Is Prostitution Really Inevitable?

| Fri Jun. 30, 2006 4:11 PM EDT

In the New Republic today, Michelle Cottle argues against Congress' brand new "pimp tax" idea, which aims to use the IRS to crack down on sex traffickers. This, I think, is a sharp point:

Obviously sex trafficking is a global atrocity...But the chairman's current proposal, which lumps together international sex traffickers with neighborhood pimps and down-on-their-luck working girls, comes with a built-in overreach that all but ensures that the agency's pursuit of sex criminals will wind up resembling its pursuit of tax cheats in general over the years: Overwhelmingly, the small fry are the ones netted since they are both the most abundant and the least able to defend themselves. [Here's a good example.]

Fair enough. A sincere effort to crack down on sex trafficking obviously wouldn't just give the IRS some token funding to hound "down-on-their-luck working girls." And there's certainly something to the criticism that many attempts to stop sex trafficking end up hurting women who become prostitutes "voluntarily" (yeah, those are scare quotes). The International Justice Mission, for instance, a Christian organization that helps the Thai police bust brothels, often "rescues" women who don't want to be freed. "We need to make money for our families," one woman said after a raid in 2001. "How can you do this to us?"

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So that's all well and good. What I'm not so convinced about is when Cottle says that "some form of [prostitution] will always be with us," and so we should do what many sex-worker advocates in Nevada are calling for and decriminalize the business. Now these advocates are listening to actual prostitutes and know infinitely more than I, but there are studies looking into this subject that are worth noting. In 2003, the Scottish government, looking to revamp its own prostitution policies, did a massive report on policies in different countries around the world, and found that pure legalization plus regulation just isn't the best way to handle prostitution.

Among other things, the study found that legalization led to a dramatic expansion of the sex industry—in Australia, brothels expanded to the point where they overwhelmed the state's ability to regulate them, and became mired in organized crime and corruption. That was typical. In countries that went the legalization route, child prostitution and the trafficking of foreign women into the region also increased dramatically. Surveys, meanwhile, found that sex workers still felt coerced and unsafe even after legalization. In the Netherlands—often held up as a model in this regard—a survey done in 2000 found that 79 percent of prostitutes were in the sex business "due to some degree of force."

The best approach, as far as I can tell, turns out to be Sweden's. In Sweden, prostitution is considered "an aspect of male violence against women and children" and treated as such. Legislation, passed in 1999 as part of a broader "violence against women" bill, decriminalized the selling of sex while making the buying of sex illegal (pimping was already outlawed). So that was novel. But the bill also—and this bit was crucial—provided ample social service funds for helping any prostitute who wanted to get out of the business to do so, as well as funds for educating the public.

And after a few early hiccups, this strategy seems to have worked. Prosecutions of male buyers and johns went up dramatically. The sex trade doesn't seem to have been pushed underground, as many feared. Street prostitution in Stockholm has dropped by two-thirds since 1999. The Swedish government estimates that only around 200-500 women are trafficked annually into the country, as compared to some 17,000 trafficked into Finland each year. And most importantly, 60 percent of prostitutes took advantage of the social service funds and succeeded in exiting the sex industry.

At any rate, when it comes to views on prostitution I think I pretty much agree with this post by Emma of Gendergeek, who opposes fully legalizing prostitution in theory and isn't swayed by the argument that it just allows women to "choose" for themselves what to do with their body. And although I'd be interested in seeing evidence to the contrary, Sweden's approach appears to best finesse the line between legalization—which seems to work out horribly in practice—and outright criminalization, while offering those in the sex industry more of a choice than they quite obviously have at present.

UPDATE: Petra Östergren, a Swedish writer who has interviewed a number of Swedish sex workers, has some strong criticisms of the law here, which are very much worth reading.