Prostitution: Why The Economist has it Wrong on Legalization

Tuesday 30 September 2014

On August 9th, the cover article for The Economist argued that prostitution's shift from the streets to the Internet illustrates the migration of sex industry to the formal economy, and touted this trend as a basis for legalization.   As the State Department's former Ambassador-at-Large for Combatting Trafficking in Persons, I am discouraged that such a reputable publication would endorse the legalization of an industry that not only disproportionally robs the dignity of underprivileged populations, but is also proven to exacerbate the horrors of sex trafficking the world is fighting to eradicate today.  Prostitution is not the oldest profession, but the oldest form of oppression.

Among other things, the authors justified their position by noting that "sex arranged online and sold from an apartment or hotel room is less bothersome for third parties than are brothels or red-light districts."  Being less bothersome for third parties does nothing to address the fact that prostitution is a manifestation of desperation.  As noted by University of Michigan law professor  Catherine MacKinnon, the financial transaction of prostitution is exploitative by nature.  In her piece "Bad for the Body, Bad for the Heart," prostitution researcher and educator Melissa Farley demonstrates that decriminalization does nothing to lessen the physical, emotional, or social harms inflicted by prostitution.  In fact, Farley found no difference in the rates of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) of street prostitutes versus those conducting more "professional" operations indoors.

To counter the call to target the demand for commercial sex (titled the "Swedish Model," after the nation's policy of prosecuting buyers of sex), The Economist’s writers contended that "criminali[z]ation of clients perpetuates the idea of all prostitutes forced into the trade."  As mentioned, it is widely known that the vast majority of individuals prostituted today are destitute; indeed, MacKinnon cites data noting the primary reason for entering the industry as financial desperation.  Ironically, the data also demonstrates that, rather than escaping the cycle of poverty, these individuals become permanently trapped.  This financial struggle, paired with the emotional trauma and the high rate of racial and social disadvantage they exhibit, make prostituted individuals incredibly vulnerable to further exploitation by sex traffickers.  In a country like India, where the caste system largely dictates the professional and social trajectory of its people, women of lower caste are targeted for prostitution for the benefit of men of higher caste.  From as early as six years old, these women are molded to believe they have little earthly purpose than to give pleasure to men.  Even the industry's legalization would not alter this subservient relationship.

Finally, the authors claim that "...the unrealistic goal of ending the sex trade distracts the authorities from the genuine horrors of modern-day slavery...Governments should focus on deterring and punishing such crimes - and leave consenting adults who wish to buy and sell sex to do so safely and privately online."  However, Farley demonstrates that organizations that simultaneously oppose human trafficking and endorse what they call “sex work” as acceptable work for impoverished women as dangerously blurring the already fine line between prostitution and modern day slavery—to the detriment of affectively combatting the latter.  Indeed, legal prostitution drives the demand for victims of human trafficking, and the legality of the former provides a veil behind which traffickers can hide their operations.

The link between prostitution and human trafficking is clear, and since 2002 the U.S. has taken a strong policy stance against legalizing prostitution.    My hope is that The Economist will take a second look at the undeniable link between the sex trade and modern day slavery, and rethink their position on this incredibly important issue.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the author alone.

Ambassador Mark P. Lagon
Founding Counselor
Global Politics and Security Chair at Georgetown University's Master of Science in Foreign Service Program and Adjunct Senior Fellow for Human Rights at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the former US Ambassador-at-Large to Combat Trafficking in Persons at the US Department of State.