A Note From The Editor
When I was a college senior, one of my sorority sisters came back from summer break flush with cash. She told me she’d spent her summer working as a stripper and high-end escort. I was shocked. We were at an elite college, most of us heading toward relatively traditional jobs. Wasn’t being a stripper/escort a small step away from prostitution?
But my sorority sister said she enjoyed the work, made good money, and that it gave her a sense of control over her sexuality (after a previous sexual assault, dating and hook-ups were difficult for her).
I walked away from the conversation genuinely vexed. On the one hand, her decision to strip was linked to her assault (and I later learned that many strippers and prostitutes are victims of sexual abuse/assault). On the other hand, if it empowered her, who was I to judge? Also: she was an adult, capable of making her own choices. If no one coerced her into the job … shouldn’t she be able to?
Countries around the world are currently grappling with the question of how to handle sex work. And it turns out the issue is, well, complicated.
Let's Dive In
The Deep: Fun fact: In 2003, Rhode Island accidentally decriminalized prostitution.
John Doe: What do you mean “accidentally” decriminalized it?
D: A judged interpreted a legal loophole to mean that any sex between consenting adults was not a crime as long as it took place privately and indoors.
JD: … which includes sex for money.
D: Exactly. But remember: the judge’s ruling only decriminalized it indoors. Which meant while outdoor solicitation was still considered a crime, massage parlors, escort services, and “online encounters” suddenly could operate legally – inside.
JD: I now realize why my cousin randomly moved to Providence in ’04.
D: It took the state six years to close the loophole. But this period was a unique opportunity for researchers to see what happened when sex work was decriminalized.
D: For one, the sex trade grew: There was a rise in advertisements, a decrease in arrests, and at least anecdotally, an increase in sales.
JD: Not surprised. It’s not like legalizing weed leads to a decline in cannabis consumption. 🤷
D: True! Additionally, however, reports of forcible rape declined by 31%, and gonorrhea in females declined by almost 40%.
JD: Wow. And this was entirely due to the law changing?
D: Researchers couldn’t say with 100% certainty that the law was the cause, but they theorized that decriminalizing prostitution gave sex workers an improved bargaining position. It also may have empowered them to protect and defend themselves because they knew they wouldn’t be punished by police.
JD: Sounds like a strong case for legalization!
D: Not so fast. First, there’s a difference between decriminalization (like in Rhode Island) and legalization. Decriminalization means getting rid of punishments for sex workers. Legalization involves creating new laws that regulate when, how, and where sex work takes place.
JD: Like in Nevada?
D: Yup. In Nevada, prostitution is legal and regulated in areas with less than 700K people. About 20 legal brothels, including the infamous Moonlite BunnyRanch, are currently operating.
The Moonlite Bunny Ranch. Source: Daily Mail
JD: So is it working there?
D: Well, the regulations mean the women are over 18 and consenting. They set their own rates and can refuse clients. Sex is safer too, since clients must wear condoms, and the state requires regular STD testing. Plus, the brothels generate significant tax revenue for Nevada.
JD: Well that all sounds pretty good.
D: On the other hand, most sex work in Nevada still takes place illegally.
JD: 🤦🏼♀️ Why?
D: It’s 300% cheaper to hire an illegal prostitute than a legal one. Brothels also can’t operate in Las Vegas (too populated) where a lot of potential clients are located. And despite the brothels selling a “happy hooker” image, critics argue that sex workers in brothels are isolated, overworked, and taken advantage of by the operations’ owners. Many also were also previous victims of abuse or sex trafficking.
JD: So it’s not really solving the problem.
D: At least not in Nevada. And if you zoom out and look at policies worldwide, it becomes clear that decriminalization and legalization aren’t perfect solutions elsewhere either.
JD: I thought in Amsterdam it was?
D: Well, since prostitution was legalized there 20 years ago, there’s been a 30-40% drop in reports of sexual violence. However: many prostitutes work illegally to avoid taxes or because they don’t meet the legal requirements. Others are coerced into illegal sex work. So now the city is considering making fundamental changes to the system, like closing the curtains of the windows they stand in, or even moving the red light district to a different part of the city.
JD: Whoa, I hadn’t heard that. And what about other countries?
D: The results are mixed. In New Zealand, where sex work is now treated like a “regular” job, the government says sex workers are significantly safer and healthier. However, in Germany, which legalized prostitution in 2002, the number of sex workers has doubled and human trafficking has skyrocketed (as a result it’s earned the unfortunate nickname, “the bordello of Europe”).
D: Also: a London School of Economics reviewed 150 countries, and published a report putting it bluntly: wherever prostitution is legal or decriminalized, there is more human trafficking.
JD: Basically, more demand = more supply needed.
D: Exactly. So you might be surprised to learn that some human rights organizations (including Amnesty International) support decriminalization.
D: Because they believe that decriminalization allows women to speak up without fear of punishment or stigma.
JD: Are there any other solutions besides decriminalization/legalization?
D: There may be. In 1999, Sweden became the first country to ban the purchase of sex … but not the sale of it. In other words, they go after the johns and leave the sex workers alone.
JD: That’s smart. See if you can reduce supply by reducing demand.
D: Since then, nearly a dozen countries (including Canada, France, Israel, and Ireland) have adopted similar policies, and even more are considering it.
JD: And is it working?
D: According to reports, the number of prostitutes in Sweden has fallen by nearly two-thirds and human trafficking is significantly lower. However: some say those numbers are inflated, and that the law puts prostitutes in more danger because they have to hurriedly negotiate pricing. Also: there are reports that johns are less likely to reveal identifying information lest they be punished.
JD: Dang. This issue is complex.
D: It is. Regardless of where you stand, the debate has broader implications. For example, as long as no coercion is involved, is there something inherently wrong or immoral with selling (or buying) sex?
D: And don’t we buy sex (in a way) when we watch porn or follow sexy models on Instagram?
When it comes to discouraging certain behaviors, what's more effective: criminalization or legalization and regulation?
(Header Image: Laura Secorun Palet via Ozy.com)