Note: Sex work in this article refers primarily to prostitution.
The debate about whether sex work is exploitative or empowering has received more attention in recent years, as the commodification of sex has moved from the hidden street corners of red-light districts to the ever-accessible corners of the World Wide Web. The theoretical reasons for advocating the legalization of sex work are good ones—protection for prostitutes, establishment of an employment history for workers, etc.—but they simply don’t work in the real world. Operations within the sex industry are highly nuanced and inevitably perpetuate both exploitation and violence against women. Instead, in order to accurately address the inherent oppression in the sex industry, laws should focus on decriminalizing the sale of sex, while punishing buyers of it. That is to say, legislation should not make it a criminal offence for prostitutes to sell sex but should make it a criminal offence for potential clients to purchase sex to discourage this kind of exploitation.
A common misperception by proponents of legalizing the sex trade is that many women are in these positions voluntarily. The vast majority of women involved in the sex industry come from underserved backgrounds with a history of poverty, abuse, and poor education. Many of these women are initially turned to sex work as a way to escape hostile situations and to support themselves or their family.
In truth, the industry itself exists because of the (almost exclusive) male demand to purchase women as an objects, or commodities. Johns—the common term for men who buy prostitutes—seek sexual gratification with women without regard to their enjoyment, identity as people, or other characteristics that define them as human beings. Though many johns do seek prostitutes with whom they can share their thoughts and feelings, they nonetheless largely view the prostitute as a means to an end. Rather than embodying a full human being, the prostitute becomes a commodity to be used for his personal satisfaction—whether sexual or emotional in nature. Though such commodification of labor is common in the service industry, this fundamental characteristic of sex work deconstructs the popular argument that sex work can empower women to take charge of their sexuality.
Though the legalization of prostitution may benefit a small minority of women in the sex industry, it is likely to increase trafficking—or illegal trade—of the most vulnerable populations. This is because of the nature of the demand for prostitutes: the reasons johns seek prostitutes are far more complex than their desire for sex. Though a substantial portion of men do seek prostitutes for the sole reason of gaining access to sex, others want a woman over whom they can exert their power—physically and psychologically. When they seek a prostitute many men are looking to assert their domination over another human being. This domination, which often entails abuse and exploitation, should be illegal.
As a result, places where prostitution is legalized often see a spike in trafficking. When johns are asked to leave such items as belts and shoelaces at their door, many go elsewhere. Trafficking flourishes. Additionally, instigators of trafficking—pimps, madams, “managers”—are less likely to be prosecuted if caught. In order to convict pimps, prosecutors must demonstrate that the women under pimp control are indeed victims of trafficking, and not voluntary prostitutes protected under new laws. Because of the psychological domination of traffickers over their victims, prostitutes are unlikely to testify.
Legalized prostitu would expand the demand, abuse, and trafficking of women around the world. Instead of punishing prostitutes, these laws should focus on targeting traffickers and abusive patrons in order to prevent prostitutes from being further victimized by the criminal justice system while punishing johns for sustaining an industry that exploits women.
Rachel Corrigan is a fourth-year in the College majoring in political science.