Why Prostitution Shouldn't Be Legal
Evidence For Holding Buyers Accountable
The idea that legalizing or decriminalizing commercial sex would reduce its harms is a persistent myth. Many claim if the sex trade were legal, regulated, and treated like any other profession, it would be safer. But research suggests otherwise. Countries that have legalized or decriminalized commercial sex often experience a surge in human trafficking, pimping, and other related crimes.
Prostitution, regardless of whether it’s legal or not, involves so much harm and trauma it cannot be seen as a conventional business.
- Interviews with prostituted individuals in New Zealand reveal that a majority of prostituted people in the country did not feel as if decriminalization had curbed the violence they experience, demonstrating that prostitution is inherently violent and abusive. (Report of the Prostitution Law Review Committee: pp. 14)
- One study of prostituted women in San Francisco massage parlors found that 62% had been beaten by customers. (HIV Risk among Asian Women Working at Massage Parlors in San Francisco: pp. 248)
- An investigation of the commercial sex industry in eight American cities found that 36% of prostituted people reported that their buyers were abusive or violent. (Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities: pp. 242)
- The “workplace” homicide rate among prostituted women in Colorado is seven times higher than what it was in the most dangerous occupation for men in the 1980s (taxi driver). (Mortality in a Long-term Open Cohort of Prostitute Women: pp. 783)
Prostitution and human trafficking are forms of gender-based violence.
- Most persons in prostitution are either female or transgender women. (Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities: pp. 219 and The Impact of the Prostitution Reform Act on the Health and Safety practices of Sex Workers: pp. 61)
- In contrast, the vast majority of sex buyers are male. (Executive Summary of the Preliminary Findings for Team Grant Project 4 – Sex, Safety and Security: A Study of Experiences of People Who Pay for Sex in Canada: pp. 3)
- Prostituted persons are mostly women and face exceptional risks of murder (pp. 784) and violence at the hands of male sex buyers (pp. 248), signifying that the practice is on the continuum of gender-based violence. This remains true even in areas where prostitution is legal or decriminalized. (pp. 14)
- An investigation commissioned by the European Parliament found that in countries with legal prostitution, such as Austria, “the effect of regulation can be a massive increase in migrant prostitution and an indirect support to the spreading of the illegal market in the sex industry.” (National Legislation on Prostitution and the Trafficking in Women and Children: pp. 132)
- Denmark decriminalized prostitution in 1999, and the government’s own estimates show that the prevalence increased substantially over the decade that followed. (Prostitutionens omfang og former 2012/2013: pp. 7)
- Interviews with prostituted persons in the Netherlands reported that “legalization entices foreign women to come to the Netherlands, causing an increase [in prostitution].” (Prostitution in the Netherlands since the lifting on the brothel ban: pp. 38)
Legalization or decriminalization has not reduced the stigma faced by prostituted people.
- After New Zealand decriminalized prostitution in 2003, there were still reports among prostituted persons of “continuing stigma” and “harassment by the general public.” In addition, there was little difference in disclosure of occupation to healthcare professionals before and after decriminalization. (The Impact of the Prostitution Reform Act on the Health and Safety practices of Sex Workers: pp. 11 and 12)
Legalization or decriminalization increases human trafficking.
- One study with data from 150 countries found that those with “legalized prostitution experience a larger reported incidence of trafficking inflows.” (Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking?: pp. 76)
- Another quantitative analysis similarly reported that sex trafficking is “most prevalent in countries where prostitution is legalized.” (The Law and Economics of International Sex Slavery: Prostitution Laws and Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation: pp. 87)
- Regulated prostitution increases the size of the overall market for commercial sex, which benefits criminal enterprises that profit from sex trafficking. (Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking?: pp. 67 and National Legislation on Prostitution and the Trafficking in Women and Children: pp. 132)
- A large-scale evaluation of the legalization of prostitution in the Netherlands, coordinated by the Ministry of Justice, found that licensed brothels did not welcome frequent regulatory inspections. This undermines their willingness “to adhere to the rules and complicates the combat against trafficking in human beings.” (Prostitution in the Netherlands since the lifting on the brothel ban: pp. 11)
- A review of the empirical evidence on the Dutch legalization of prostitution found that many prostituted persons still rely on anonymity, secrecy, and cash transfers, demonstrating that a legalized prostitution market operates much like a criminal market. (Legale sector, informele praktijken. De informele economie van de legale raamprostitutie in Nederland: pp. 115-130)
- 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.” (pp: 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. (pp: 17)
- The German government’s own evaluation of the 2001 law that legalized prostitution suggested that fewer than 8% of prostituted individuals are “officially insured as a prostitute.” (Report by the Federal Government on the Impact of the Act Regulating the Legal Situation of Prostitutes (Prostitution Act): pp. 26)
Legalization and decriminalization promotes organized crime.
- Evaluations have found that regulation of prostitution creates a façade of legitimacy that hides sexual exploitation, and that brothels can “function as legalized outlets for victims of sex trafficking.” (The challenges of fighting sex trafficking in the legalized prostitution market of the Netherlands: pp. 227)
- An example of how sex trafficking can operate behind a veil of legalized prostitution is the so-called “Sneep case.” German pimps traveled across the border to the Netherlands and took over large parts of the Red Light District in Amsterdam, using intimate relationships and brutal violence to coerce women to sell sex and hand over their profits. (Relationships Between Suspects and Victims of Sex Trafficking. Exploitation of Prostitutes and Domestic Violence Parallels in Dutch Trafficking Cases: pp. 49-64, and The challenges of fighting sex trafficking in the legalized prostitution market of the Netherlands: pp. 218)
The Nordic Model (criminalizing the act of buying sex, but legalizing the act of selling sex) has lowered the prevalence of street prostitution.
- An evaluation of the impact in Sweden found that street prostitution had been cut in half. (Förbud mot köp av sexuell tjänst: En utvärdering 1999–2008: pp. 34-35)
- Similarly, an evaluation of Norway’s implementation of the Model in 2009 found that it “has reduced demand for sex and thus contribute to reduce the extent of prostitution” (pp. 11), a result that has been confirmed in additional analyses. (Kriminalisering av sexkjøp: pp. 13)
The Nordic Model has prevented an increase in prostitution overall.
- While Sweden’s neighbors, such as Denmark and Finland, experienced increases in prostitution, data suggest that it remained flat in Sweden for the decade that followed the implementation of the Nordic Model. (Förbud mot köp av sexuell tjänst: En utvärdering 1999–2008: pp. 36)
Prostituted individuals often come from vulnerable populations and lack other options, while most sex buyers do not.
- Individuals who are prostituted are often poorly educated (pp. 248) and they are forced into prostitution by the lack of opportunities. (Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities: pp. 220)
- An evaluation of New Zealand’s decriminalization revealed that 73% of prostituted individuals needed money to pay for household expenses, and about half of those who were street-based or transgender had no other sources of income. (The Impact of the Prostitution Reform Act on the Health and Safety practices of Sex Workers: pp. 9)
- In sharp contrast, sex buyers are more likely to be employed full-time, more likely to have graduated from college, and have higher-than-average incomes. (Ordinary or Peculiar Men? Comparing the Customers of Prostitutes With a Nationally Representative Sample of Men: pp. 812 and Executive Summary of the Preliminary Findings for Team Grant Project 4 – Sex, Safety and Security: A Study of Experiences of People Who Pay for Sex in Canada: pp. 2)