The Wrong Cure for Sex Trafficking

Prohibition of prostitution does not make it safer

"If there were no demand for commercial sex, sex trafficking would not exist in the form it does today," reads the first line of a 2013 State Department report on curbing sexual slavery. In other words, if only we could just stop people from wanting to pay for sex altogether, the market for this nasty trafficking business would disappear once and for all.

Californians favor an equally ineffective approach to combating sex trafficking. Proposition 35-a Golden State law that passed overwhelmingly in 2012, thanks in part to a series of public awareness campaigns featuring such celebrities as Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher-enacted harsher criminal penalties for sex trafficking. But waging "war" on the problem will only drive up prices and embolden more hardened criminals to get into the businesses.

So what would actually reduce sex trafficking? Making prostitution legal.

"I'm not a victim. I'm not being coerced. But the law doesn't see me that way," says a Los Angeles-based prostitute who asked to be identified as "Holly." She runs her own online escort service, which she started during the 2008 recession as a way to make ends meet. Holly says Prop. 35 has made her less safe: If she were ever assaulted, its draconian provisions would make it too risky to go to the police.

The case of Nevada, the only state where sex work is legal, demonstrates how lifting prohibition makes prostitutes safer. The dominant player in the industry is Dennis Hof, who operates seven of the state's 18 legal brothels, including the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, featured on HBO's late-night series Cathouse.

"When you legalize something, it takes all the nonsense out of the business," says Hof. "It takes the criminals out of the business and it puts money into the coffers of society."

Nevada still tightly regulates the sex trade. Prostitutes undergo mandatory weekly STD testing, and Hof says not a single licensed sex worker has ever turned out to be infected with HIV. Density restrictions prevent the brothels from locating in highly populated areas like Las Vegas, which is one reason the vast majority of prostitutes in Nevada still choose to practice illegally.

Because of the downsides of working in a highly regulated market, some sex workers eschew Nevada-style "legalization" in favor of what they call "decriminalization," which would simply remove all prohibitions on sex work. But decriminalization wouldn't get the state entirely out of the business; local governments would still regulate the buying and selling of sex in the ways they oversee other service industries. Advocates point to New Zealand's laissez-faire sex trade policies as a model worth emulating.

Maggie McNeill, a retired sex worker and the author of the upcoming book Ladies of the Night, favors decriminalization, but she says it's unlikely to happen through the legislative process without a massive cultural shift. She hopes that one day the Supreme Court will strike down sex work bans in the same way it did away with restrictions on abortion (Roe v. Wade) and sodomy (Lawrence v. Texas).

While their strategies may differ, decriminalization and legalization advocates agree that the anti-trafficking hysteria that led to Prop. 35-and the tough-on-crime rhetoric conflating trafficking and consensual prostitution-only drives the trade further underground and makes life for sex workers more dangerous.

"It's the oldest profession, and it's not going to go away until everyone doesn't want to have sex anymore," says Hof. "So give me an alternative."

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  • Not a Libertarian||

    It is curious that in some European countries where prostitution is legal, there is a movement in the direction of making the "buying" of sex illegal. And this on feminist and social grounds.

  • ||

    Because they found legalizing prostitution actually accelerates female trafficking from poor nation to the 'legalized' nation. It's NOT working either.

  • ||

    female trafficking? or sex workers moving to where they can safely conduct business?

  • Loki||

    Haven't you ever seen that documentary, Taken? /Derp

  • Normajeana||

    Do you know that the movie "Taken" was based on the alleged life of William Hillar- whose daughter was never 'taken' and all of his alleged activities were lies? He was finally convicted and sent to prison for defrauding the government, because they paid him a nice sum of $ to train their people how to spot trafficking victims, something he had absolutely NO experience in doing. He was a liar and a fraud, just as 99% of all the other rabid prostitution abolitionists are.

  • Normajeana||

    Who found this? Where is the proof of your comment?

    If women who previously could not go to the police and report being a victim of either trafficking or of rape or other abuse, and then when it was no longer illegal to work, they could go to the police and report crimes against them, suddenly there is an increase in 'trafficking' rape and violence against sex workers...

    So, are you suggesting that removing the obstacle that prevents us from reporting crimes against us would be wrong and that we still ought to be punished for selling that which we can legally give away? OR that our non violent, non abusive clients, employers and associates ought to be punished when the cops cannot even arrest all the alleged rapists in this country?

  • Lost_In_Translation||

    Its a great deal easier to go after sex traffickers if stings into prostitution weren't convoluted games of prosecuting the victims as well as the perpetrators by pretending to be customers...but not really (because that would be illegal)...

  • Normajeana||

    Exactly!
    The FBI Criminal Victimization report for 2012 says there were 346,830 REPORTED violent rapes and sexual assaults. This was an increase of over 102,000 from 2011 http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cv12.pdf page 2. The cops managed to arrest a mere 15,591 alleged rapists- or 4.5%. Can you imagine how many fewer actual rapists they would catch if they had to arrest ALL men who had consensual sex with adult women? If they don't have the man/woman power to arrest any more than 4.5% of alleged rapists, how are they going to arrest the hundreds of thousands if not millions of clients that sex workers have? Much less take them to court, prosecute them and send them to the overcrowded prisons where they are already releasing violent criminals early because there is simply not enough room to put everyone!

  • Matrix||

    If everybody would just have sex with everybody else, you wouldn't have a sex trafficking problem.

  • Normajeana||

    Sex workers want prostitution to be decriminalized rather than legalized because not all of us want to work for someone like Dennis Hof. We want to work for ourselves, whereas in a legalized system, if brothel work was the only way we could work, we would have to put up with a boss like Hof.

    If we are no longer outside the law, we can implement precautions that will make our work situation safer. We can report crimes against us just as all other self- employed or people working for horrible bosses can. By removing the prohibition against consenting adult commercial sex and ancillary activity which does not involve minors or coercion, adult sex workers can take control over their lives that is now in the hands of law enforcement agents who use the laws to rape, extort and even pimp us. Not to mention that cops can and do have sex with us in order to make an arrest- and in states where they are not allowed to have sex with us, they can hire a civic minded man to have sex with us and then testify against us. www.policeprostitutionandpolitics.com

  • BakedPenguin||

    How about legalized and unregulated?

  • Lost_In_Translation||

    legalized doesn't mean brothels. In the era of internet apps, i can't magine a situation where legalized is worse than simply decriminalized because you always have the option to work for yourself.

  • Lost_In_Translation||

    read more about Nevada and can see where decriminalization is best given unregulated legalized status is highly unlikely.

  • Robert||

    But isn't unregulated decriminalized status also highly unlikely, with the added implication (if they're constrasting one with the other) that it would still be a civil violation, just not a criminal one?

  • Robert||

    Both the terms "legalized" (made legal, i.e. not illegal) and "decriminalized" (made not a crime, but could still be a civil viol'n) have simple meanings, but they don't mean much without further details. If someone asks me offhand without specifying further, I'll take legaliz'n over decriminaliz'n.

  • REMant||

    It's not the sex that matters, it's the sale of it, and that's much more of problem in society.

  • Bella Robinson||

    Hoff's brothels take half the workers earnings and then the worker has to pay rent, and for their testing and they are required to live in isolation at the brothel. Hoff recently went on a review site claiming he has had sex with all 4,000 women who worked for him, yet many of these women I know personally say they never had sex with hoff. Nevada also makes the sex worked run down to the sheriffs dept and register, so their names become public record that anyone can look up. These women could lose custody of their children, because we don't have any discrimination legislation. I recently found out that the workers are required to use condoms for oral, vaginal or anal sex, in the brothels but they are not required to make clients use dental dams so this is not promoting the health and safety of the workers. Why is it nobody mentioned the state of Rhode Island where indoor prostitution was decriminalized from 1979 until 2009. The workers were free to work from home, hotels or for agency's or spas The spas only charged the clients a 50 door fee, the worker then negotiated with the client and got to keep all their earning,s and they got to pick their shifts and they were not forced to live there.

    http://reason.com/archives/201.....ex-traffic

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