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If We Want To Help Women, We Should Decriminalize Prostitution

prostitution, sex workers

In a recent National Review story, Madeleine Kearns takes a stand against legalizing prostitution, which she claims “would make a grave problem worse.” The premise of her argument relies largely on fear tactics, sprinkled with stories of women who have had bad experiences in the sex industry — with a primary focus on those who have been trafficked.

She uses emotional appeals to get the reader to empathize with the women whose stories she tells, and their stories should evoke empathy. But she fails to address how keeping prostitution illegal will help solve any of the problems she targets in her story.

Kearns’ solution is to criminalize pimps and clients while legalizing the act of selling one’s body for sex. But this policy has failed to work in the various countries where it’s been tried and only perpetuates the problems she illustrates.

Distinguishing Between Sex Trafficking and Sex Work

Kearns tells multiple stories of sex-trafficked women. She met an 18-year-old woman selling her body on the streets of Los Angeles for a pimp. She talked with Mariah Stower, who “was handed from pimp to pimp” in Los Angeles and Las Vegas throughout her vulnerable young adult years.

Kearns also interviewed Tangelina Myles, an 18-year-old woman just out of the foster care system who fell under the control of a physically abusive pimp in New York City. With the exception of certain legal brothels in Nevada, which Stower presumably did not work in, all of these devastating stories happened in a country where prostitution is illegal and can be charged criminally through various laws prohibiting solicitation and trafficking. Yet despite America’s war on sex work and trafficking, as Kearns demonstrates, stories like this exist everywhere.

It’s important to distinguish that the stories above are all cases of sex trafficking, which often involves coercion through abuse and should remain illegal. In these situations, men control the lives of women to profit from selling their bodies. This is completely different from prostitution, where adult women — and men, although far fewer — consent to engage in sexual acts for money. Conflating the two does little to advance the conversation about the future of sex work legality in the United States.

Because our country has largely rejected prostitution as a legitimate form of employment, it follows that those who do find themselves in sex trafficking schemes, as displayed in the stories above, likely have a difficult time finding a way to escape their abusive working relationship. There aren’t many legal avenues they can take because their job is illegal.

These workers often fear retribution from law enforcement, who haven’t been known to be allies of those in the sex industry. Kearns even admits that, although “the girls and women are not the enforcement priority, national studies suggest that most solicitation-related arrests are of prostitutes.” She’s right. The real victims of strict solicitation laws are the prostitutes.

A Look at the Flawed Nordic Model

Kearns suggests our country should implement the “Nordic model” of sex laws, which legalizes the sale of one’s body but outlaws pimping, brothels, and the purchase of sex. This way, sex workers are safe from being arrested, while law enforcement focuses on pursuing criminal charges against clients and pimps. Sweden first passed this legislation under the guise of feminism to save women from an exploitative industry that undermines sexual equality because, worldwide, most prostitutes are women.

While the intent of the Nordic model sounds noble, it assumes government knows better than individuals do, and it fails to consider the autonomy of these individuals as independent agents. While the policy is aimed almost entirely toward women, it will apply to all sex workers, including men and marginalized groups, such as gay and transgender people, perpetuating the stigma against them and their profession.

Results of the Nordic model are dismal, which is why groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch oppose the policy. Elizabeth Nolan Brown, the associate editor of Reason who writes extensively on sex policy, contends that the Nordic model still functionally keeps prostitution illegal under the name of women: “It only perpetuates violence against them while expanding the reach of the carceral state.”

The model does not help prostitutes, as it claims, but disempowers all those who sell sex, weakening their bargaining power. Since enacting the law in 1999, “the Swedish government has been unable to prove that the law has reduced the number of sex buyers or sellers or stopped trafficking,” writes Ann Jordan of the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law.

Although governments aren’t directly prosecuting people for selling sex under the Nordic model, they use other laws aimed at pimps and clients to harm them. In Norway, for example, The New Republic reports that the government used a police initiative called “operation homeless” to evict people suspected of selling sex. It was a law aimed at pimps, but it resulted in the eviction of prostitutes.

The governments who employ this model know exactly what they’re doing and the harm they cause to these workers. The head of Sweden’s anti-trafficking unit even said that “of course the law has negative consequences for women in prostitution but that’s also some of the effect that we want to achieve with the law.”

Decriminalization Is the Best Solution

The Nordic model does not solve the problems Kearns displays. Rather, it attempts to use a feminist facade to bolster the stigma against prostitution without making the industry any safer for the women it claims to stick up for. Kearns claims that out of “the dozens of law-enforcement personnel, community members, doctors, housing specialists, outreach coordinators, activists, and survivors” she spoke with, “not one favored legalizing the purchase of sex.” Considering her story mainly focused on the negative angle of sex trafficking, this isn’t surprising.

But we should not focus the debate solely on legalization versus criminalization. Another legitimate option to consider is decriminalization, a pragmatic alternative that allows governments to set legal boundaries on selling sex without criminalizing those involved. In this way, governments can focus their time and resources on pursuing the actual traffickers rather than continuing to work around the law to abolish prostitution, as is the case in countries that have adopted the Nordic model.

Various reputable organizations across international borders support a decriminalization model, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom Network USA, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, and La Strada International. Decriminalization would allow individuals to more safely sell sex, opening the door to pursue legal action if somebody harms them. As Brown says, it “would end the punitive system wherein sex workers — a disproportionately female, minority and transgender group — are being separated from their families, thrown in jail, and saddled with court costs and criminal records over blow-jobs.”

Kearns’ story largely focuses on sex trafficking, which everyone agrees is an egregious crime that needs to be stopped. But implementing the Nordic model isn’t an effective tool to end the practice. And it certainly doesn’t help empower women, LGBTQ people, or men.

The best form of empowerment is to ensure freedom for people to engage in consensual sex transactions. With the right legal boundaries in place under a decriminalization model, this is attainable. But continuing to incarcerate victims of sex trafficking alongside consensual sex workers is a continuing policy of failure.