Updated: Feb 11
An issue that has produced polarising views in societies all across the globe and a profession considered to be the oldest one in existence, prostitution remains a contentious issue. The debate surrounding it has ranged from individual liberty to morality; neither side - those who argue for its legalisation and those who remain against it - have gained significant ground, and while each side keeps trying to claw their way to certainty one thing has become certain: no solution that relies on absolutes has worked. Countries have tried an outright ban and formal legalisation and both of those remain far from ideal. An outright interdiction fails in spectacular fashion as the industry continues to thrive under the radar with police crackdown resulting in no significant progress; in this process, an unimaginable multitude of people remains criminals most of whom are engaged in the industry as a necessity. Legalisation presents its own set of challenges including and not limited to a monetary incentive for sex trafficking.
While the discussion is centred on those away from the median it becomes necessary to address a primary matter of contention: sex worker rights. One of the tenets of the arguments for legalisation is the belief that it would result in the opening of constitutional pathways that workers of the industry could access to report harassment and assault. Those gunning for a ban argue that sex workers are already free to report assault and harassment as citizens regardless of their profession and its legitimacy. While this remains a sound argument in theory, it’s problematic in practice: sex workers have to face the scrutiny of a biased society and an institution that already outlaws their work thereby ensuring that the process of seeking justice is fraught with social stigma and biases.
Solutions of the past seemed convenient: resolve to outlaw prostitution and then crack down on agents that try and function outside the law; and if there is one thing that can be said with certainty in this dilemma is that this solution fails, every single time, with every single change that is made to it. Each solution with a complete ban as its motivating idea fails; the demand for prostitution is simply too high.
The intuitive counter seems to be blanket legalisation, and on the surface, it seems to resolve all the major conflicts that occur: it helps sex workers claim rights that are in every regard theirs regardless of the legality of their profession. Add to this the arguments of John Stuart Mill on individual liberty, paternalism, and his view of considering that state’s interference in the private affairs of two consenting individuals is deemed harmless unless proved so otherwise by the principles of private harm, public harm, a case of overreach; and blanket legalisation seems to be the ideal solution… in theory. Reality presents itself to be a fickle mistress. Multiple pieces of research indicate that there lies a direct correlation between legalising prostitution and child trafficking. The increase in trafficking seems only reasonable now that the culprits have a financial motive and a direct source of funding to expand their activities. As reported by European NGO’s, traffickers use work permits to bring foreign women into the Dutch prostitution industry by instructing them to describe themselves as independent ‘migrant sex workers’ (as cited in Ten Reason for Not Legalising Prostitution And a Legal Response to the Demand for Prostitution by Janice G. Raymond). The argument that the rights of sex workers would be safeguarded fails to recognise the fact that when women are abused in legal prostitution the brothels and pimps they work for make their business their primary concern, leading to problems such as women being forced to engage in sex without protection simply because the customer is willing to pay more, or engage in forms of intercourse they find uncomfortable. In cases of abuse, the brothels and pimps have reputations to maintain and customers to hold/attract leading them to side with their customers in cases of legal disputes, leaving prostitutes in an even less favourable scenario than finding legal help in case of assault/harassment even while having their profession outlawed.
Another problem the Dutch sex industry is facing is the minuscule participation of Dutch women. The Dutch National Rapporteur on Trafficking suggested: “offer [to the market] prostitutes from non-EU/EEA [European Union/European Economic Area] countries, who voluntarily choose to work in prostitution.” The fact makes clear one visible difference: those that are able to skill themselves so as to contribute to the economy in a manner more dignified than prostitution almost definitely choose to do so; the fact that women from countries with dire human rights records, no employment and no opportunities to skill themselves voluntarily choose prostitution cannot lead one to infer that they made this choice without compulsion. It has been long been a claim that the ‘choice’ in the context of prostitution must be considered with the background of a ‘lack of choice’. This multitude of problems including but not limited to: increased trafficking, a forced commitment to an industry that most people were in forced into due to a lack of other options.
The search for middle ground brings us to a solution that has found much success while simultaneously securing the rights of sex workers and recognising the fact that prostitution is an undesirable social phenomenon: The Swedish Model; the numbers speak in favour of method: street prostitution fell by 50% in the past decade. The Swedish Government said, “Prostitution is not a desirable social phenomenon” (Swedish Government Offices, 1982, pg.2), polls indicate 80% of the country support the law, and of those voting in opposition, the majority are men with 7% of women being in support of prostitution. In fact, most importantly, women attempting to leave prostitution are in support of the law (Ekberg, 2001, Prostitution and Trafficking: the Legal Situation in Sweden). According to the police the legislation has also has acted as an extreme hindrance to trafficking. Unlike Norway and Finland, Sweden has been able to control the trafficking of Russian women into their borders (Byström, 2001).
The Swedish Model succeeds in recognising the absence of choice for women engaging in prostitution and addressing it in a manner that is safe for sex workers. The Swedish Model outlaws those that attempt to buy from the industry which itself is illegal, but not those that serve in it as sex workers. This effectively removes any monetary benefit for those attempting to engage in the industry as brothel owners, pimps or traffickers while simultaneously allowing sex workers to protect themselves by removing the stigma surrounding their profession.
A problem that has multiple entities of interest presents itself as one of the most complex mass scale social issues that every generation has faced, ours has the unique opportunity to find a solution. In this regard, societies are faced with a challenge of choice: rights or apathy, individual liberty or paternalism justified by social ‘hurt’, legalisation or abolition, or the middle ground.