Prostitution is often referred to as a victimless crime, which makes legalizing it sound perfectly reasonable. But you can’t discuss prostitution without acknowledging its relationship to human trafficking, which is a worldwide epidemic. During the last two years, 14,226 victims have been rescued from trafficking and sexual exploitation for prostitution. Throughout the world, countries are coming together with different legal approaches in hopes of finding a safe, fair balance between empowering women (and men) to make their own decision about how to use their own bodies, and the horrific problems of trafficking and exploitation, particularly of minors.
History of Prostitution
Prostitution dates back to 2400 BCE in ancient Mesopotamia. Six of the laws from the Code of Hammurabi (our oldest surviving written copy of ancient laws, dated around 1745 BCE) specifically pertain to the rights of prostitutes. The Chinese and Greeks had legal brothels throughout 500-700 BCE to increase the state’s income. In 438 Common Era, the Codex of Theodosianus took away parents’ legal right to compel daughters or slaves to prostitute themselves and attempted to abolish the prostitute tax. Castile punished men who “engaged in prostitution, who acted as procurers, associated themselves with the women” with 100 lashes, banishment or being hanged. The Japanese created red-light districts, locations where legal brothels were allowed, in 1617. The “Chastity Commission” was held in Vienna 1751 – 1769 to not only abolish prostitution, but also fornication, through fines, imprisonment, whipping and torture.
Throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, prostitution flourished around the world with its “legal” status in question. Regulation slowly increased due to the rise of sexually transmitted disease and decreasing public acceptance. In 1875, the United States passed the Page Act of 1875, which outlawed the importation of women into the US for the purpose of prostitution. There were more regulations proposed after the Civil War. Red-light districts, like the in Storyville, New Orleans, did not legally end until 1917 due to health risks to soldiers (history and striking not entirely safe for work pictures here). Hoke v. United States in 1911, ruled that regulating prostitution was a state right, however, congress could regulate interstate travel for purposes of prostitution due to the Mann Act. Germany decriminalized prostitution in 1927, only to have the Nazis recriminalize it in 1933 and then regulate it starting in 1939. Throughout the rest of the century, countries and states regulated, criminalized or decriminalized prostitution. In 1999, Sweden classified prostitution as “male violence against women and children where only the customer should be considered a criminal”. (For more historical detail see the great timeline on the website ProCon.)
So far, during the 21st century, countries and states have attempted to take the “correct” approach through decimalization, reforming laws, policy changes and other actions.
The world is trying to find the solution to the dangers of prostitution. Germany legalized prostitution in 2002 and the sex tourism industry exploded. It is estimated that one million men pay for 450,000 girls and women every day in Germany. France passed a new law stating anyone caught purchasing an act from a sex worker will be fined and required to attend classes on the harms of prostitution. There would be a €1,500 (£1,200) fine for a first offence and €3,750 for a second including the incident being put on the person’s criminal record. With this new law, France joins a few other European countries who follow the Nordic model of criminalizing consumers rather than sex workers.
Scotland parliament proposed a bill to decriminalize activities associated with the buying and selling of sexual services and strengthen the laws against coercion in the sex industry.
Here are the results of a poll conducted on views of prostitution which I think are relevant to this discussion:
New Zealand passed the “Prostitution Reform Act” in 2003, which decriminalized all aspects of adult prostitution. Five years later, they have almost eradicated exploitation in the sex industry. Sex workers reported that they had better relationships with the police and New Zealand hasn’t had any documented cases of sex trafficking since 2003.
Amnesty International endorsed a new policy in August 2015 calling for decriminalization of global sex trade. People who support such a bill argue it is the best way of protecting “the human rights of sex workers” by calling on governments “to ensure that sex workers enjoy full and equal legal protection from exploitation, trafficking and violence.” Last year, an analysis in The Lancet predicted that the “decriminalization of sex work could have the largest effect on the course of the H.I.V. epidemic,” by increasing access to condoms and medical treatment. Here is a very in-depth article that examines different stances on this policy. Many people, countries and organizations oppose the policy of decriminalization. Countries like Norway and Sweden state the organization’s goal should be to end demand for prostitution, not condone it.
States throughout the US have been active in proposing new bills and regulations in hopes trying to grapple with the connection between prostitution and exploitation and sex trafficking, and also with who to punish for this “victimless” crime.
In 2014, Washington DC’s councilman David Grosso pushed a bill to decriminalize prostitution in the district stating “decriminalization would be less an endorsement of prostitution and more of an endorsement of human rights.” He wants to find a way for the government to do a better job providing resources so that people who do not want to be in the profession can get out, and also has passed legislation aiming to protect minors from trafficking.
This year Ohio proposed HB 268 which would expand the list of human trafficking-related convictions, increase the penalties for compelling and promoting prostitution and authorize intervention in lieu of conviction for persons charged with committing an offense while a victim of compelling prostitution. Jennifer Kempton, a victim of sex trafficking, spoke about HB 268, “I’m excited for House Bill 268 to hopefully pass. Society has their eyes closed to the reality of the problem. This is happening in our backyards. It’s happening in every city and every state.”
California passed SB 1129 to repeal mandatory jail time for convicted prostitutes due to growing concern that many are victims of human trafficking or addicts who need treatment which incarceration inhibits.
South Carolina’s senate approved a proposal, S. 986, to place stiffer fines on people who purchase illicit sex after striking out its original intent to immediately place offenders on the sex offender registry. (The sex offender registry is a whole other tangled mess, see this post for more on that controversial subject.)
Minnesota proposed HF 2976, which increases penalties for those attempting to hire a minor for prostitution.
New Hampshire’s HB 1614 “legalizes consensual sex between consenting adults and makes any solicitation of sexual contact involving a person under 18 years of age or through the use of force or intimidation a felony.” This idea of legalizing some prostitution but strengthening efforts to curb trafficking and the exploitation of minors, and to better support victims of trafficking, seems to be a recurring theme in many bills. Perhaps striking this balance will be the direction most states ultimately try to go.
This is an incredibly difficult topic for me to formulate a concrete opinion about the best plan of action. I read quotes like this one from a New York Times article “I know there are some advocates who argue that women in prostitution sell sex as consenting adults. But those who do are a relatively privileged minority — primarily white, middle-class, Western women in escort agencies — not remotely representative of the global majority. Their right to sell doesn’t trump my right and others’ not to be sold in a trade that preys on women already marginalized by class and race”. Or this quote from a former sex worker speaking to how sex work as a livelihood enabled her to live the life she wanted “I was moving toward a goal, and sex work helped me do that”. The only thing I can definitively say I believe is that we need to teach out certain aspects of our society’s culture and ideals to decrease the demand for prostitution.
Where can we draw the line between consensual in a safe way and only appearing consensual? How do we protect children? How do we empower women to do what they want with their bodies without paving the way to exploitation? How to do we stop the horrific violence associated with prostitution? These are not answers I have; please let us know your opinions in the comments section. While formulating them, be sure to take into account the human trafficking aspect of this issue, partially detailed by this infographic.