The Undeniable Failure of Permissive Approaches to Prostitution | Opinion

The movement to legalize prostitution, or "sex work," gained traction last year and is likely to continue in 2023. Proponents of eliminating laws against prostitution argue that doing so promotes the health and safety of all involved, reduces abuses against those in the trade by destigmatizing it and removing barriers to reporting assaults to police, and frees up scarce police resources to focus on the more serious problem of sex trafficking.

It all sounds good, even sensible, when well presented. But none of it is true.

How do we know? Because legalization has been tried many times, in many places, in many forms, over many decades, and failed every time. One need not accept promises and assertions about what might or should happen. One need only look at what does happen. Full decriminalization, de facto decriminalization via "tolerance zones" or non-prosecution policies, and legalization all fail to deliver on any of the promised benefits.

When prohibitions are removed, sex trade and trafficking activity skyrocket, as do abuses against those being trafficked. Community-level harms and public outrage increase, while trafficking enforcement and victim assistance are undermined, and the stigma against victims of the sex trade remains intact.

New Zealand decriminalized prostitution two decades ago, and found that doing so almost completely undermined its ability to investigate sex trafficking cases, let alone convict or punish anyone for it, and has made it nearly impossible to identify sex trafficking victims. This profound failure led the U.S. State Department in 2021 to downgrade New Zealand from a Tier I to a Tier II nation in its annual global Trafficking in Persons Report rankings.

Last year, California took a step toward decriminalization when Governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 357 to repeal a prostitution loitering law. Police objected that the loitering law was one of the key weapons at their disposal for apprehending pimps and traffickers, and provided the foundation for probable cause to start investigations that lead to identifying and supporting victims. Although the bill just went into effect on January 1, the message that was sent to police throughout the state last year was to "stand down" on prostitution enforcement—a message not lost on those profiting from the sex trade. As prostitution and its inevitable collateral violence have rapidly increased, the mayor of National City, California, has directly linked the latest relaxation of prohibitions to the escalating problem.

Prostitution "tolerance zones" have been tried and have failed every time. Boston sought to manage its rampant prostitution problems in the 1960s and 1970s by allowing it within a few square blocks. The area quickly became known as the "combat zone" and became one of the most dangerous areas in the state, while abuses against sex trade survivors flourished.

Amsterdam red light district
AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - DECEMBER 10: People walks near of red Light inside the Red Light District on December 10, 2022 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.De Wallen, Amsterdam's red-light district, is internationally known and one of the main tourist attractions of the city. It offers legal prostitution and a number of coffee shops that sell marijuana. Stefano Guidi/Getty Images

This same basic story is being repeated right now. Over the past three years, prosecutors in several U.S. cities declared policies of de facto decriminalization by refusing to prosecute prostitution, along with a number of other crimes. The results have been, predictably, disastrous. In San Francisco, prostitution and other crime skyrocketed, and the district attorney was yanked from office in a recall vote. In Baltimore, prostitution and other crime flourished, and the prosecutor was voted out of office.

Similar situations are unfolding in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Several suburbs of London are currently experimenting with tolerance zones, again to disastrous effect. The voices of residents in these areas echo the "war zone" language used to describe Boston 50 years earlier, but are ignored or silenced.

Legalization has also failed to advance public health and human rights or to reduce harm. The Netherlands tried to solve its prostitution and sex trafficking problems by instituting legal brothels in Amsterdam's famous red-light district. It has never worked as intended, and has encouraged smuggling of foreign victims and increased illegal prostitution outside of the legal brothels. After decades of trying to make it work, the city gave up and has been trying to dismantle its legal brothel system and move it elsewhere—only to find that other cities don't want the disastrous mess either. In the U.S., Nevada's legal brothels "employ" less than 500 of the state's 30,000-plus women in prostitution, the remainder exploited and trafficked in the illegal market that has been vastly expanded and encouraged by the state's tacit acceptance of the sex trade.

Decriminalization and legalization also fail to destigmatize the sex trade, contrary to proponents' claims. Australia's system of state laws contain of mix of both legal frameworks, and after many years in place, "sex work" advocates report that they face traumatizing and pervasive stigma in all aspects of their lives. While we agree that those exploited in the sex trade should certainly not be stigmatized or abused, it is also undeniably true that legalization is an abject failure, by their accounts.

One need not speculate about what may happen if prostitution laws are repealed or go unenforced. We've seen this movie many times before, and know it turns out badly every time, for everyone. Allowing an inherently dangerous, illegal trade to expand unabated and without recourse does not reduce harm, particularly to those who are prostituted.

The path to safety and protection of human rights is prevention, achieved by keeping and enforcing laws against pimping, trafficking, and purchasing sex, while providing support and pathways out for those who are exploited.

Dr. Michael Shively is Senior Advisor on Research and Data Analysis, and Dr. Stephany Powell is Vice President and Director of Law Enforcement Outreach and Training, both with the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, the leading national non-partisan organization exposing the links between all forms of sexual exploitation such as child sexual abuse, prostitution, sex trafficking and the public health harms of pornography. Twitter: @NCOSE

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.