Why Laws That Criminalize Buyers of Sex Only Make Sex Work More Dangerous

Black woman in handcuffs
Black woman in handcuffs

There seems to be an international push these days toward making the purchase of sex (but not its sale) illegal. In the 16 years since Sweden criminalized buyers of commercial sex, Norway, Denmark, Canada and most recently, northern Ireland have followed suit. And now England is considering similar legislation, according to VICE. What adherents to this approach don't understand is that such laws only make working conditions much more dangerous for sex workers and do very little to curb the demand for commercial sex.

As I illustrate in my book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, many sex workers are careful to screen clients before they meet with them, asking for detailed information about who they are and where they work. As Maddy, a high-end escort in Washington, D.C. whose clients are corporate executives and top government officials, told me, " I never see clients I haven't screened. I find out where they work, and I can verify that they actually are who they say they are."

As Maddy and other sex workers note, laws criminalizing buyers would make such screening much more difficult -- what buyer is going to readily divulge such culpable information -- and thus jeopardize their ability to work safely. And indeed, that appears to be what has happened in Sweden. Since 2000, studies show, sex workers there have a much more difficult time negotiating safe sex (i.e. sex with condoms) and assessing dangerous clients. They've also lost many low-risk clients, leaving them exposed to more violent clientele -- both on the streets and indoors.

The irony is that Sweden's approach has actually increased the overall number of sex workers in that country and did not reduce trafficking in the region at all, according to the Swedish government's own reports.

By contrast, countries that have decriminalized sex work and regulated it to some degree (such as the Netherlands and New Zealand) report no increase in the sex trafficking of minors and illegal immigrants. At the same time, sex workers in those countries are better able to protect themselves -- from physical harm and sexually transmitted diseases. Because they don't fear being arrested, they have more time to negotiate safe sex and they are more comfortable working with police to target traffickers and abusive clients.

In decriminalized environments, sex workers are also able to work with colleagues who know where they're going and who they're meeting with, an important safeguard -- without fear of being arrested. As I blogged about before, police in the United States often arrest sex workers who work together and charge them with trafficking each other, even when they are working together by choice.

As one British researcher told VICE, the current push in the United Kingdom to criminalize buyers is reminiscent of the solicitation laws passed there in the late 19th century, which resulted in the convictions of 7,415 sex workers but only 165 pimps. As Julia Laite,a lecturer in British history at Birkbeck, University of London, said:

What really bothers me is that these people present the idea of criminalizing buyers as a brand-new, feminist, revolutionary idea. Really, the idea is very old. It wasn't originally considered feminist; it was far more connected to the moral reform movement.

And that's exactly what's going on today with the movement to criminalize buyers. The End Demand folks who are pushing this agenda are not concerned with the rights and safety of the women and men who sell sex; they are on some kind of high-minded moral crusade to "rescue" people who don't want or need to be rescued.