When I was in college and studying correctional administration (1969), I was told that drug abuse and prostitution were “victimless” crimes i.e. that the people chose the behavior and no one was hurt so the acts should be decriminalized.  We now know better regarding drug abuse i.e. that is more likely a medical condition that needs attention and that the collateral consequences of the drug use leave in its wake many victims from families to strangers.  We still however have not learned that for prostitution.  A recent articlefrom a woman who was in prostitution makes it clear that her participation in the sex trade harmed the wives and girlfriends of sex buyers and the collective good of all women by adding to the societal view that sexual services are a market commodity. As she points out, the “sex work is work” phrase is a rationalization to justify participation and normalizes an act that is oppressive and harmful to both the individual and the society.


But the voices of the women are as usual ignored.  To men and those women captured by them, it’s hip, it’s lefty, it’s the open-minded thing to say that prostitution should be decriminalized. It’s no surprise to me that many people have got the whole prostitution issue upside down and many of the legal groups that should be supporting women’s freedom and equality instead side with the pimps, abusers, and traffickers based on myths, lies, twisted logic, and oh yes, money. As Melissa Farley said, “Decriminalizing prostitution is nothing new. It is, in fact, the legal status quo, and the conservative course that laws have followed in not addressing the men who move anonymously and with ease soliciting women on the streets, in brothels and sex clubs, and who are seldom seen as perpetrators destroying women’s lives.” (Ftn 29)  In fact, prostitution is not victimless for anyone – buyer, victim, children, or society.

“The prostitution of women and girls for profit is one of the fastest growing global enterprises, …”  It is now ranked by the United Nations as number two in international crime, tied with illegal arms sales and only trailing illegal drug sales. Of the estimated 600,000 to 800,000 people trafficked across international borders each year approximately 80 percent are women and girls and up to 50 percent are minors.

A society where full gender equality exists cannot at the same time support the idea that women are commodities that can be bought, sold, and sexually exploited. In Sweden, prostitution is officially acknowledged as violence against women and a tool of oppression. The root cause is identified as men’s demand for the use of women for sexual exploitation.   “Legalization of prostitution means that the state imposes regulations with which they can control one class of women as prostituted”. “Prostitution requires a devalued class of women … Prostitution is colonization of women …”   When violence is directed at half the world’s population – women – it undermines the entire structure of human rights. Legalization is approval of that violence, of that control, of that devaluation, of that colonization. Prostitution is not only individual discrimination, exploitation or abuse by an individual man, but also a structure reflecting and maintaining inequality between men and women.

Prostitution is Violence Against Women

The violence against prostituted women is equivalent to and in many cases greater than the violence experienced by victims of torture who have been recognized as such under international law. Torture is not only conduct against the law; it is conduct that challenges the very existence of the law because it violates all the necessities of good governance including the consent of the governed. It attacks the legitimacy of the State, provokes social conflict, and undermines peace. It is the practice of social control taken to its violent extreme.  To suggest that prostitution of women is torture is not a new idea.  Catherine MacKinnon said just that in 1993. In fact women are bought and sold precisely to be humiliated and degraded- a goal of torture.  In a study covering five countries, researchers found an extensive array of violence against prostituted women and the consequences did not differ among countries.  More violence occurred in street prostitution than in brothels, but the incidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) did not change. The psychological damage stems from the act itself, and no amount of “improvement” to the conditions of prostitution will eliminate the harm.

When asked if legalizing would make it safer, large majorities of prostituted women said no, because prostitution itself embodies physical and sexual assault. Virtually all of the women surveyed (92%) wanted to leave prostitution. Their lives consisted of being hunted, dominated, assaulted, and battered while facing sexual harassment, economic slavery, discrimination, racism, classism and bodily invasions – the equivalent of torture. Three women who worked in a brothel in the U.S. said their lives were unbearable. According to one survivor, prostitution is paid rape.

The five-country study describes some of the actual physical acts women are forced to endure: pinching, verbal abuse, squeezing her breasts, ejaculating on her face, beating, black eyes, pulling hair, beaten on the head, cut with knives, burned with cigarettes, and gang raped.  In addition to the physical violence, the study describes the psychological damage. The women suffer from depression, lethal suicidality, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, dissociative disorders and chemical dependence.  Violence against prostituted women in the study ranged from a low of 40% to a high of 94% in more than a dozen countries around the world.  Two-thirds of the women in the study had symptoms of PTSD that rivaled those of refugees from state-organized torture.  Traumatic brain injury similar to that found in other torture victims results in significant health problems.  Many of the chronic symptoms are similar to the long-term consequences of torture.

This reality is the same worldwide.  Other studies mirror these results were done in Korea, Canada, and  Greece. A study in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Venezuela and the United States found much the same.  Violence against women was endemic in prostitution with rates of repeated violence ranging from almost 70% to 100%. No population of women had a higher death rate due to murder, which accounts for 50% of the deaths.

In the U.S., 84-100% of the women surveyed reported physical violence including being beaten, hit, burned with cigarettes, chased, choked, crushed, dragged, hit with objects including shoes and a liquor bottle, punched, pinched including breasts, scratched, shoved, smacked, strangled with a bandana, stripped, thrown out of a car, twisted, hair pulled, urinated on, sodomized, objects inserted into the vagina and anus, bestiality, filmed, money withheld, weapons used such as sticks, knives and guns, and forcible injections of drugs. Even those brothels that had so called “safety policies” did not protect women from harm from both customers and pimps and their friends.  Notably, in countries that have legalized prostitution, rates of assault and rape against prostituted persons remain extremely high.

In the U.S. sample, one half the women from the Newly Independent States (NIS) thought they would be killed in the brothel in spite of alleged monitoring and “bouncers.”  When asked if they thought prostitution should be legalized, 85% of U.S. women said no. If it’s legal, then as in Germany and New Zealand, women fear that they will be denied unemployment benefits if they don’t “consent” to work as a prostitute.  In 2005 a woman who was a qualified IT worker was threatened by a government agency that her unemployment benefits would be terminated if she did not take a job in a legalized brothel. 

Survivors of the prostitution industry report that the trauma associated with physical danger is matched by the trauma associated with constant sexual degradation, with having one’s body sold as a commodity.  Men can access a “consumer guide” to buy women on the web. The men “consider themselves connoisseurs of fine women,” like fine wine or fine chocolates.  These users of women wanted a way to complain if their “products” didn’t meet the mark. Because the men might post a bad review, the women are forced to do as the men want. The sites represent the ultimate commodification of women, who are impersonally rated by anonymous men in much the same way they would judge a sports car or a racehorse.

In a conference in the Balkans at which I was present, a Transparency International spokesperson actually referred to “improving the product” when referring to a higher class of prostitutes and “making it easier for the customer to find the right product” i.e. the johns to find cheaper women. When I objected to such commodification of women, no one spoke to me for the rest of the conference or would even sit at my table. Legalizing prostitution means women become commodities in the stream of commerce and once prostitution is legal, all women are prostitutes.

Violence is a criminal act – “consent” is no defense

Some people try to make a distinction between “voluntary” and “forced” prostitution.  In fact, violence is often the precursor to women entering into any acts of prostitution. Pimps and customers use the same methods as other abusers:  denial, economic abuse, isolation, verbal abuse, threats and intimidation, physical and sexual assault, and captivity.  The only difference between the behavior of pimps and johns and a recognized crime is that money is paid.  But a criminal cannot avoid prosecution because he paid the victim or the victim allegedly “consented.”  A criminal act is defined as against societal norms as well as the specific victim in particular.  So no amount of alleged victim “consent” can overturn the societal norm that represents the baseline of acceptable behavior.

Consent means more than just agreeing to do an act. There must be informed consent and available options. Without knowledge of the reality of prostitution, women cannot make an informed judgment about their willingness to enter into the arrangement. However, that is rarely the question. More often is the lack of available options. Most prostituted women were sexually abused within the family. The average age of entry into prostitution is fourteen. At fourteen, a girl is not able to drive a car or sign a contract, she can’t get an abortion without her parents or a judge’s permission, or even a tattoo. Yet somehow, she is adult enough to give consent to enter into violent sex acts.  In Arizona, minors cannot consent to have sex, yet children under ten have been arrested for prostitution. This is a legal impossibility – if they cannot consent to sex, then they cannot have the mens rea(intent) necessary to commit prostitution.  It’s child abuse for which the child is arrested rather than the adult perpetrator.

Homelessness is another impetus for many women to enter prostitution. Research in the U.K. in 2001 found that almost two-thirds of prostitutes in three cities said their main reason for selling sex was to fund a drug habit, and the Home Office estimates that 95 per cent of street prostitutes use heroin or crack cocaine. Most prostitutes in Britain come from poor backgrounds, more than two-thirds enter the sex trade before the age of 18, and half have suffered sex abuse at home before being taken up by pimps.

Some have argued that prostitution is not violence but the expression of women’s sexual autonomy and acts to which they consent. As Ivana Bacik points out in her 2020 article, “If Consent is Bought, It Is Not Freely Chosen.” The facts belie this. It is astounding that the ILO could suggest that the sex industry be treated as legitimate while at the same time admitting that the women feel alienated and forced, were conscience stricken and had negative self-images, and many wanted to leave if they could.  This cannot be considered “agency.”

Making the least bad of bad choices is commonly the only “choice” available to those who have been traumatized or oppressed. It is no more a “free choice” than to cut oneself or drink to numb pain are choices freely made. Would we say that a concentration camp survivor who collaborated with the guards to get food and stay alive had consented to his abuse?  Would we say an enslaved African in the Americas who became the house servant had done so voluntarily?  Of course we would not because we understand the power difference and the need to survive. Prostitution is no different.

According to official UNDP data, almost half the world’s population lives in conditions of extreme poverty: less than US$1 per day. Of this number, seventy percent are women. The pandemic has only made it worse.

The ILO report  made it perfectly clear that women are forced into prostitution for economic and indeed sheer survival reasons.  This cannot be counted as “consent.”  Equality for women cannot become a reality so long as women are denied the very basic means of survival – decent economic opportunities and equality in the marketplace. It is obvious that maintaining prostitution as the last refuge for poverty-stricken women is exploitation of the most vulnerable persons and cannot lead to gender equality. So long as prostitution remains as an “option” for poor women, there is no incentive to develop educational opportunities, job programs, or economic policies that could uplift the poor.  The answer to the feminization of poverty cannot be prostitution.

Legalization does not eliminate or even reduce violence in prostitution.

Research has shown that legalization does not protect women nor eliminate the violence against them. Dutch women do not think legalization has helped them nor do women in Colombia, Germany, Mexico, South Africa, Washington, D.C, or Zambia. Some women in the U.S. and New Zealand actually felt safer on the streets where they could reject customers and write down license plate numbers. German women do not register under the prostitution laws, because they don’t want to be labeled as a “prostitute” for the rest of their lives, and because they feared that the zoned areas were more dangerous. Protesting to a pimp about mistreatment can result in more violence or firing.  A Scotland police officer noted that women have less control in brothels because the owners’ control what they do and with whom, and thus they are exposed to even more violence.

A study in Cambodia found most street sex workers are frequently harassed and abused in various ways, merely because of their occupation. Almost all the sex workers said their final decision to enter the sex industry was driven by extreme poverty and the lack of any other opportunity to generate income. A common scenario was that one of the sex worker’s parents had become ill and had incurred significant debt from the medical treatment. As ‘good daughters’, they came to Phnom Penh to support their parents and pay back the family debt.

Legalization does not assist women in bringing criminal or civil claims for the harm done to them.  Theoretically any violence against a prostituted woman could have been criminally prosecuted before the legalization. The problem is not the law; it’s the attitude. But that attitude is not likely to change just because a law makes prostitution legal. In fact, law enforcement is then less likely to charge a criminal act since it is “legal.”

In fact, even those advocating for prostitution admit the violence.  Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) distribute safety tips on how to check for knives, handcuffs, rope or weapons. A brothel owner in the Netherlands admits that pillows in a room are murder weapons. The Australian Occupation and Safety Codes recommend self-defense training and classes in hostage negotiation skills. The OHS code recommends training in the use of sadomasochist equipment such as branding irons, whips and canes, hot wax and piercing instruments because of the damage they cause. Body fluids such as blood, vomit, urine, feces, saliva and semen, they point out, may contain infectious organisms. There is advice on how to do fistfucking of the anus and the vagina,which can tear the colon and be life threatening.  Would we suggest that we improve slavery by removing the whips from the overseers? Would we suggest teaching hostage negotiation skills to concentration camp prisoners?  Why do we do so in prostitution?

A 2005 CEDAW report from Australia showed that legalization does not protect women from unprotected sex – pimps just charge more.  It doesn’t protect prostituted women from violent attacks by buyers even in rooms with panic buttons because the bouncer can’t get there fast enough. It doesn’t prevent the influence of organized crime or trafficking.  In fact where countries legalized, illegal prostitution skyrocketed. The Australian CEDAW report shows that legalization caused both legal and illegal prostitution to grow, illegal at four times more than legal.  Women then have to be trafficked in.

Prostitution harms women’s health short and long term.

The health effects of prostitution are wide-ranging and severe and commonly include tuberculosis, sexually transmitted diseases, frequent viral illness, vaginal infections, backaches, pelvic pain, substance abuse, sleeplessness, depression, headaches, eating disorders, cervical cancer, hepatitis, broken bones, brain injury resulting from head trauma, anxiety disorders, dissociative disorders, infertility, and early mortality.  HIV/AIDS infection is rampant among prostituted persons and is a leading cause of death.  Legalization does not reduce rape and sexually transmitted disease.

Some argue that since the woman is the seller, she must comply with certain regulations to avoid “caveat emptor”, but then it becomes clear that the practice has nothing to do with women’s autonomy or dignity but her status as a product.  If you really wanted to protect women, you would require every customer to have a health check. He would have to bring a certificate showing he does not have any STD’s or HIV and a visual inspection of his private parts by a doctor or nurse would be necessary to ensure he has no genital warts etc.  When I proposed this in Cambodia, the men in the room said they absolutely would not go to such a place.  But yet they think it’s perfectly all right that women have to be subject to medical poking and prodding on a regular basis.

In the alternative, the State could pay for the women to go to medical or nursing school to get the required education to identify STD’s and then, when they have finished school, if they “voluntarily” decide to return to being a prostitute, they could adequately examine men’s genitals for disease, or perhaps they would prefer to be a doctor or nurse.

At the least, the brothels should keep a computerized list of men who have refused to wear condoms and check the identification of the men upon entry, and if they are on the list, refuse to allow them inside.  Of course, this is not done either.

Prostitution is sexist, racist, and classist. 

The harms of prostitution are so profoundly linked to sex, class, and racial inequality as to make the prostitution industry one of the world’s most extreme systems of discrimination.  Its victims are overwhelmingly female and overwhelmingly poor.  They are made vulnerable by the disadvantaged status of women in many regions, by the childhood sexual abuse for which girls are disproportionately targeted, and by the desperation induced by poverty.  Once in prostitution, their status falls even lower and their life prospects are more sharply curtailed. Trafficking and sex tourism have contributed to the already strong role of racial and ethnic discrimination in prostitution, with men from richer industrialized countries purchasing women from developing or impoverished regions.  Among prostituted women, it is often undocumented women trafficked from poor countries who suffer the worst exposure to the most harmful and unsafe practices within prostitution. Prostitution is both cause and effect of cruel and entrenched inequalities.

Prostitution is not and cannot be the path out of poverty.  The women are not the ones who are making the money – it’s the pimps, facilitators, organized gangs, and big business. Farley outlines research that shows that 50 percent of all streetwalking prostituted minors in New York city were Black and 25 percent were Latino. Another study found 67% Black and 20% Latino. Blacks and Latinos make up 26% of the city. Those who argue we should respect the “choices” of these children who are engaging in survival strategies are in truth suggesting we should abandon youth of color to a life of poverty, misery, abuse and early death.  By failing to deal with the racism, classism, and sexism underlying our society, we can wash our hands of the problem.

Many of the survivor groups such as Breaking Free in Minneapolis-St. Paul are Afro-centric  “sisters helping sisters break free” of prostitution. As the founder Vednita Carter said,  “Decriminalization lets these men off the hook. If a pimp is buying and selling women, it doesn’t matter what his color is. He has to face the consequences of his actions.”

Boyer argues that it is shocking that those supporting prostitution do not recognize that the sex trade is much like slavery with a history and structure of racism and colonialism that rests on bodies of color and sexual violence.

These so-called progressive organizations that can only see a future for women that includes sexual exploitation are an example of the depth and breadth of racism, classism, and sexism that flourishes in our society.  The reign of the soon to be former president unleashed these forces in furious form that we saw on January 6 in living and dying color.  We at least understand their refusal to accept equality. But for those who should be our allies, it is heartbreaking but unfortunately not surprising that they too view women as sex objects for sale.

Prostitution harms men.

Acceptance of prostitution justifies violence against women.  The men who engage in it have more discriminatory attitudes against women and are more accepting of prostitution and rape myths as well as more violent themselves. A thriving sex industry increases child prostitution and other sex crimes  and has a negative effect on how women are regarded by men. Few woman have not been called a “whore” or approached by a male to purchase sex at some point in their lives.

Studies of the customers show their use of prostitutes is tied to their disregard for women. A john who was guaranteed anonymity said prostitution was like “renting an organ for ten minutes.” Another man said, “I use them like I might use any other amenity, a restaurant, or a public convenience.” As Smith points out, “… it exposes the pernicious assumptions at the heart of prostitution.One is the rarely challenged claim that there is something peculiar to male sexuality that makes men entitled to sexual release whenever they want it; another is that women are a class from which men should expect to get sex, regardless of the damage they inflict on individuals. In that sense, it is just as much an abuse of human rights as conventional slavery, which assumed that Africans could be bought and sold for use by white people.”

A 2005 study in the UK shows that legalization also increases the number of men who participate.  The study found that,over a 10-year period, the number of men in Britain who have paid for sex has almost doubled. Germany has legalized prostitution and had 3.8 prostituted people per 1000 population while Sweden that penalizes the buyers but not the victims has a rate of .3 prostituted persons per 1000.

The Netherlandsexperiment proves that decriminalization is a failure.

The Netherlands was seen as the poster child for legalizing prostitution.  The sex abuse industry in the country has a turnover of 1.6 billion € every year. The Netherlands’ strategy to eliminate trafficking was to decriminalize prostitution and initiate a license system for brothel operators that the municipalities handle.  It was seen as a way to stop ignoring the brothels and instead admits their existence and the “profession of sex workers”. The goal of decriminalization and regulation of prostitution was to raise working conditions for sex workers, make the sex industry more transparent and allow the police to monitor the situation effectively.  Regulation on design and construction of brothels was initiated in order to allegedly protect the mental and physical health, well-being and social situation of prostitutes along with regulations on the way brothels are operated in order to prohibit employment of minors and illegal immigrants.

It as a complete failure.  An evaluation in 2002 stated that the law had not succeeded in accomplishing its purpose to cease the illegal prostitution, where trafficking is common. The increase in violence against immigrant women and women of color because of prostitution is noted. The alleged goal of legalization to prevent trafficking has also not worked. Legalization acts as a “pull factor” for traffickers; in 2003 Amsterdam city council decided to close down its street tolerance zone, the mayor declaring that “it appeared impossible to create a safe and controllable zone for women that was not open to abuse by organized crime.”

On the other hand, both the Netherlands and Belgian governments argued that prostitution cannot be treated as a regular commercial activity, because it is impossible to determine if the prostitute has freely moved to the Member State to pursue those activities. Precisely. The Governments argue that prostitution may have the appearance of independence, but since procuring (trafficking) is illegal, any employment relationship must be organized illegally.  Precisely. Therefore, “prostitutes are normally in a subordinate position in relation to a pimp.”  Precisely. Both countries argued it’s illegal, it’s immoral, and it’s difficult to control. The Netherlands has now revoked the law.  Huge numbers of young women’s lives lay in ruins after this failed experiment on living subjects who were treated no better than lab rats.

Pro-prostitution movements ignore the social context. “The pro-prostitution lobby stands on a shaky platform of economic justice built on the false premise that prostitution is a quid pro quo commercial sexual transaction and as such should be subject to standard labor laws and protections.”  This is simply not so when women do not have equal bargaining power to men. It is rather a contract of adhesion that by definition is not equal. You cannot end sexual exploitation when you endorse prostitution. If one woman is a “prostitute,” we all are.

Brenda Zurita, the Project Director for CWA’s Crossing the Bridge initiative against sex trafficking and child exploitation, says that prostitution is not a profession but exploitation.    “Amsterdam is known for prostitution. Its red-light district draws tourists from around the globe in search of sex and voyeurism. So, how did legalizing prostitution work for Amsterdam? The mayor admitted in October that the Dutch experiment to end abuse by legalizing prostitution has failed. An article on LifeSiteNews.com quotes Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen: “Almost five years after the lifting of the brothel ban, we have to acknowledge that the aims of the law have not been reached. Lately we’ve received more and more signals that abuse still continues.” The police admit, “We are in the midst of modern slavery.”” Eighty percent of the women in Dutch brothels were trafficked.

In Canada where a discussion has been on going about legalization, the federal committee looking at it has been charged with ignoring the harsh lessons learned in other countries.  In fact, “the reports from Australia and New Zealand claim that such legalization led tomore organized crime-controlled street prostitution “terrorizing” communities, illegal brothels and a rise in victimized children and humantrafficking,” Art Hanger said.  Sex workers feel laws do little about violence and that violence is an inevitable aspect of the sex industry.

In the amicus brief filed in Alliance for Open Society and OSI v. USAID & Natsios,  the nineteen supporting organizations ranged from Russia to Sweden to the U.S. and the Asia-Pacific.  They were organizations led by, informed by, and serving the survivors of prostitution with many of them such as Breaking Free founded by women who had escaped. They were united that prostitution is a system of abuse and that the best strategy, the pro-victim approach, is helping prostituted persons escape.

Prostitution and trafficking cannot be separated.

It is not possible to separate prostitution and trafficking. Everybody seems to agree that trafficking is a violation of human rights, but trafficking would not exist without prostitution providing the market for it.Since the average life span for a prostituted woman is four years, a supply of fresh meat must be available. If there were no profit to selling women, the criminals would not bother.  If they did not need more and more women for prostitution, there would be no “market.”  Legalization leads to expansion. The International Organization of Migration (IOM) attributes the rise in trafficking to the rise of prostitution in Europe.  In the Netherlands, the sex industry increased by twenty-five percent after legalization. No research shows that legalizing prostitution decreases illegal prostitution. In fact, following legalization in Victoria, Australia, the number of legal brothels doubled and illegal brothels went up to three-hundred percent.

The U.S. is not immune. A law suit has been filed by survivors, Charleston et al  v. State of Nevada et al, 19-CV 17423, and is now on appeal to the 9thcircuit court in San Francisco against slavery through the Nevada sex trade. The women claim that they were trafficked for sex within the U.S. to meet the demand for fresh meat in the Nevada brothels. The survivors are alleging violations of the Mann Act, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and violation of the 13thamendment against slavery.  The victims tell a harrowing story of how they were tricked and lied to about the conditions and the work and that once they were in the clutches of the traffickers, they could not escape.

To end exploitation, demand must be attacked.  

Legalizing prostitution has a negative impact on every indicator of violence against women.  The men who engage in it have more discriminatory attitudes against women and are more accepting of prostitution and rape myths as well as more violent themselves.  A thriving sex industry increases child prostitution and other sex crimes and has a negative effect on how women are regarded by men. The lack of gender equality promotes violence against women. Prostitution promotes gender inequality. Violence against women and children increases when prostitution increases because acceptance or normalization of prostitution justifies and excuses violence against women. Therefore, promoting prostitution promotes violence against women and inequality.

The effect of the Swedish law that punishes buyers but not sellers has been dramatic. The number of women involved in prostitution fell by nearly half, street prostitution recruitment fell to nearly zero, and Sweden with twice the population of Denmark had one-tenth the number of street prostitutes.  In contrast, a five-year evaluation of the German law legalizing prostitution shows that it has neither improved conditions for women in the prostitution industry nor helped women to leave. It has also failed “to reduce crime in the world of prostitution.” As a result, the report stated that “prostitution should not be considered to be a reasonable means for securing one’s living.”

Supporters of the Swedish law say it has also had an impact on trafficking into Sweden, with the National Criminal Investigation Department (NCID) reporting that the country is no longer an attractive market for foreign gangs. Sweden had one-third the number of trafficked women compared to neighboring Finland.  Norway adopted the model in 2009 and has seen a twenty percent decrease in street prostitution, sixteen percent in indoor prostitution and sixty percent decrease in advertisements for sexual activities.

Thus it can be seen that the Swedish approach (now called the Nordic Model) is clearly the best approach to end exploitation of the prostitution of women. Based on the pioneering approach of the Swedish government, the international community has begun to recognize that prostitution is not some inevitable societal fixture, but is driven by the patriarchal expectation of males to have sexual access to females on demand. To legalize prostitution, thereby creating more exploitation and violence, flies in the face of research, reason, and reality.

Patriarchy is the Problem

The acceptance of the myth of men’s uncontrollable sexual urges, and the institution of prostitution as an alleged way to prevent men from raping “innocent” women is seen as the ultimate justification for prostitution. The Whore/Madonna dichotomy then continues; some women can be raped, others cannot. The fact that prostitution is harmful to women is ignored. Instead male privilege is reinforced through the masculine entitlement to sexual access to and power and control over women, in a situation where men create the market and where customers contribute to the maintenance of a system of slavery at the expense of women’s bodies. Legalized prostitution allows males unconditional sexual access to females and turns women into second-class citizens. Customers, pimps, police and governments are perpetrators of violence against women. The situation where some women shall be completely sexually available to buyers constitutes nothing less than paid rape.

”If we truly want to address the issue of violence against prostituted women, then, we must tackle inequality between women and men in a much broader way. We must above all challenge the demand, i.e., the fact that men want to purchase sexual services, and make the necessary links with the maintenance of women’s inferior status. Remember, too, that the institution of prostitution concerns all women. Under patriarchy, the man/buyer does not wonder if the woman wants to be a prostitute. He prostitutes her.”

The research has clearly shown that the women who are exploited in prostitution suffer the same kinds of acts suffered by torture victims, have the same kind of injuries and the same harms.  The victims of prostitution suffer the injuries daily and over time. In locations where prostitution is legalized, women suffer these injuries with the permission of the State. The State, by its acquiescence in the legalization and its support of the direct actors, bears responsibility and must be held accountable.

The behaviors rise to the level of torture and certainly crimes for which no defense of consent is allowed.  For consent to be valid there has to be informed choice.  In this situation, there is neither accurate information nor actual choice.  Approximately fifty percent of those sold into prostitution are minors; the issue of choice is not even applicable.

Research in the communities where prostitution has been legalized proves that it does not eliminate the problems of violence or trafficking but in fact escalates illegal prostitution, crime, and the degradation of women in general. As prostitution grows so does trafficking as the method to procure sufficient numbers of prostituted women.

Legalized prostitution cannot exist alongside the true equality of women. The structural inequity based on sex, class, and race is exemplified by the idea that one group of women must be available for men’s sexual access and cannot be squared with any concept of human rights.  This violation of law cannot go unchallenged.  Failure to do so undermines every human rights norm that claims to support the dignity of the person and equality between the sexes.

Feminist have ceded control of trafficking and prostitution to faith-based groups that have different rationales for their actions and may have different goals.  We need to take back the initiative.  It is not an item the woman is selling or even a service. Instead, she is selling the right to do something to her body. Society does not allow complete control over our own bodies – we cannot legally sell a kidney though we can give one away. We cannot sell a baby (except for surrogacy) though we can give one away. Previously, it was unlawful to have pre-marital sex – we could not give sex away. Though phrased in terms of morals, it really had everything to do with control of women’s sexuality so the man would know the paternity of a child. Today christian nationalists are trying to prevent women from having rights over their own fertility while they allege rights to refuse to wear a mask.

Laws set certain baselines to illustrate what a society defines as human rights, autonomy and dignity. If women can be bought and sold in the market place, then they have no more rights than cattle or pigs. The Foundation for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in 1866 but the Foundation for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was not founded until 1884.  Some early cases of violence toward children were brought under the laws related to cruelty to animals – because after all, children are at least animals. When women are commodities, they need be treated no better than other marketed products.  Prostitution constitutes the ultimate patriarchal expression where sexual abuse, sexual objectification, and sexual oppression of women is accepted and encouraged through legalization.