Sex for Sale: Legalized Prostitution Hurts Human Trafficking Victims

Whether or not anyone would willingly choose to prostitute themselves is a separate debate. To the extent that legitimized prostitution increases the demand for human trafficking, a contemporary form of slavery, it must be condemned.
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Political theater was at its finest on October 18, when a slew of third party candidates joined Democratic nominee, Andrew Cuomo and Republican nominee, Carl Paladino for what might be New York State's only gubernatorial debate this campaign season. Former Manhattan madam, Kristen Davis, contributed to the farce as the gubernatorial candidate for the newly created anti-prohibition party.

Ms. Davis believes that prostitution should be legalized so that New York State can increase revenue by taxing the commercial sex industry and, also, for the overall "benefit of society." Davis' candidacy may be just another publicity stunt in our reality show driven culture, but her inclusion in Monday's debate gave her pro-legalization stance on prostitution a legitimate platform. Ms. Davis' quaint vision of legalized prostitution fails to recognize the connection between legal sex markets and human trafficking.

Coerced prostitution is one of the primary forms of exploitation that trafficked women and girls are subjected to in the developed world. Legalized prostitution allows traffickers to hide victims in plain sight as consenting sex workers. Legal or decriminalized pandering makes a portion of a sex trafficking victims venture legitimate. In recent decades, several countries have changed their policies and laws on prostitution. Because there is a positive correlation between commercial sex work, human trafficking and organized crime.

In 2000, the Netherlands, historically one of the most hospitable countries for commercial sex, formalized its prostitution policy by lifting its ban on brothels. At the time, advocates felt that regulating brothels would provide better protection to vulnerable women, particularly migrant trafficking victims. Unfortunately, regulating brothels was not enough to stymie the impact of global human trafficking on prostitution in the Netherlands. Instead, licensed brothels became a magnet for human trafficking. Having found that regulation had not curbed trafficking the city of Amsterdam decided to purchase former brothels, and in some instances loan them out to up and coming designers and photographers. In 2008, Job Cohen, Mayor of Amsterdam, told The New York Times, "We've realized this is no longer about small-scale entrepreneurs, but that big crime organizations are involved here in trafficking women, drugs, killings and other criminal activities." Amsterdam has a reputation as an open-minded city. Its traditions may be too avant-garde for some, but Amsterdam's regulated sex industry was attracting a criminal element that was beyond the scope of the atmosphere of tolerance that it is famous for.

Amsterdam's experience has shown that regulation of prostitution is not an effective means of cessation against global human trafficking. In contrast, Sweden's method of decriminalizing prostitution while criminalizing the purchase of sex and pimping has lead to a decrease in the number of human trafficking cases. The criminalization of the purchase of sexual services was made into law in 1999. In the decade since the law was enacted, reports indicate that Sweden appears to be the only country in the European Union where sex trafficking and prostitution have not increased. By criminalizing the purchase of sex, and decriminalizing prostitution authorities show that the law is on the side of the victim who is exploited in the process. In Sweden, prostitution is considered to be a form of violence against women. Under the Swedish law, jail terms are permitted. Although, to date most purchasers have been punished with fines. The primary deterrent of the law is being publicly labeled as a john.

When johns fear the loss of their privacy, prostitution becomes less profitable for traffickers. Sweden's model shows that criminalizing everything about prostitution except for the prostitutes themselves, works. Variations on Sweden's prostitution decriminalization model have been adopted into law in Iceland and Norway. In spite of this trend, a recent court ruling in Canada may legalize brothels and pimping. Prostitution is legal under Canadian law. However, in September an Ontario justice ruled that Canada's laws against pimping, brothels and communicating for the purposes of prostitution violated women's rights to "freedom of expression and security of the person." Canada's federal government has filed an appeal against this ruling.

The fight against global sex trafficking is counterproductive if countries label prostitution as degrading work, while attempting to normalize and regulate the process. Many traditional red light districts were set up in order to discourage deviants from raping upstanding women in other parts of town. The bottom line is, if so- called sex work is not appropriate for ones own daughter or sister; it is not appropriate for anyone. Whether or not anyone would willingly choose to prostitute themselves is a separate debate. To the extent that legitimized prostitution increases the demand for human trafficking, a contemporary form of slavery, it must be condemned.

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