A debate concerning the validity of decriminalizing prostitution appears in today’s New York Times. The comments were solicited by the newspaper in response to Amnesty International’s proposal of a resolution that supports the decriminalization of sex work based primarily on the organization’s belief that the human rights of sex workers are being violated. The resolution stops short of endorsing government regulation of the work.
Taina Bein-Aime, the director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, opposed the proposal saying “it would decriminalize pimps, brothel owners and buyers of sexual acts—the pillars of the multi-billion dollar global sex industry”. Gillian Abel, an associate professor and head of the Department of Population Health at the University of Otago in Christchurch, New Zealand, argued “Sex work is an occupation that many women voluntarily choose. To deny that prostitution is work not only infringes on women’s right to choose their work, but also on that of men, transgender and gender-diverse individuals”.
Bein-Aime’s essential premise is that the proposal is too broad because it unjustly enriches the aforementioned exploiters; the “johns” are victimizing the women (mostly) and do not deserve extra protection. Abel contends that the notion that all sex workers are victims is “pejorative” at best, and that many women choose (voluntarily) to be sex workers. The business should be regulated though.
Ms. Abel easily wins this debate. Many women in the business are there voluntarily. They should be legally permitted to choose how they want to use their bodies, just as woman should have the right to have an abortion.
Ms. Bein-Aime’s contentions are old ones and misplaced. Without question, many women are exploited; indeed, some are forced to provide sex with little or no compensation, beaten, forced to take drugs, and even murdered. We have provided many examples in these pages where sex workers have been killed or are simply missing. In many of these situations, the women were driven into dangerous and secret rendezvous primarily because they were trying to stay off the police radar—if the acts were legal, they wouldn’t be forced to meet in dark and remote areas—the hunting grounds of serial killers and other dangerous people. The existence of organized human trafficking, throughout the world, is well known. The fallacy of the argument that the exploiters gain too much from such proposals simply ignores the fact that the bulk of the money is made because prostitution is illegal in most jurisdictions. Take away the profit, and the thugs will mostly vanish. Moreover, if the industry is regulated, many of the other collateral problems connected to prostitution, such as disease, anxiety, and other mental health issues and policing costs will dissipate. The government would also benefit from the collection of fees and taxes. The proposal is well taken.