Various myths are rolled-out in relation to the supposed benefits of legalising or decriminalising prostitution. The logic often goes that prostitution is the 'oldest profession' and will always exist, so it would be better for the women involved if everything was in plain sight and regulated. It is argued that by doing this, they will be protected from violence and exploitation by abusive buyers, pimps, traffickers and others with commercial interests in the sex industry. Sounds like a reasonable proposition at first glance, but in practice, this has not worked and cannot work. Findings from countries and jurisdictions where prostitution has been legalised or decriminalised can be used to illustrate how.
Myth 1: The Legalisation/Decriminalisation of Prostitution Makes Things Safer for the Women Involved
In countries which have legalised or decriminalised prostitution, the women involved continue to be exposed to severe violence. According to a 2008 New Zealand government report, "the majority of sex workers interviewed felt that the [act of decriminalising prostitution] could do little about violence that occurred" in the sex industry.
The unsolved 2009 murder of Hungarian trafficking victim Bernadette Szabó, who was stabbed to death in a legal brothel in Amsterdam's red light district, illustrates that being in a legal brothel is no guarantee of protection against violence. Furthermore, although the crime happened in a supposedly regulated zone, almost four years afterwards, nobody has been held accountable either for her murder or for her trafficking.
In New South Wales, Australia, a police officer who investigates sex trafficking commented on the effects of decriminalisation: "Although the intention was to provide a safe working environment for sex workers the reverse has occurred in that pimps and brothel operators were empowered and enriched". In Victoria, Australia, a law enforcement officer complained that "many brothels have not had a visit for years'" and Project Respect, an organisation which supports women in prostitution suggested that access to brothels "is limited and at the discretion of the brothel management".
Myth 2: The Legalisation/Decriminalisation of Prostitution Improves the Health and Well-Being of the Women Involved
A 2008 report, commissioned by the New Zealand government, confirmed that most people in prostitution "felt there had been no great change" in their access to health services and information since decriminalisation, and key informants "were not aware of any substantial change in the use of safer sex practices by sex workers as a result of the enactment of [the law that decriminalised prostitution]". Meanwhile, a 2007 Dutch government report found that the emotional well-being of women in prostitution "is now lower than in 2001 on all measured aspects, and the use of sedatives has increased".
Myth 3: The Legalisation/Decriminalisation of Prostitution Improves the Social Protection of the Women Involved
In Germany, a 2007 government-commissioned report stated that the law has "not been able to make actual, measureable improvements to prostitutes' social protection' and that "hardly any measureable, positive impact has been observed" regarding their working conditions. Furthermore, the government found that the majority of women in prostitution didn't have - nor did they want to have - employment contracts. In fact, hardly any women in prostitution registered as employees with a social insurance agency and were therefore not afforded greater social protection and benefits, such as health or pension insurance.
Myth 4: The Legalisation/Decriminalisation of Prostitution Reduces Stigmatisation for the Women Involved
It is a commonly-held assumption that the legalisation or decriminalisation of prostitution reduces stigma towards the women involved. However, government and academic reports from New Zealand, Australia, and Senegal have shown that this is not the case. In Victoria, Australia, one service provider noted that "women constantly tell us that their status as having done prostitution is used against them". In New Zealand, a government report noted that "abuse and harassment of street-based sex workers by drunken members of the public is common". It is difficult for legalisation or decriminalisation to remove - or even reduce - stigma towards individuals in prostitution, as these approaches do not address its inherently exploitative nature. The status quo is maintained and reinforced because legalisation and decriminalisation give support to the unjust power relationship between a woman and her buyer. Conversely, despite purchasing use of the body of another human being, the buyer of sex is not stigmatised at all by such approaches. This helps to sustain a system, where the woman in prostitution continues to be subordinated, stigmatised, exploited and inadequately protected from harm, while her buyer is given virtual immunity.
Myth 5: The Legalisation/Decriminalisation of Prostitution Reduces Criminal Activity in the Commercial Sex Industry
There have been numerous reports of increases in both human trafficking and organised crime in territories where prostitution has been legalised or decriminalised. It is not difficult to understand that pimps, traffickers and others who benefit from prostitution will gravitate to environments that tolerate and even enable prostitution, where subsequently higher demand might exist and where they can hide behind the cloak of legality. In 2003, the Mayor of Amsterdam stated that legalisation had failed to prevent trafficking and suggested that 'it appeared impossible to create a safe and controllable zone for women that was not open to abuse by organised crime". In a 2007 German government report it was also suggested that there "are no viable indications that the [law] has reduced crime'. Meanwhile, in Australia, the University of Queensland found that an estimated 90% of the commercial sex industry existed outside the legal sex industry, as "illegal forms of prostitution cater for a demand that is not met by the legal industry". New Zealand prime minister John Key recently confirmed too that decriminalisation has not worked there in relation to reducing underage prostitution.
Myth 6: If We Criminalise the Buyer, We Are Not Acknowledging What Women in Prostitution Really Want
A 2003 study found that 89% of women in prostitution would choose to exit if they felt empowered to do so - and if other options were made available to them. However, despite this, legalisation and decriminalisation approaches fail to acknowledge - much less support - the majority of women who wish to exit prostitution. According to the 2007 Dutch government report, "only 6% of the municipalities reported that their policy pays attention to the subject of the possibilities to leave the prostitution business".
On the contrary, supporting women to exit is a key element of the Nordic Model, which simultaneously criminalises those who buy sex and lifts sanctions on individuals in prostitution. Eaves and London South Bank University recently launched a report which details how the barriers to exiting prostitution can be broken down. A key finding was that, with the appropriate support, many women can - and do - leave prostitution and go on to rebuild their lives. Those countries which consider prostitution to be a crime of violence against women, which penalise the perpetrators and which support the women involved, have put programmes in place for those who wish to exit prostitution. However, it is acknowledged that more needs to be done in this respect.
Legalisation and decriminalisation approaches also fail to take into account the circumstances in which many women enter prostitution, why they do so and what might keep them there. Through our own experience of working with survivors of prostitution, we have learned that a significant proportion of women enter the sex industry as minors, yet not enough prevention work is done at an early stage to encourage girls' self-worth and offer protection against abuse. Traffickers, pimps and exploiters may exert subtle psychological control and groom vulnerable girls - in addition to using physical violence over their victims. By suggesting that prostitution is a 'job like any other', those who seek to legalise or decriminalise it do not consider the substantial number of women who enter the system as minors and will not suddenly develop a wealth of alternatives when they reach 18. Other issues belying the concept of free choice are also widespread in the sex industry. Women in prostitution tend to have high-levels of post traumatic stress disorder; a recent study on prostitution in nine countries suggested that 68% of respondents suffered from PTSD. Furthermore, those who did not enter prostitution to finance a drug or alcohol habit can subsequently turn to these as a coping mechanism, consequently making it more difficult for them to exit.
Prostitution represents a destructive cycle of violence and abuse, where those who have the ability to purchase sex retain the power at all times over less privileged members of society.
Advocates for prostitution regularly claim that legalisation and decriminalisation are the best approaches to reducing harm. However, both the available evidence and our experience clearly suggest that this is not the case. Such approaches do not reduce violence against women in prostitution; they do little to improve their health, well-being or social protection; they fail to reduce stigmatisation of the women involved; they fail to acknowledge the context in which women enter and stay in prostitution; they do not truly support those wishing to exit - instead they help to support a permissive environment for exploitation and organised crime.
Rather than supporting women in prostitution, legalisation and decriminalisation approaches legitimise a damaging and dangerous system, where the exploitation by one part of society of another is not only tolerated, but endorsed. This is counterproductive not only to women in prostitution, it also causes, supports and sustains gender inequality, which women and girls experience throughout society. This is not a moral issue; it is about starting to address these fundamental inequalities so that true choices can be made.
We urge you, the reader, to consider what kind of world you would like to live in and how you would like people to be treated. Does having the right to purchase and use another's body feature in it? Please view further details on what we propose. Please also watch out for our 'survivor stories', which launch today (first-hand accounts of women who have exited prostitution).