The Wheel Debates: Legalization of Prostitution

This month’s debate was written by Barkley Forum members College senior Kristen Lowe and College junior Katie Duval. 

Pro Legalization

Sex workers are currently in a legal and social limbo in the United States, and the only way to resolve this is to legalize prostitution. There is constant demand for sex workers in our society, but a taboo clings to their profession, making their job more dangerous and denying them basic human rights such as access to healthcare, social security, etc. The societal bias against sex workers results in their unfair treatment within the legal system and increased violence against them. In addition to the stigma against sex workers, studies have shown that laws criminalizing prostitution result in a plethora of negative consequences. Open Society Foundation found that when prostitution was decriminalized, sex workers experienced less abuse and sexual assault. In a world of criminalized prostitution, sex workers are doing everything possible to avoid arrest, including working far away from law enforcement and in the most dangerous parts of communities. In addition, some studies found that 90 percent of encounters with police officers result in violent acts against the sex workers. To exacerbate this problem, sex workers often cannot report violence  while working without being arrested themselves. This makes sex workers exceptionally vulnerable to violence, because perpetrators know that the crimes will not be reported.

Assault isn’t the only dangerous part of being a sex worker in the current world of criminalized solicitation; sex buyers are often untested for HIV/AIDS and other STIs, which means sex workers are at risk to contract these diseases. Decriminalization of sex work could result in the availability of regulated testing for both workers and buyers, in addition to an increase in condom usage. The Lancet reports that when sex work is decriminalized, the transmission of HIV decreases by as much as 33 to 46 percent within the population. The report also indicates that in a world of criminalized sex work, one-third of sex workers don’t carry condoms with them, fearing they will be used as evidence if they are accused of being a sex worker. In addition to health benefits, decriminalizing prostitution would allow sex workers to obtain all the benefits of being a legitimate part of the work force. This could include unionizing, workers’ compensation, healthcare and a regulated way to report and respond to violence perpetrated against sex workers. The lack of these basic rights makes sex work one of the riskiest professions in our society even though the demand for these services is ever-increasing.

Moreover, decriminalizing prostitution would also help address broader issues within communities. Open Society Foundations reported instances of self-run sex worker regulatory boards successfully helping address human trafficking by collaborating with law enforcement and identifying individuals who were survivors of sex trafficking.

In a world where, regardless of legal status, sex work will always exist, decriminalizing this profession is the only logical solution. Recognizing sex workers as genuine members of the work force would help combat the transmission of STIs and staunch the quickly rising rates of violence in our society.

Katie Duval is a College junior from Atlanta, Georgia. 

Anti Legalization

On any given day, over 2,000,000 individuals are trafficked around the world. Of those 2,000,000, 80 percent are women and children, many of whom are bound for the illicit sex trade. This sex trade, which has become a globalized and ever-expanding industry, dehumanizes and abuses its victims while subjecting them to heightened rates of violence and risk. Women in the sex trade are more susceptible to sexual and physical violence, coercion, long-term health issues, incarceration, substance abuse and death, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Operating in almost every country in the world, the illegal sex trade is a large and growing source of global gender violence.

While politicians, theorists and activists have dedicated ample time to understanding the complex web of factors that drive the expansion of sex trafficking, there is one factor that undeniably allows the sex trade to flourish: demand. For this reason, prostitution should not be legalized. Despite the potential economic benefits it may provide to some women, legalization will likely lead to an increase in the demand for paid sex, increasing the power of the already existent sex-slavery industry.

Ample theoretical and empirical evidence contribute to the idea that legalizing prostitution causes increases in sex trafficking via the scaling effect, through which the expansion in the size of the market increases and overwhelms the substitution effect that legalization has, through which supply in the legal market displaces illegally supplied sex. Empirical analysis from studies conducted in over 150 countries illustrates how, in countries where prostitution has been legalized, trafficking has increased, while countries with strict anti-prostitution laws observe lower rates of trafficking. While many argue that increasing opportunities for domestically sourced sex-workers to thrive in a legalized market would introduce a new supply of workers available via trafficking, observable trends in countries like Australia illustrate that the substitution effect is negligible. Moreover, these trends hold even when controlling for different regulatory and legal schemata for legalizing prostitution.

Additionally, without strong pre-existing social or legal mechanisms in place to provide oversight and control on where sex-workers are coming from or how they are being treated, even well-meaning regulatory schemata risk increasing the demand for illegally transported and coerced sex workers and reinforcing violence. Widespread sexism and scarce chances for reporting are also likely to contribute to violence within the sex industry.

While sex work offers a very legitimate and important source of labor for many individuals, until governments, institutions and society are ready to grapple with human trafficking, prostitution cannot be legalized without also unleashing threats of coercion and violence upon women and children worldwide.

Kristen Lowe is a College senior from Incline Village, Nevada.