Fresh Ideas: States should not legalize sex work

Two months ago Amnesty International passed a resolution endorsing the decriminalization of all aspects of consensual adult sex. Pre-and post-resolution debate was fueled primarily by the obvious issues: once again, the wealthy demand and the poor supply; the female is degraded by the male; human trafficking is exploitative and wrong; children’s safety must be protected; and our human rights to free choice and privacy must be paramount. What was not so obvious within the debates was how two important but distinct terms, “decriminalizing” versus “legalizing” sex, were sloppily interchanged. It’s within these terms’ differences the core of the prostitution debate lies. For it’s a slippery slope from decriminalizing to legalizing, from contending sex workers are not breaking the law to encouraging states to formally regulate sex work through laws, policies and through perhaps allowing public sex work establishments.

Laurie Shrage, professor of philosophy, gender and women’s studies at Florida International University, in “When Prostitution is Nobody’s Business,” (Aug. 10, 2015, New York Times) illuminated this slippery slope — how our expectations of privacy slyly shift from what we do in our own home to what happens in our social relations and market transactions. She showed how having “multiple, causal or ongoing partners from whom one receives monetary support is not the same as running a brothel, or setting up a home business that advertises publicly.” She added, “When sex and commerce meet, the rules regarding sexual and market privacy quickly get murky ... Where exactly is the border between the private exchange of money or gifts and the impersonal profit-making of the market?”

To debate decriminalizing or legalizing prostitution, we may not need to know this exact border but we do need to understand the rules shift. What happens if we look at the market place effect first then evaluate our individual rights and responsibilities?

A 2012 study referenced in Journalist’s Resource (Jan. 2, 2014) and published in World Development “Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking?” analyzed cross-sectional data of 116 countries to determine the effect of legalized prostitution on human trafficking inflows. The upshot? Legalizing sex work greatly expanded the market place demand, and trafficking, not the autonomous woman, was the major supplier.

Is that what we really want — the freedom to expand our private sexual needs (regardless of whether for love or money or gifts) beyond the home and into the public marketplace at the cost of exploiting another human being? For if we support legalization we clearly view prostitution as an entitlement and not as a deeply troubling consequence.

Frankly, I would not want that. If the end result of my behavior is exploitation of another human being, that’s only mirroring back I’m willing to exploit and degrade myself. It’s straightforward: the health of society is the health of the individual. Or as some social development advocates state: “Exploitation of any kind is the most significant obstacle to economic and social development.” (The World Bank, “Human Trafficking, Modern Day Slavery and Economic Exploitation”, May 2009); and “Social development ... rather than being about benefits to individuals per se ... should improve the wellbeing of the community as a whole and especially of the vulnerable, disadvantaged or marginalized groups,” (The International Association for Impact Assessment, “Social Impact Assessment,” April 2015).

There’s no longer a slippery slope: within the industrialized world, the sex working majority — the exploited majority — subsists at the fringes of our societies. Amnesty International was right to decriminalize consensual adult sex, but let’s take it one step further: States should not legalize sex work.

Kathy Walters is the mother of a teenage boy, works for Kirkwood Mountain Realty and lives in Gardnerville. Currently, she is working on her memoir “Enough.”


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