Decriminalizing 'Sex Work': Protecting the Prostitute or the Pimp?

Is decriminalizing sex work a way to protect women from oppression and abuse?

Rhode Island is considering a proposal to decriminalize prostitution.  The proposal is supported by the ACLU and various sex work advocacy groups like the SOAR institute and COYOTE ("Call off your tired old ethics").  Their argument is that decriminalizing prostitution reduces violence against sex workers and empowers women.

It would seem that elected officials have short memories — Rhode Island has already experimented with decriminalized sex work, and the consequences were disastrous.

For 29 years (1980–2009), because of a legal loophole, Rhode Island banned outdoor solicitation — seeking clients by standing on street corners or walking the streets.  But it legalized indoor prostitution — sex work that takes place through brothels, strip clubs, massage parlors, escort agencies, and the online market.

During that period, Rhode Island became a sex tourist destination, functioning as the red-light district for all of New England.  In addition to outright prostitution, sex businesses concealed as spas, nail salons, health centers, modeling agencies, and other "thinly veiled houses of prostitution" posed as legitimate businesses, offering "acupressure," "body work," or "table showers."  The state became a Petri dish for all sorts of crime—  sexual assault, murder, and armed robbery, to name just a few.

Given this history, how is it possible that legislators are even considering going down this road again?  The Rhode Island experiment debunks the claimed benefits of legalization.

Claim #1: Sex rights groups argue that decriminalization allows states to regulate the practice.  

If the state legalizes prostitution, so the argument goes, violence will decrease because women will not fear being arrested if they report crimes committed against them.  In practice, however, legalization had the opposite effect.  Women were not protected because police could not get entry into places of prostitution without probable cause.  As a result, criminals were emboldened, knowing they were safe behind the locked doors of brothels.

In addition, strip clubs and brothels became hangouts for the mafia.  La Cosa Nostra, one of the most dangerous and violent mafia groups in the United States, chose Rhode Island strip clubs as their safe haven.  Knowing that police could not enter, they extorted brothels for thousands of dollars a month in exchange for "protection."  Luis CdeBaca, who served in the Department of Justice to combat human-trafficking in the U.S., said decriminalizing prostitution created a "zone of impunity in which police [could not] go, and where traffickers [could] exploit their prey."

Claim #2: Sex rights groups argue that legalization empowers women who have chosen to work in the sex industry.

For the majority of women, just how voluntary is their choice?  Most enter the industry as young teens, seduced by boyfriends who turn out to be pimps.  These men entice young girls into the industry with false promises of love and care — then set them to work.

Most of these teens do not understand they are entering a world of crime, drugs, violence, and sexual assault.  They do not realize that most prostitutes end up using drugs and alcohol to dull their pain.  They have no idea that the stress of sex with multiple strangers is so damaging to the soul that many suffer from PTSD.  Can we really say a woman chose to sell her body if she first made the decision as a teen?  Melanie Thompson, a trafficking victim, says, "The vast majority of people in prostitution were sex-trafficked as children, homeless, sexually abused, in foster care or otherwise racially and economically marginalized.  When they turn 18, they don't magically become 'consenting adults' who stay freely in the sex trade.  The trauma they experienced never goes away."

Another common route into the sex industry is via work in strip clubs.  Young girls typically do not understand that they will be pressured to sell sexual favors as well.  In Rhode Island, girls as young as 16 were found working in strip clubs.  Although that is the legal age for both employment and sexual consent in the state, the girls were still victims of violence and sexual assault.

For example, in response to a domestic violence call, police found a 16-year-old runaway girl with injuries on her face who had been beaten by her 40-year-old "boyfriend."  She told police she danced at a local strip club.  Given the large quantity of condoms found in her purse, she was likely forced to engage in prostitution in the club's private booths.  In the words of the medical technician who examined the victim, "Her ID said she was 20 and lived in Connecticut.  Her face said she was 16 and lived on the streets.  Her face was right; her ID a lie."  Police determined that the girl had been missing from Boston for six months and was being held against her will by an escaped convict.

Finally, most women in the sex industry have been trafficked — not even a semblance of choice is involved.  During Rhode Island's trial with legalization, the number of women trafficked skyrocketed.  Many of the women in the state's sex industry had been smuggled into the U.S. from Asian countries.  They were given promises of work, which turned out to be lies.  As the Providence Journal put it, they were "trapped in dirty brothels ... fearful of being beaten or killed if they tried to leave, serving men with their bodies from the time they got up until they went to sleep.  They slept on filthy mattresses and cooked from Sterno cans in a back room — essentially they lived as slaves."

In light of this history, it is surprising and disturbing that not only Rhode Island, but also California; New York; and Washington, D.C. are considering decriminalization.  Given the facts, they should ask themselves: who is truly protected by decriminalization — the prostitute or the pimp?

Studies are trotted out by both opponents and proponents of legalization, and it is easy to get lost in the statistics, failing to remember that women's lives are at stake.  They are not just numbers on a spreadsheet.

When I was V.P. of Texas A&M International Justice Mission chapter, I traveled to Houston as part of an anti-trafficking convention that entered into brothels, strip clubs, and other sex industries.  As I talked with women who are currently in the industry, I saw clear evidence of how their lives had been shattered — many did not even have the courage to look up, they bore tattoos of gang signs and obscene phrases on their neck to identify them as their pimps' property, and their voices did not have the strength to explain what had been done to them.  These women were obviously not engaged in a "normal" career.  They clearly had not been empowered through sex work; instead, they had been degraded, reduced to items on a menu. As states discuss legalization, we should think of our mother, our sister, our classmate, our neighbor, and decide if we are willing to make it legal for them to sell their bodies at the expense of their souls.

A more effective approach would be to target the demand for sex work.  Lawmakers in Sweden, Norway, and Iceland have created a model in which it is legal to sell sex but illegal to purchase sex.  Since Sweden enacted this law, prostitution has been cut in half.  Moreover, Sweden offers various educational opportunities and avenues to leave prostitution; as a result, 60 percent of prostitutes have been empowered to leave the industry.

Decriminalizing may address the small number of women who choose prostitution, but it also communicates the message that society thinks it's okay for women to be used, objectified, and violated, as long as they get paid.  We should expose the lie that decriminalized sex work empowers women.  Don't allow your state to become a microcosm for the growth of crime.  Oppose decriminalization.     

Rylee Free interned at the Texas attorney general's office in the Human Trafficking Unit.  She is currently doing graduate work at Houston Baptist University.

Is decriminalizing sex work a way to protect women from oppression and abuse?

Rhode Island is considering a proposal to decriminalize prostitution.  The proposal is supported by the ACLU and various sex work advocacy groups like the SOAR institute and COYOTE ("Call off your tired old ethics").  Their argument is that decriminalizing prostitution reduces violence against sex workers and empowers women.

It would seem that elected officials have short memories — Rhode Island has already experimented with decriminalized sex work, and the consequences were disastrous.

For 29 years (1980–2009), because of a legal loophole, Rhode Island banned outdoor solicitation — seeking clients by standing on street corners or walking the streets.  But it legalized indoor prostitution — sex work that takes place through brothels, strip clubs, massage parlors, escort agencies, and the online market.

During that period, Rhode Island became a sex tourist destination, functioning as the red-light district for all of New England.  In addition to outright prostitution, sex businesses concealed as spas, nail salons, health centers, modeling agencies, and other "thinly veiled houses of prostitution" posed as legitimate businesses, offering "acupressure," "body work," or "table showers."  The state became a Petri dish for all sorts of crime—  sexual assault, murder, and armed robbery, to name just a few.

Given this history, how is it possible that legislators are even considering going down this road again?  The Rhode Island experiment debunks the claimed benefits of legalization.

Claim #1: Sex rights groups argue that decriminalization allows states to regulate the practice.  

If the state legalizes prostitution, so the argument goes, violence will decrease because women will not fear being arrested if they report crimes committed against them.  In practice, however, legalization had the opposite effect.  Women were not protected because police could not get entry into places of prostitution without probable cause.  As a result, criminals were emboldened, knowing they were safe behind the locked doors of brothels.

In addition, strip clubs and brothels became hangouts for the mafia.  La Cosa Nostra, one of the most dangerous and violent mafia groups in the United States, chose Rhode Island strip clubs as their safe haven.  Knowing that police could not enter, they extorted brothels for thousands of dollars a month in exchange for "protection."  Luis CdeBaca, who served in the Department of Justice to combat human-trafficking in the U.S., said decriminalizing prostitution created a "zone of impunity in which police [could not] go, and where traffickers [could] exploit their prey."

Claim #2: Sex rights groups argue that legalization empowers women who have chosen to work in the sex industry.

For the majority of women, just how voluntary is their choice?  Most enter the industry as young teens, seduced by boyfriends who turn out to be pimps.  These men entice young girls into the industry with false promises of love and care — then set them to work.

Most of these teens do not understand they are entering a world of crime, drugs, violence, and sexual assault.  They do not realize that most prostitutes end up using drugs and alcohol to dull their pain.  They have no idea that the stress of sex with multiple strangers is so damaging to the soul that many suffer from PTSD.  Can we really say a woman chose to sell her body if she first made the decision as a teen?  Melanie Thompson, a trafficking victim, says, "The vast majority of people in prostitution were sex-trafficked as children, homeless, sexually abused, in foster care or otherwise racially and economically marginalized.  When they turn 18, they don't magically become 'consenting adults' who stay freely in the sex trade.  The trauma they experienced never goes away."

Another common route into the sex industry is via work in strip clubs.  Young girls typically do not understand that they will be pressured to sell sexual favors as well.  In Rhode Island, girls as young as 16 were found working in strip clubs.  Although that is the legal age for both employment and sexual consent in the state, the girls were still victims of violence and sexual assault.

For example, in response to a domestic violence call, police found a 16-year-old runaway girl with injuries on her face who had been beaten by her 40-year-old "boyfriend."  She told police she danced at a local strip club.  Given the large quantity of condoms found in her purse, she was likely forced to engage in prostitution in the club's private booths.  In the words of the medical technician who examined the victim, "Her ID said she was 20 and lived in Connecticut.  Her face said she was 16 and lived on the streets.  Her face was right; her ID a lie."  Police determined that the girl had been missing from Boston for six months and was being held against her will by an escaped convict.

Finally, most women in the sex industry have been trafficked — not even a semblance of choice is involved.  During Rhode Island's trial with legalization, the number of women trafficked skyrocketed.  Many of the women in the state's sex industry had been smuggled into the U.S. from Asian countries.  They were given promises of work, which turned out to be lies.  As the Providence Journal put it, they were "trapped in dirty brothels ... fearful of being beaten or killed if they tried to leave, serving men with their bodies from the time they got up until they went to sleep.  They slept on filthy mattresses and cooked from Sterno cans in a back room — essentially they lived as slaves."

In light of this history, it is surprising and disturbing that not only Rhode Island, but also California; New York; and Washington, D.C. are considering decriminalization.  Given the facts, they should ask themselves: who is truly protected by decriminalization — the prostitute or the pimp?

Studies are trotted out by both opponents and proponents of legalization, and it is easy to get lost in the statistics, failing to remember that women's lives are at stake.  They are not just numbers on a spreadsheet.

When I was V.P. of Texas A&M International Justice Mission chapter, I traveled to Houston as part of an anti-trafficking convention that entered into brothels, strip clubs, and other sex industries.  As I talked with women who are currently in the industry, I saw clear evidence of how their lives had been shattered — many did not even have the courage to look up, they bore tattoos of gang signs and obscene phrases on their neck to identify them as their pimps' property, and their voices did not have the strength to explain what had been done to them.  These women were obviously not engaged in a "normal" career.  They clearly had not been empowered through sex work; instead, they had been degraded, reduced to items on a menu. As states discuss legalization, we should think of our mother, our sister, our classmate, our neighbor, and decide if we are willing to make it legal for them to sell their bodies at the expense of their souls.

A more effective approach would be to target the demand for sex work.  Lawmakers in Sweden, Norway, and Iceland have created a model in which it is legal to sell sex but illegal to purchase sex.  Since Sweden enacted this law, prostitution has been cut in half.  Moreover, Sweden offers various educational opportunities and avenues to leave prostitution; as a result, 60 percent of prostitutes have been empowered to leave the industry.

Decriminalizing may address the small number of women who choose prostitution, but it also communicates the message that society thinks it's okay for women to be used, objectified, and violated, as long as they get paid.  We should expose the lie that decriminalized sex work empowers women.  Don't allow your state to become a microcosm for the growth of crime.  Oppose decriminalization.     

Rylee Free interned at the Texas attorney general's office in the Human Trafficking Unit.  She is currently doing graduate work at Houston Baptist University.