ret stor sikkerhed: At der er langt flere unge mænd — altså under 18 — der prostituerer sig, end der er piger. Og at flere mænd end kvinder igennem livet vil prøve at sælge sex.

»De to forhold er undersøgt repræsentativt, er stabile over tid og gælder i hele Skandinavien,« fastslår Venø Jakobsen, der mener, at den manglende viden også må bunde i en manglende interesse.
Information
The interview is based on this master's thesis (PDF, has English abstract) by Dorte Venø Jakobsen, which in turn references studies by Jari Kousmanen at the university of Gothenburg. It also notes that there is very little research into male prostitution, and that the stat that more males than females report having sold sex may be specific to Scandinavia, due to generally lower rates of female prostitution. (This page says that 14% of Nordic men have bought sex, while the number for Spanish and Italian men is 30-40% and Thai men are around 70%.)
posted by brokkr at 1:03 PM on August 19, 2015


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