Would legalized prostitution help combat sex trafficking?

Morgan White
Opinion Editor

illustration by Shannon Wright

There’s justice and then there’s peace — but then there’s money.

Money is the root cause for human trafficking. To combat it head-on trafficking must be fought economically. The only way to do so is by decriminalizing prostitution.

To make it clear before I begin: No one should support force, fraud or coercion of any individual into committing sex acts. I do not support pimps forcing or coercing women into committing sex acts in exchange for drugs or a way out of being in an abusive home environment. I do not support the man who pays for the sexual services of a forced woman. I feel sorrow for the women who do so out of circumstance, with insufficient skill training or education due to societal pressures and with no other way of finding a job that allows them to support themselves without unwillingly selling their bodies.

The word “choice” is synonymous with freedom and being a slave to circumstance is nowhere close to freedom. However, I do support it if a woman with a choice, without being a victim of circumstance, does make the decision to become a prostitute.

A 2012 Open Society Foundations article stated that “Concerns that decriminalization of sex work will promote sex trafficking are founded on a mistaken conflation of sex work and trafficking.” The article goes on to say that areas where sex work is decriminalized can retain and strengthen criminal prohibitions on trafficking, sexual coercion and the prostitution of minors.

New Zealand decriminalized sex work in 2003 and is ranked on Tier 1 (meaning that New Zealand does the best job on combatting trafficking) by the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report.

Any john looking to pay for sex isn’t going to worry about whether she wanted to be in the profession or not. If they are paying for sex with a young girl who has just been forced into it the most likely thing they’ll say is: “Well, I’m glad to be your first.” That’s what happened to Holly A. Smith, a trafficking victim from New Jersey who was forced into it for a day before being arrested for soliciting for prostitution on the street.

The john is the economic support of human trafficking. The crime is far too profitable for the facilitators of it to give it up. In order for that to change, prostitution must become a government-regulated service that only happens out of licensed places, where it would be far easier to control. Regulation makes it easy to ensure that women are in the trade willingly and are not suffering abuse from customers.

Licenses to open a brothel in Nevada are granted as long as the county has a population that is under 700,000. Nevada is the only jurisdiction in the U.S. where prostitution is legal. A June 2012 Public Policy Polling survey found that 64 percent of Nevada voters thought that brothels should be legal in the state, 23 percent thought it should be illegal and 13 percent were unsure. According to Adam Paul Lexalt, Nevada’s attorney general, since 1994 2,229 victims of sex trafficking have been found in Nevada.

In 2014 there were 110 cases of sex trafficking in Nevada reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline. In the same year 164 cases were reported in Virginia, reportedly the fifth highest number of uncovered cases that was collected in 2014. California was at the top of the list with 912 cases. Of course whatever was uncovered was merely what was brought to light, and there are more cases to be found. What is uncovered though can show one of two things: Either the state is very good at uncovering such instances or the state has more instances than what have been brought to the light.

What allows this is Las Vegas, a highly sexualized “Sin City,” where tourists are hounded in order to make a quick buck. Say, though, that a majority of the U.S. had punishments which were far harsher on sex traffickers; instead of getting the minimum for the crimes they commit, they get the highest. Say that in the same vein, prostitution becomes legal across the U.S. and the john’s looking to pay for sex. Instead of finding an illegal prostitute off of the street who was more than likely a victim of sex trafficking, he goes to a brothel where the sex workers there have done it out of their own accord.

This would not only limit the amount of cash flow which is in the sex trafficking industry currently, it would also create a much higher risk for the traffickers to carry out their crimes.

The opportunity cost of pimping out those forced on the street would be a much higher price of time forfeited due to possible lengthened prison sentences and a higher probability that they would face those sentences. The much lower income would limit the desire to commit these crimes in the first place.

Think of the War on Drugs. Whether marijuana is illegal or not, someone who wants to smoke weed will buy and smoke weed. There will be a transaction and while it’s illegal the money goes to a drug cartel that continues to reap all the benefits of the plant and purport violence across Mexico. Since it’s become legal in certain localities, the drug cartel has suffered greatly, thus weakening the violent hold it has had on Mexico and areas of South and Central America. A person who wants to smoke weed isn’t going to buy pot off the street from a sketchy character when there’s a store down the street where they can get it legally and there’s less of a possibility it has been laced with anything far more dangerous than the plant itself.

Prostitution will still exist whether it’s legal or not. The sad fact is, though, if it remains illegal the problem that’ll be run into over and over again is that the word “choice” does not exist. Trafficked victims will be the source of the industry. The men purporting the criminal enterprise will continue to profit off of it while holding the women in their place through fear or violence.

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