Already legalized in 50 countries and partially legal in 11 other countries, including the U.S., the U.N. Human Rights Council says one way to end human trafficking is to legalize prostitution.
Though prostitution is not legal throughout the U.S., there are portions of Nevada where it is legal.
While the U.N. has not officially recommended countries legalize prostitution yet, the council released a report in May, along with the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW), that explained that by at least decriminalizing sex work and practices around it, the number of opportunities to exploit persons for sex work is reduced.
Some sex workers have applauded the U.N.’s recommendation, saying that criminalizing sex workers is actually more harmful than legalizing prostitution, since law enforcement agencies then implement and enforce laws that increase a prostitute’s vulnerability to HIV infection by restricting access to condoms, HIV services and other sexual health and education services.
However there is another group of sex workers and organizations that help survivors of the sex trade industry that say legalization of prostitution is wrong and have urged the U.N. to retract their recommendation.
Over the weekend, Equality Now, an organization working to end violence and discrimination against women and girls around the world, launched a campaign urging the U.N. to not recommend countries legalize prostitution, along with 97 other anti-trafficking organizations.
While the groups applauded the U.N.’s efforts to promote the human rights of people in prostitution, including their right to health — including protecting them from HIV, safety, and freedom from violence and exploitation, the groups say ultimately legalization does more harm than good.
The groups said that they were concerned that the legalization of prostitution would make combating sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation harder to fight. Human trafficking has become of the world’s fastest growing criminal industries and is estimated to be worth $32 billion and involves about 21 million people.
“Survivors know first-hand the human rights violations inherent in sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, and are of vital importance in informing effective anti-trafficking efforts,” the group wrote, adding that the U.N. recommendation that prostitution should be legalized conflicts with international human rights standards and “ignores the experiences and views of survivors of prostitution and sex trafficking.”
In the U.N.’s report, the council referenced two reports, one on HIV and the other about sex work laws in Asia and the Pacific, which both concluded that legalization was a viable option to help combat human trafficking.
The report on sex laws in Asia referenced a 2009 decision by two judges of the Supreme Court of India, which said that since “no legislation anywhere in the world has successfully managed to stop the sex trade,” legalizing the sex industry may be a good idea.
“When you say it is the world’s oldest profession and when you are not able to curb it by laws, why don’t you legalize it? You can then monitor the trade, rehabilitate and provide medical aid to those involved,” the report states.
Similarly, the report says that studies conducted by human rights organizations in Kathmandu found that an “overwhelming majority of [female sex workers] interviewed wanted sex work to be legalized or decriminalized,” after they were informed that prostitution was not legal in Nepal.
“However, the reason behind demanding legalization was not because they saw prostitution as a desirable and enjoyable profession that a woman decides upon freely and willingly – rather, legalization was seen as a means through which sex workers would be provided with effective legal protection against police harassment, client abuse and other forms of discrimination,” the report says.
In response, Equality Now says those reports contain “incomplete and misleading information” and said that instead of legalizing prostitution, the U.N. should recommend nations decriminalize commercial sex and “inherently exploitative practices such as brothel-keeping, pimping and purchase of sex.”
Not a “choice”
Living on the streets, Rachel Moran became a prostitute when she was 15 years old, and says she sold sex in Dublin and other cities around Ireland for seven years, when she was finally able to free herself from the sex trade industry.
Moran, who recently chronicled her experience working in the sex industry in a book “Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution,” said that “Legalization is unethical because prostitution is a crime against humanity.”
She added that “to legalize it is to socially condone this crime. It is my belief that countries which have legalized prostitution will, in the fullness of history, be held to account for human rights atrocities.”
Ayesha is a survivor of the sex trade industry in India. She said, “When people tell me that women choose this life, I can’t help but laugh. Do they know how many women like me have tried to escape, but have been beaten black and blue when they are caught? To the men who buy us, we are like meat. To everybody else in society, we simply do not exist.”
Alma, another survivor-turned-activist from the Philippines, agreed and said, “Society’s understanding of human trafficking and prostitution needs to change.
“In my country, people believe that prostitutes are criminals and buyers are the victims. This is wrong … We need to change this thinking and educate young girls about the abuses of the sex industry, to let them know that they do have choices. Women are human beings, not commodities to be bought and sold.”
Though not all agree that prostitutes voluntarily engage in sex work, many organizations and survivors say that there really isn’t a difference between human trafficking victims and prostitutes since many of those who “voluntarily” prostitute themselves are in a vulnerable position. However, almost all of those involved in the issue agree that no matter how a sex worker got involved in the industry, they should not be criminalized for their actions, but their clients should be.
“The demand should be criminalized,” said Sam, a sex trade industry survivor from Australia. “Women are in a position in society where circumstances push them into prostitution, but men have a choice. They don’t need to have sex available to them. By legalizing prostitution men are being told by the government that it’s perfectly ok to purchase a woman. Women are not commodities to be bought and sold. Legalization normalizes something that is far from normal.”
Many other survivors agree with her; the Equality Now report said that “to combat sex trafficking, we must address the demand for commercial sex that fuels it, including through laws that criminalize the purchase of sex.”
Still, groups such as the Caribbean Sex Workers Coalition say that “sex work is work,” and argue that those in the industry should be “recognized and treated at par with other professions where labor conditions are just.”
Others have recommended implementing the Swedish or Nordic model of legalized prostitution, which decriminalizes the prostitute and criminalizes the buyers and pimps, since the “demand for commercial sex is the main driving force behind sex trafficking.”
Some say the fact that some could economically benefit from another person’s vulnerability should be taken into consideration. For example, Stella Marr was forced to drop out of college when she was 20. Afflicted with multiple sclerosis, Marr says she became a prostitute to survive and then got stuck in the industry because she was afraid of her pimp.
For 10 years she worked as a call girl in Manhattan before she was able to escape. Now the executive director of Sex Trafficking Survivors United, Marr cautioned people to never view prostitution as a choice and said if prostitution were to be legalized or decriminalized, the industry would still have issues.
“Do we really want a society to say that it’s OK for our most vulnerable people to be caught in this system?” she asked. “Do we really want to give it a stamp of approval? We need to be saying this is not what we want for our most vulnerable people and we don’t want people to profit from this system.”