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Debating Legalized Prostitution

May 20, 2007

Two scholars debate whether or not to legalize prostitution. Professor Janice Raymond is the co-executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, the author of 5 books, and Professor Emerita at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Dr. Melissa Ditmore was the principal investigator for Revolving Door, the first report released by the Sex Workers Project, and is currently a research consultant for the organization.

Against Legalization
Professor Janice Raymond - When the question of legalization of prostitution is discussed, many commentators start with the unproven assumption that legalization protects women. Who said so? Let’s look at the evidence in countries that have legalized or decriminalized prostitution.

In the Netherlands, Germany, and Australia, legalization has failed to protect the women in prostitution, control the enormous expansion of the sex industry, decrease child prostitution and trafficking from other countries, and prevent HIV/AIDS -- all arguments used for legalization. And it has transformed these countries into brothels.

Legalizing prostitution is legalizing the prostitution industry. What many people don’t realize is that legalizing prostitution means not only decriminalizing the women in prostitution, but also the pimps, brothels and buyers. My organization favors decriminalizing the women but not the pimps who promote prostitution and trafficking and exploit the victims. In countries like the Netherlands when legalization took effect, pimps overnight became sex businessmen. One day, they were criminals and the next day legitimate entrepreneurs.

Legalization led to open season on prostituted women in the Netherlands. Organized crime took over the sex industry, and this is the main reason why 30 percent of the window brothels have recently been shutterd by the mayor of Amsterdam. Because they had become a haven for traffickers and unsafe for women, Amsterdam and Rotterdam have also closed down their tipplezones -- what some call tolerance zones, but in truth are out-and-out “sacrifice zones” where certain women can be bought and sold.

Germany’s legalized prostitution system has become a magnet for sexual exploiters, so much so that Germany has become the destination of choice in Europe for traffickers. Legalization in the State of Victoria in Australia has encouraged 3 times more illegal than legal brothels. Even the Australian Adult Entertainment Industry acknowledged that the illegal sex industry is out of control there. At the same time, many legal brothel owners have been involved in setting up and profiting from illegal brothels. “Customers” want more “exotic,” younger, cheaper women and those who can be induced not to use condoms. Victoria has the highest rates of child prostitution of all the states and territories in Australia.

In the 21st century, how can any individual or country say they support gender equality when, at the same time, they fortify the legal segregation of a class of women who can be bought and sold? So often we hear that prostitution is inevitable, and that a zero tolerance approach is unrealistic. It is no more unrealistic to work for an end to sex slavery than it was and is to work for an end to race slavery.

There is no evidence that legalization of prostitution makes things better for women in prostitution. It certainly makes things better for governments who legalize prostitution and of course, for the sex industry, both of whom enjoy increased revenues.

Instead of abandoning women to state-sanctioned brothels, laws should address the demand. Men who use women in prostitution have long been invisible. There is a legal alternative to state sponsorship of the prostitution industry. Rather than cozying up with pimps and traffickers, States could address the demand – as Sweden has done -- by penalizing the men who buy women for the sex of prostitution. And as in Sweden, this would help create a chilly climate for the buyers and the traffickers.

For Decriminalization
Dr. Melissa Ditmore - Prostitution should be decriminalized. This would remove prostitution from the criminal code and thereby render prostitution akin to other businesses. It’d be taxed and subject ot business requirements. Decriminalization of prostitution has been a success in New Zealand and parts of Australia. They cite decriminalization as an advantage over legalization because removing prostitution from the criminal code avoids both the problems of graft and abuse associated with police jurisdiction over prostitution and the sometimes overbearing regulations that accompany legalization. (For example, in Nevada’s brothels, brothel-owners decide whether licensed prostitutes are allowed to leave the brothel during their off hours. Prostitutes can be required to stay on the premises for weeks at a time, no matter their working hours.) Decriminalization would better protect people in the sex industry from violence and abuse.

In many places, legal reform of prostitution laws is not a high priority for advocates for the rights of sex workers. One reason is that in the majority of the world, consenting adults exchanging sex for money is not per se illegal, but this does not prevent the harassment of sex workers and their colleagues by law enforcement. Legal reform clearly does not solve all problems related to the sex industry.

However, advocates and activists would rally behind legal reform that would lead to police addressing violence committed against sex workers. Police cannot and do not simultaneously seek to arrest prostitutes and protect them from violence. Currently, under New York Criminal Procedure Law, sex workers who have been victims of sex offenses, including assault and rape, face greater obstacles than other victims. Indeed, women describe being told, “What did you expect?” by police officers who refused to investigate acts of violence perpetrated against women whom they knew engaged in prostitution. The consequences of such attitudes are tragic: Gary Ridgway said that he killed prostitutes because he knew he would not be held accountable. The tragedy is that he was right – he confessed to the murders of 48 women, committed over nearly twenty years. That is truly criminal.

Posted by Janice Raymond & Melissa Ditmore on 28 February 2007



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