This past week, I was able to attend the UN Commission on the Status of Women (UN CSW) in connection with the Salvation Army International Social Justice Commission. This was a week where we got to connect with Salvation Army friends from around the world (England, Belgium, Kenya, Middle East, India, Canada etc). It was an amazing time to hear from those on the front lines around the world. There were many meetings focused on human trafficking and one in particular stuck out to me. It was a discussion asking the question “Does full decriminalization of the Sex-Trade lead to women’s empowerment?”

To set the stage for this debate, I wanted to give a brief snapshot on why this is a relevant conversation today. In 2016, Amnesty International adopted policy calling for decriminalization of prostitution worldwide, in line with similar stances put out by the UN and the International Labor Organization. They claim to advocate for human rights but this policy does nothing to protect women and men who are being exploited through prostitution. This policy was adopted on the fiction that legalizing the sex trade protects vulnerable people. Those in favor of this decriminalization/legalization stance, argue that it will give opportunity to regulate the industry and promotes harm reduction. BUT IT DOES NOT. Normalizing the sex industry leads to an increase in sex trafficking and exploitation – you see this in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and in the state of Nevada. Research conducted in these areas where it has been decriminalized, shows an increased demand leading to an increase in trafficking and exploitation.

One clear picture of how this legalization model actually does the opposite of its alleged intent is in Vancouver, Canada. There is an area of town on the east side that has been considered a tolerance zone where drug use and prostitution have been completely decriminalized. It is supposedly designed to offer harm reduction services (free condoms and clinics where you can get injected with drugs in a “safe way”). When you actually visit and take a walk through this area, you can see that it is anything but a safe area for those impacted by drugs and prostitution and they are not protected or empowered. Instead, you see an area of town where there is an increase in violence, drug abuse and trafficking. The Salvation Army War College is located in this area and I know many of the War College staff would attest that laws claiming to protect and empower the vulnerable are, in practice doing the opposite.

The model in opposition to this complete decriminalization is the Nordic/Swedish Model and is one that most in the Abolitionist camp embrace. This model criminalizes the purchase of sex but does not criminalize those in prostitution. This law deems prostitution “a serious harm both to individuals and to society” and aims to arrest and prosecute the traffickers and buyers. This law began as part of a larger Violence Against Women Bill in Sweden and was based on the foundation that the system of prostitution is a violation of gender equality. A study conducted 10 years after the Model was enacted found that in Sweden there had been a 50% reduction in street prostitution. Many are promoting/endorsing  this model as the best way to change laws and advocate for those being exploited.

This session at the UN CSW outlined the many ways that decriminalizing the sex trade is actually disempowering women. The panelist included Vednita Carter, Rachel Moran, Marian Hatcher and Julie Bindel (Bios below). They made a compelling argument against decriminalizing the sex trade and showed how this actually perpetuates violence against women. These are leading voices in the anti-trafficking movement and it was powerful to hear them share. Rachel Moran shared the question “Where did we come to a point where you think you can empower women by disempowering them? Amnesty International has promoted this idea that we need to decriminalize pimps and exploiters and not only is this crazy but it is sick.” Vednita Carter also discussed the fact that buyers/traffickers get their hands slapped but the women are taken to jail, lose custody of their kids and face abuse from those in law enforcement. She was adamant that prostitution is not a job but is exploitation.

Here are 5 central arguments for the case against decriminalizing prostitution:

  1. Legalizing does not increase safety for women in the sex industry
    They discussed that if you legalize prostitution then it gives way for more abuse, violence and exploitation. Women in prostitution, who went from Germany (where it is decriminalized) to Sweden, shared that there is much more violence in legal brothels because the buyers are given free reign since they are the “client.” Rape and sexual assault are reduced to a matter of an employee grievance and the women no longer feel they can go to law enforcement. Social Workers in Sweden see that the persons in prostitution feel they can come forward to get help. In countries where brothels are legal, service providers and law enforcement have shared that they have limited access to the women.  The fact remains that 68% of women in prostitution suffer from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, like victims of torture or veterans of war. In response to why legalization and regulating prostitution is not the answer Jimmy Carter shared, “We must not abandon the equal dignity of each human being by simply regulating a form of abuse. There is a better way. “
  2. Decriminalization actually increases demand for prostitution and gives way to increased trafficking and exploitation
    Normalizing prostitution leads to more rape and fosters violence against women by condoning the commodification of women on a societal level. In Nevada, where they have legalized brothels and glorified traffickers, they see the highest rate of rape in the United States. In a study of men, 54% of buyers reported their aggressive sexual behavior towards their partners. This connection between prostitution, both legal and illegal, and sex trafficking is exceedingly well established. As Donna M. Hughes has noted, “evidence seems to show that legalized sex industries actually result in increased trafficking to meet the demand for women to be used in the legal sex industries.” Melissa Farley adds that “wherever prostitution is legalized, trafficking to sex industry marketplaces in that region increases.” This is in line with the basic economic principles of supply and demand.
  3. Prostitution should not be considered a viable profession.
    • 95% of those in prostitution experienced sexual harassment that would be legally actionable in another job setting. –
    • 65% to 95% of those in prostitution were sexually assaulted as children. –
    • 70% to 95% were physically assaulted in prostitution. –
    • 60% to 75% were raped in prostitution. –
    • 75% of those in prostitution have been homeless at some point in their lives. –
    • 85% to 95% of those in prostitution want to escape it, but have no other options for survival. –
    • 68% of 854 people in strip club, massage, and street prostitution in 9 countries met criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder or PTSD. –
    • 80% to 90% of those in prostitution experience verbal abuse and social contempt which adversely affect them.  (Melissa Farley, 2004, Prostitution is sexual violence. Psychiatric Times.

    Are there any other jobs where people face a mortality rate at 10-40 times above average? If these statistics were true of any other job, would it not be outlawed? I heard one survivor speak on this issue and ask the question, if this should be considered a real “job” where is the job interview? What are the job requirements? How do you clock in and clock out? How is renting your body out for men to use and abuse considered dignifying work? The reality is, most women do not choose to enter prostitution out of a range of other options. Their “choice” was more around survival and how to feed their children and take care of themselves or in many cases they are under the control of a trafficker.

  4. Decriminalization negatively impacts all women (not just those in the sex industry) through normalizing the commodification of women and girls in cultureIf it is legalized, it affects all women (not just those in the sex industry) because it is condoning the buying and selling of women – making us commodities. Julie Bindel discussed the negative impact legalizing prostitution has on culture. For example, Dennis Hof, one of the most famous traffickers in the world has his own TV show and is considered a businessman because his brothel in Nevada is legal. He compares selling women to selling burgers at McDonalds. She also shared that Nevada has the highest rate of domestic violence and abuse in the US – this shows the negative impact on culture. In a state where prostitution has been legalized and the buying and selling of women is condoned, this increased rate of abuse and violence against women should be of no surprise.
  5. Decriminalization is benefiting pimps, traffickers and the sex industry
    Decriminalization of the sex industry turns pimps/traffickers into legitimate business owners. It turns brothels, massage parlors and other areas of commercial sexual exploitation into legitimate and profitable businesses. Some would argue that decriminalization gives dignity and professionalizes the women in prostitution, but this could not be further from the truth; it merely dignifies the sex industry. Full decriminalization is not just concerned with women in prostitution but concurrently legalizes and legitimizes pimps as third party businessmen and buyers of women for sex are accepted as legitimate consumers. After spending a week interviewing pimps and women in legal brothels in Nevada, Julie Bindel shared, “Whilst the PR surrounding legal prostitution in Nevada would have us believe that this is free-range organic prostitution, it is actually closer to battery farming. My conclusion, after spending a week observing state-sanctioned and protected pimping, is that in many ways legal brothel owners are given a license to take in the most disenfranchised women in society and institutionalize them into an industry that will cause them further harm.” It is quite unbelievable that these traffickers and pimps actually have fooled many into buying this lie that full decriminalization will benefit those in prostitution. In reality, it is making it easier for them to exploit and abuse these victims.

What is of particular significance to share with the Anti-Trafficking movement globally?
For those serving survivors of prostitution and trafficking, we must continue to advocate for the laws that will promote justice and empower those effected by exploitation and trafficking. Full decriminalization is not empowering the women, children and men impacted by prostitution and sex trafficking and it is my hope that we will continue to advocate for just laws that will actually empower the most vulnerable. There is not evidence showing that legalizing prostitution will make things better for those in prostitution. As advocates for the most vulnerable, we need to have conversations around addressing this issue on multiple levels, not only should we push forward laws penalizing the demand, but also looking at the systemic issues that are pushing women and girls into prostitution and trafficking. Rachel Lloyd, a leader in the anti-trafficking movement, shares it this way “ To truly address trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, it’s critical to address the systemic factors making girls and women so vulnerable — poverty, gender inequity, racism, classism, child sexual abuse, lack of educational and employment opportunities for women and girls globally. Sanctioning an industry that preys upon some of the most marginalized and disenfranchised individuals in our society isn’t the answer.” In looking at these reasons against full decriminalization, we can see that legalization is not the answer, but neither is criminalizing victims of commercial sexual exploitation. We need to have more dialogue around finding just solutions that actually empower women who are being exploited.

Expert Panelist from United Nations Session at the Commission on the Status of Women:

Vednita Carter has dedicated her life to advocating for victims of prostitution. She is an author, sought-after speaker and trainer, and an award-winning pioneer in the abolitionist movement. She has extensive experience in developing and planning programs for sex trafficked women and girls, and was awarded the Norma Hotaling Award for her life-long service to victims of sex trafficking. You can see her ted talk in the link below.

Rachel Moran is the founder of the organization SPACE International (Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment). She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in creative writing and speaks globally on prostitution and sex-trafficking. She lives in Dublin, Ireland.

Rachel Moran’s Book “Paid For”

Marian Hatcher has been with the Cook County Sheriff’s Office for 10 years. Recently promoted to Project Manager for the Sheriff’s Women’s Justice Programs, she is also the Human Trafficking Coordinator and member of the Human Trafficking Response Team. She coordinates several of CCSO’s anti-trafficking efforts, such as the “National Day of Johns Arrests,” a nationwide effort with more than 59 participating law enforcement agencies (including the FBI) targeting the buyers of sex as the driving force of sex trafficking and prostitution.

Julie Bindel is a journalist, writer, broadcaster and researcher. She has been active in the global campaign to end violence towards women and children since 1979 and has written extensively on rape, domestic violence, sexually motivated murder, prostitution and trafficking, child sexual exploitation, stalking, and the rise of religious fundamentalism and its harm to women and girls.

Additional Resource:

Myths of Prostitution:

Hillary DeJarnett

Hillary DeJarnett

Anti-Trafficking Coordinator for The Salvation Army USA Southern Territory in Atlanta, Georgia

She has a passion for social justice and seeks to be an agent of hope and change for communities that have been marked by hopelessness and injustice. She has her Master’s in Non-Profit Management from the University of Georgia. In 2011 she founded HavenATL, a Salvation Army Drop-In center serving women coming out of commercial sexual exploitation. In 2015 she transitioned to her new role where she is now working to grow Salvation Army anti-trafficking efforts across the southeast through awareness and prevention, victims services and partnerships and works to unify the anti-trafficking programs around the territory. Hillary lives in Atlanta with her husband Elliott and is new mom to Vance.