Legal Prostitution: what can we learn from the empirical record?

by on 2013-02-20 in Duck- 11 Comments

No, this isn’t one of those posts where we go all “Monkey Cage” on our readers and pimp (sorry)  promote political-science research, but rather a “Dan is befuddled, perhaps readers might help” kind of thing. In other words, I make no effort to answer the question of the title. The post is an extended version of the question itself.

In one of those strange synergies associated with social media, I’ve seen a fair number of things about prostitution today. Erik Loomis points to an interesting history of sex work. Then there’s this Julie Bindel piece arguing that “the Dutch experiment in legalized prostitution has been a disaster,” which isn’t very good but does mention the key problem with experiments on decriminalizing and legalizing prostitution: that they just seem to make life easier for pimps, organized criminal syndicates, human traffickers, and others seeking to profit from the exploitation of women and men  (she does a better job chronicling those issues here). Sweden’s decision to abandon a regulatory model and criminalize the buying of sex (but not the selling of sex) gets a lot of positive press these days.

This is one of those issues that I can’t sort out of my views on. My inner libertarian tells me that the state does not have the right to prohibit the exchange of money for sex. My inner pragmatists looks at the experience of some European countries and says, more or less, “that’s nice in theory, but in practice legalization just makes things worse.” My inner lefty responds, “but that’s because of inadequate regulation — if the regulators, parliamentarians, and police did their jobs than selling sex would be little different than offering personal training or non-sexual massage services.” My inner old-school feminist chimes in by pointing out that prostitution is the ultimate in objectification. My inner new-school feminist champions sexual autonomy and de-stigmatizing sex work. And on it goes. Of course, the internet isn’t much help in sorting out fact from propaganda. Disagreement is the name of the game.

At the risk of bringing out the trolls, I know we have some readers who know a lot about this and cognate subjects. Help?


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  • Amanda Murdie

    Cho et al (2012) have an awesome paper on the topic of how legalized prostitution increases human trafficking:

  • Dan Nexon

    The internet works! Paper seems consistent with my priors.

  • Dan Tdaxp

    Just skimming the article — is “human trafficking victims” defines as “undocumented migrants working as sex workers”? I don’t see a definition in the article.

  • Amanda Murdie

    I think the definition they use, which is based on the UN Office of Drug and Crime, is more encompassing than just sex workers (ie could be other forms of trafficking like involuntary servitude, etc).

  • Aaron Boyden

    The Bindel article says that only about 5% of Dutch prostitutes have complied with the regulations regarding taxes and registration. If most prostitutes are still working illegally (because the rules for working legally are too onerous), then it is to be expected that the problems associated with illegal work will continue. This seems to be an example of why the sex worker advocacy groups normally call for decriminalization rather than legalization.

  • telega

    Doesn’t equating legalised prostitution with the degrading and inhuman treatment of women obscure the fact that capitalism more generally is about degrading and inhuman treatment?

  • Alex K

    I think Cho et al. have a fascinating argument but I think it does not address a major rival explanation. At base what their findings rely on both market forces and issues of policy implementation and I think they, and other proponents of the economic explanation of trafficking, do not adequately unpack the policy implementation piece.

    There is a substantial body of work which indicates that the efficacy of anti-trafficking policy implementation is skewed by policy actors’ preconceptions and characterizations of those affected by trafficking (Srikantiah 2007; Aradau 2004; Segrave et. al. 2009; Lee 2011). So to put a somewhat different spin on the argument that decriminalization and increased regulation of the sex industry increases incidences of commercial sexual exploitation, one could suggest that it due to the shifting characterizations held by key policy actors about target policy populations. Decriminalizing and regulation effectively mean that prostitution (a crime) is transformed into sex work (a legitimate market). Within the context of a crime, there are perpetrators and victims; scholars of trafficking have widely indicted the manner in which prostituted women and men end up the criminals due to the preexisting conceptualizations of the issue. This could help explain why human trafficking is not widely reported in countries which have not decriminalized the selling of sex. Simply stated, prostitutes are unlikely to be seen as victims in their own right.

    Conversely, markets are populated by workers, managers, and purchasers. It is conceivable that should key policy actors adopt the view of sex work as a legitimate market then prostitutes become sex workers, who are ostensibly rights bearers whose rights can be violated. Thus, human trafficking may be more widely identified where key actors hold more sympathetic preconceptions of sex work as opposed to prostitution.

    I should clarify that this is only a tenable hypothesis to the degree that those responsible for implementing policy are willing to change their characterizations of the selling of sex, and in particular who is involved and the assigned roles therein. Regardless, I think it worth considering the seemingly undeniable impact of market forces on the one hand, but also a very in-depth understanding of how the issue of trafficking is perceived by those who are charged with intervening against it.

  • smanj

    For however long humans have had commerce, there has been prostitution. Making it illegal certainly hasn’t diminished organized crime and sex trafficking, nor has it put an end to people buying/selling sex. I’m an adult and if I want to pay someone for sex and if that person is also an adult, and of their own free will accepts, its no one else’s damn business.

  • Gary Cook

    Why must legal prostitution follow the Dutch model? The legal brothels in Nevada are much safer. Nevada brothel sex workers are licensed by the county sherriff, tested for STDs by the county health department, and work in a safe environment where there is constant video surveillance to ensure mandatory condom usage. Most importantly, all those cameras prevent assault and rape. Since the brothel proprieters (“pimps”) are also licensed and fingerprinted, this tight regulation has eliminated human trafficking and child exploitation from Nevada brothels. The drawback to this system is that the women only keep 50 percent of their earnings, the rest goes to the house to pay for all that security and bureacracy. But considering that these sex workers don’t have to worry so much about rape, disease, assault, or arrest, losing 50 percent of their earnings is probably worth every penny.

  • hookstrapped

    I’m working on a photo project on Dominican sex workers in the north coast sex tourism hub of Sosua. The project was greatly informed by the work of anthropologist Denise Brennan who worked in Sosua for many years. It’s awfully confusing to me still. In the DR, prostitution is legal and the economy of sex work in Sosua is largely an internal migrant remittance economy, where young women (invariably single mothers trying to support not only their children but often their parents as well) travel from Santo Domingo and other parts of the populous south to pursue the promise of money far beyond what is otherwise available to them. The thing is, supply far exceeds demand and many return home or struggle financially in Sosua trying to make it work.

    A couple of the girls I’ve gotten close to explain they don’t particularly like the work but they have to do it because of their financial responsibility / opportunity. On the other hand, no one is forcing them to do sex work, they are not living degraded lives, and they try to have fun when they’re not working as any young woman would. Many form tight friendships with other girls, many of their co-workers are girls they know from home, e.g., cousins, or friends they made in Sosua.

    A lot of the controversy around sex work avoids the issues affecting the future prospects of these young women, such as developing job and career opportunities for the long-term. Sex work is a short-term fix, for many girls very short-term because it doesn’t work out financially because of the supply far exceeding the demand.

    That being said, from what I’ve seen in the DR compared to what I’ve seen and read about elsewhere, the DR seems to offer a system of laws and regulations worth looking at — pimping is illegal, although there are brothels but the women are not bound or coerced to stay at them against their will. Most women are freelancers. Many women come up for months at a time, then return home each year.

    My photo project, only partially completed, is structured around the girls’ performance personas; their everyday lives; and finally a trip home to visit their children and families — the reason they are doing this.

  • IUSW

    I would like to point you to this blog post. It has links to the statistics from the German Government. Legalising reduced trafficking and coercion. This is in direct contradiction to Neumayer, Cho and Dreher

    I would also mention that in New Zealand where there is decriminalisation, the larger brothels have difficulty recruiting now. Most prefering to work in Small Owner Operated Brothels, i.e. brothels small than 4 people.