Abolition, Legalization or Harm Reduction of Prostitution and Sexual Trafficking

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The worlds of sexual trafficking and prostitution more than overlap, they are symbiotic. When the demand for prostituted people exceeds the available supply, women, children and sometimes men are trafficked in to meet the demand.

The current policy of the U.S. government is abolition. President Bush issued a National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD-22) that stated, “Our Policy is based on an abolitionist approach to trafficking in persons, and our efforts must involve a comprehensive attack on such trafficking, which is a form of modern day of slavery. In this regard, the United States Government opposes prostitution and any related activities, including pimping, pandering, or maintaining brothels as contributing to the phenomenon of trafficking in persons. These activities are inherently harmful and dehumanizing. The United States Government position is that these activities should not be regulated as a legitimate form of work for any human being.”

One would hope there is universal support for abolition of sexual trafficking and prostitution, but there is not. There are some who think legalizing prostitution will end sexual trafficking. There are some who see prostitution as a viable work alternative and propose harm reduction policies to empower prostituted people and make their working conditions better. Prostitution and sexual trafficking are inextricably linked and abolition is the only answer to end the horrors of both.

The argument for legalization arises from some groups due to the blurring of the lines between prostitution and sexual trafficking. Groups that push for legalization say it will keep the prostituted people safe because they will have regular medical checkups and the places where they work will be regulated by the government, thereby eliminating trafficking. The U.S. government runs Section 8 housing, but most of us would not trade our current homes for it; it’s generally not safe, clean, maintained or monitored. Imagine bureaucrats in charge of regulating prostitution.

The johns, however, are not subject to checkups so they are free to carry in any disease and spread infection.

By regulating the industry and having prostituted people register with the government, these groups say the prostitution stigma will be lessened; it will be looked at as just another job. Germany and the Netherlands have tried legalization and many prostituted people have not registered. This may be due in part to the fact that they do not want their names forever in government records as being prostituted and it may well be they are part of the illegal prostitution market that flourishes where legalization is tried. Why would illegal markets flourish? Because pimps and traffickers don’t fancy paying a portion of the money they earn off the backs of women and children to the government in taxes.

The johns, by the way, do not have to register anywhere. Their part of this commercial transaction, some say government-sponsored rape, is anonymous.

The legalization argument seems to assume that regulation will make it safer. Some johns enjoy violating prostituted people with various objects, humiliating them, torturing them, beating them and even murdering them. Pimps and traffickers, in order to make a profit, cater to their customer’s desires and supply prostituted people to fulfill their fantasies. A john wants a child – the pimp/trafficker provides one. The john wants an ethnic woman – the pimp/trafficker provides one. The john takes pleasure in beating and torturing someone else – the pimp/trafficker provides a person. How will legalization end these aberrant behaviors?

In Melissa Farley’s “Bad for the Body, Bad for the Heart” document she notes, “In the Netherlands, where prostitution is legal, 60% of prostituted women suffered physical assaults; 70% experienced verbal threats of physical assault; 40% experienced sexual violence; and 40% had been forced into prostitution or sexual abuse by acquaintances (Vanwesenbeeck, 1994).”

What other form of legal employment has such high incidences of violence? Legal employment settings consider this sexual harassment; they don’t condone, promote or encourage it. Legalizing prostitution doesn’t end the violence against prostituted people; it just makes the government complicit.

Harm reduction advocates look to eliminate the stigma associated with prostitution. One way they do this is to refer to prostituted people as “sex workers.” This connotation is supposed to empower people trapped in or trafficked into prostitution by making them feel better about their work. It is also aimed at changing the way society views them.

In order to gain access to prostituted people, harm reduction advocates must make nice with the pimps, brothel owners and traffickers. If they do gain access, they try to teach the prostituted people negotiating skills so they can negotiate with johns to wear condoms.

Johns negotiate with pimps, brothel owners and traffickers to pay a higher price to have sex without a condom.

Here’s how one harm reduction non-governmental organization, funded by George Soros through his Open Society International group, states its mission:

The Estonian AIDS Information and Support Center had programs specifically for commercial sex workers since 1994 and for injection drug users since 1997, seeking to provide non-judgmental and appropriate services to vulnerable populations and to reduce official and societal stigma of HIV, drug use and sex work. The organization has worked to address cross-border travel and transportation of Russian and Estonian women to Finland, Sweden and other countries. This new CSW initiative will support four staff and eight volunteers to work with sex workers in Tallinn, Parnu and Narva. [emphasis ours]

Cross-border travel and transportation of Russian and Estonian women to other countries sounds like it may involve trafficking. Harm reduction groups providing “non-judgmental” services to “vulnerable” populations are overlooking potential victims in need of rescuing. Reducing societal and official stigma of “sex work” will not abolish slavery or address the physical and psychological harm suffered by prostituted people. Harm reduction does not equal harm elimination.

Legalization and harm reduction will not change the perception of prostitution. Buying someone else’s body for a determined amount of time to do with as you please and then give it back, often in worse shape, is perceived by most people as a case of subjugation and an unequal balance of power. Saying it is government-sanctioned or that the prostituted person is empowered to stand up for herself and negotiate better “working” conditions does not balance the scale.

Abolition brings back the balance of power and gives the prostituted person dignity and worth. Men and women on equal ground and children being celebrated for their innocence – not violated because of it – is the goal of the abolitionist movement.

Brenda Zurita is a Research Fellow with the Beverly LaHaye Institute.

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