I don’t know if you guys are nerds about public policy like I am but recently, Amnesty International, a world renowned NGO, dropped a bombshell by releasing a statement saying that they’re advocating for the decriminalization of prostitution. Obviously, this announcement wasn’t met with people holding hands and singing Kumbaya. The firestorm from the debates still rages on.
Firstly, Amnesty isn’t alone in this. There are people who work in other advocacy organizations and who do public health and economic research who agree with this (like this guy). And there are plenty of people and organizations who oppose this idea, saying that it’s the worst possible decision ever for a whole host of reasons (like this lady).
Aside: The fact I picked a man and a woman to represent the pro- and anti- decriminalization camps is entirely coincidental. There are men and women on all sides of this issue.
If you wanna see the long and short of both arguments, well……. it’s complicated. So, I’m gonna go grab a drink and let the immensely wonderful Laci Green explain it to y’all.
*sips the last bit of an ice cold fanta* That was refreshing.
This is a complicated issue that is bound to elicit visceral reactions from everyone. However, it’s important to note that that prostitution (at least in the Western World) wasn’t always illegal. Some of the oldest evidence for brothels as we think of them today i.e. places where people exchange money for sexual services existed as far back as 5th century BCE*. Many places in Europe and America had legal brothels that were actually quite famous and world renowned until just after World War 2. A lot of the backlash against brothels and therefore against legalized prostitution presumably came out of the backlash that followed anti-fascist and anti-Nazi movements in Europe after the war’s end. For more on the history of brothels, you should watch this really awesome video from Lisette Padilla The Seeker Network.
If I’m being honest, I think I have a very tentative lean towards decriminalization (which is what Amnesty is calling for), but I don’t know that I can support legalization just yet. My position on this comes mainly from the public health and economic factors that affect the trade. To be clear, the distinction is that decriminalization means that you won’t go to jail or be fined for doing something. Legalization means that the government has sanctioned and regulated the industry and therefore has the right to tax you on the revenues that you may or may not incur from participation in the activities related to the industry. Often, but not always, decriminalization is a step towards legalization. That’s part of why a lot of people feel so strongly about this issue – because it might lead to legalization.
In the modern world, a lot of these activities take place online. Many of them take place in the deep recesses of the internet like the deep web and the silk road, where you can order almost anything. To be clear, there are many consensual and also non-consensual activities that take place in those areas of the web. In any case, since the activities in those parts of the internet are really hard to track, it means that laws in some of the Scandinavian countries which criminalize the purchase of sex but not the sale of sex might not be as effective as everyone thinks.
Inasmuch as the internet has been a tool to aid in the oppression of people (mostly women) in the sex trade, it might also be the thing that makes it safer for those that choose to do it willingly. With relatively low overhead, the internet could make it easier for workers to set up shop via a website, engage and disengage in contracts, process financial transactions via mobile banking and point of sale systems like Paypal and Square and leaves a trail that isn’t too hard to track in case there ever needs to be a reason for legal and/or financial recourse. Assuming that sex work was decriminalized, it means that tools like those available on the internet could make it easier for sex workers to join forces to create an agency or function independently. Essentially, sex workers would be able to be their own pimps and brothels, which would make a lot of the historically oppressive elements of the trade obsolete.
This issue is far from settled. Unlike many of the other controversial positions I have supported in the past, I won’t even pretend that my mind’s made up on this issue. The New Zealand example that Laci points to her video is one of the few examples out there where it seems to have worked out. The only thing that we can all agree on is that universally, criminalization of prostitution hasn’t worked out as well as anyone had hoped. Perhaps, it’s time to rethink the methods and practices of criminalization, or just decriminalize the practice.
Question time: Should prostitution be decriminalized? Legalized? Both? This issue is a very complicated some-somes, so people, please be respectful of each others opinions.
*BCE = Before the Common Era. BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini) have fallen out of favor with historians, because most of the world for most of history wasn’t Christian and couldn’t have been. However, since most historical and predicted events around the world are commonly dated by the Gregorian Calendar, that dating system has been dubbed the Common Era.
Image via Tribune Herald