Recent discussions of sex work’s criminality from then-presidential candidate Kamala Harris and a decision from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office follow a nationwide shift in approach to the issue. Despite most Americans’ altruistic intentions, the push for the legalization of sex work is clearly a step in the wrong direction. Prostitution must remain illegal in the United States to curb the propagation of human trafficking, organized crime, and gender-based violence. Legalization and decriminalization aim to protect women and safely regulate the industry but may produce many adverse effects in the process.
Legalizing prostitution in the United States will increase human trafficking and organized crime. A 2013 World Development study, which compiled data from over 150 countries, concluded that the prostitution market expanded and human trafficking increased in places without prostitution bans. While legalization is meant to unveil crimes, research demonstratess that organized crime flourishes in countries where prostitution is legal. The “Sneep case” reveals that the legalization of sex work will not prevent organized crime or violence against sex workers. In this instance, German pimps, who match prostitutes with clients, traveled to Amsterdam, where prostitution was legal, to utilize the veil of legitimacy in the country to sell sex and garner profit. The German pimps then committed acts of violence against over 100 women, who were all registered in legal, licensed brothels in the Netherlands. Thus, the legalization of sex work in the Netherlands did nothing to protect the prostitutes from violence. Instead, it provided pimps with easy access to the prostitutes. The legalization of prostitution simply keeps up appearances for the public while hiding the cruel nature of the industry.
Legalizing prostitution will not stunt the growth of the industry since it allows pimps to operate behind the scenes. As the sex work industry grows, so does gender-based violence. The Urban Institute found that females are most likely to be prostitutes, whereas males make up the overwhelming majority of sex buyers. The issue remains that women disproportionately face the threat of violence or murder at the hands of male clients. A 2004 American Journal of Epidemiology study of 1,969 prostitute women in Colorado revealed that prostitute women in the United States experience extremely high homicide and mortality rates, which are probably representative of the larger prostitute population in America. Legalization or decriminalization will only worsen the conditions for prostitutes by hiding the danger of sex work under a legal curtain that cannot adequately protect women.
Proponents of legalizing or decriminalizing sex work commonly reference the Netherlands as proof of success in regards to regulating prostitution. A more detailed evaluation of the Netherlands and other countries that have modified their approach to sex work, however, paints a vastly different picture. According to the Netherlands’ Ministry of Justice’s report, licensed brothels remained opposed to frequent inspections by authorities. While it is true that Dutch researchers believe human trafficking became more difficult following legalization due to stricter enforcement of regulations, pimps still operate in the shadows, contininuing involuntary prostitution. Adverse effects following policy changes are not unique to the Netherlands. After decriminalization in New Zealand, abusive brothels did not improve conditions for prostitutes. In Germany, fewer than 8% of prostitutes were officially insured following legalization. Countries that have decided to legalize or decriminalize prostitution consistently display its inefficacy. Unfortunately, there is no silver lining when it comes to the legalization of sex work; it would be a needless and perhaps harmful policy shift.
Prostitution will likely never disappear in the United States, but this unfortunate probability cannot rationalize legalization or decriminalization, neither of which have brought many positive changes to other countries. Calling prostitution a “victimless crime” disregards the sad fact that prostitute women still have the highest homicide victimization rate of any group of women ever studied in the United States. Since prostitution so frequently involves crimes against women, legalizing the practice would serve to invalidate the experiences of abused and exploited women.
Many participants in the debate over the legalization of sex work agree that our objective must be to protect those within the industry. But legalization and/or decriminalization cannot guarantee safety for anyone in an industry where vulnerable women (and men) are “supply” and predominantly male sex buyers are “demand.” Supporting the current criminality of sex work does not suggest that the government should have any control over the personal choices of its citizens. On the contrary, opposing legalization requires a profound commitment to the protection of women and a safer America for all.