“Sex work” advocates say that legalization would make prostitution safer and healthier because states could require sex workers and buyers to use condoms and get tested for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). They believe that criminalizing the act of selling sex only increases stigma and causes sex workers to avoid sexual health services.
These “sex work” advocates misplace the application of justice—they are more preoccupied with overcoming stigma than with alleviating exploitation. The evidence clearly demonstrates that, contrary to what they argue, legalizing prostitution would not make those caught up in prostitution healthier or safer. The only parties who would stand to benefit are the exploiters who buy and sell human beings.
There is no reason to believe that decriminalizing prostitution would result in better sexual health. Having multiple sexual partners is not criminalized, yet STD cases are at an all-time high, according to the latest Center For Disease Control report. Undoing criminal penalties for selling sex will not reduce STDs or make persons in prostitution any healthier than those within the 2.4 million cases of syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia recently—only abstinence and keeping sex within the confines of a committed marriage will do this. Imagine what the STD rate would be if the sex trade is legalized and new clients enter a market in which bans are lifted? A 2018 study surveyed 8,000 American men and found that over 20 percent of respondents who had never bought sex before said that they would if it was decriminalized or legalized.
Legalizing prostitution with the requirement of wearing condoms has not proven to increase the safety of persons caught up in prostitution. One study of Australian communities with legalized or fully-decriminalized brothel-based prostitution reveals that sex buyers still encourage one another, and pressure prostituted persons, to not use condoms. The study notes:
Sex buyers frame unsafe sex practices as both an expected part of the sexual encounter and as a feature of the brothel experience that women are expected to be comfortable with and acquiesce to [emphasis added]. When women are reported as showing signs that they are uncomfortable about unprotected sex, or require more payment to perform it, punters construct the experience in negative terms.
Requirements placed on exploiters (brothel owners, pimps, and traffickers) and persons caught up in prostitution would only protect the consumers, not the victims who will encounter buyers with pre-existing STDs and/or other health hazards. To think that exploiters would be transformed into law-abiding entrepreneurs complying with inspections and regulations—especially when it impedes the ability to increase profit—is dangerously naive.
An extensive evaluation of the legalization of prostitution in the Netherlands was coordinated by the Dutch Ministry of Justice. They found that licensed brothels did not welcome frequent regulatory inspections. And the Netherlands, which has some of the most liberal prostitution laws in the world, is viewed as the country “where anything goes with regard to prostitution” (pg.12)! The Netherlands is also well known for the facilitation of human trafficking. Because of the general unwillingness to comply with even liberal restrictions, the Dutch police has had to dedicate an entire unit just for inspection enforcements. “The feeling in the prostitution sector is that licensed businesses are inspected more often than non-licensed businesses. This situation undermines the willingness of owners of licensed businesses to adhere to the rules and complicates the combat against trafficking in human beings” (pg. 11).
Even countries like New Zealand must acknowledge that their decision to decriminalize prostitution did not improve “working conditions” for prostituted persons: “New Zealand’s Prostitution Law Review Committee found that a majority of prostituted persons felt that the decriminalization act “could do little about violence that occurred” (pg. 14). The Committee further reported that abusive brothels did not improve conditions for prostituted individuals; the brothels that ‘had unfair management practices continued with them’ even after the decriminalization.”
Decriminalizing or legalizing prostitution would not make those caught up in prostitution healthier or safer. It would only benefit the exploiters and make the state a collaborator in the exploitation of women and children. Such policies say to pimps and traffickers, “We’ve got your back” and to victims, “Good luck out there!” Laws are inherently meant to discourage certain types of behavior, and good laws promote the right types of behavior. Enabling organized sexual exploitation only succeeds in inviting more crime and exploitation in other forms, devaluing women and children, and legitimizing the buying and selling of human beings for pleasure.
Stay tuned for Part 5, which will take a more in-depth look at the path forward for going after the perpetrators of sexual exploitation.