Philosophers On Prostitution’s Decriminalization

Philosophers On Prostitution’s Decriminalization


This past Tuesday, Amnesty International representatives from 60 countries voted on which stance the influential non-governmental organization should take regarding the legal status of prostitution, ultimately deciding to support its full decriminalization, including both the selling and buying of sex.

The position is highly controversial—particularly the decriminalization of buying sex—and Amnesty’s draft statement of it is diplomatically vague. But sources inform me that the policy is in fact a statement in support of “full decriminalization,” including buying, as The New York Times reports, and as Amnesty’s FAQ page about the policy suggests.

There was much debate about the policy leading up to the vote (with a number of Hollywood actresses opposing it, for example), and it remains divisive. The Times reports:

The proposal split human rights activists. Amnesty chapters in Sweden and France pressed the group to support a so-called Swedish or Nordic model, now followed in several Scandinavian countries, that spares prostitutes from penalties but sanctions the buyers with heavy fines and prison terms. Lawmakers in France are pushing new legislation to punish buyers that most likely will be voted on in the fall. After the vote, the Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution, a French organization, vowed that it would no longer work with Amnesty International.

Yet, Amnesty says:

The research and consultation carried out in the development of this policy in the past two years concluded that this was the best way to defend sex workers’ human rights and lessen the risk of abuse and violations they face.

And the Christian Science Monitor reports:

Amnesty said its policy is based on what is known in public health policy as the harm reduction principle: the idea that you can’t stop people from taking part in a dangerous activity, but you can make it safer. 

The decriminalization of sex work is currently being discussed around the world. I invited a number of philosophers to join this public discussion here, with brief contributions that clarify some of its central issues and disputes.  They are (in alphabetical order): Peter de Marneffe (Arizona State), Dan Demetriou (Univ. of Minnesota, Morris), Brian D. Earp (Oxford), Lisa Fuller (Albany), Jeffrey Gauthier (Univ. of Portland), Carol Hay (Univ. of Massachusetts, Lowell), Patricia Marino (Waterloo),  Philip Pettit (Princeton), and Rebecca Whisnant (Univ. of Dayton). I am grateful to them for participating on such short notice.

The idea of the “Philosophers On” series is to prompt further discussion among philosophers about issues and events of current public interest, and also to explore the ways in which philosophers can add, with their characteristically insightful and careful modes of thinking, to the public conversation. Others are, of course, welcome to join in. Additionally, if you come across particularly valuable relevant philosophical commentary elsewhere, please provide a link in the comments.

(image: modified versions of “Woman with Raised Arm” and “Man Sitting” by Carly Ashdown)


Peter de Marneffe:

According to the New York Times, Amnesty International voted on August 11, 2015 “to support a policy that calls for decriminalization of the sex trade, including prostitution, payment for sex and brothel ownership.”  Because nothing is actually mentioned in the posted Amnesty International resolution about decriminalizing payment for sex or brothel ownership, the Times report is puzzling.  As the Times also reported in this article, the decriminalization of prostitution has split human rights activists into two camps: those who endorse the “Nordic model,” now in effect in Sweden and Norway, which decriminalizes the sale of sex but not the purchase of sex or brothel ownership, and those who support “full decriminalization,” the decriminalization of purchase and brothel ownership as well as the decriminalization of individual sale.  In this light it is striking that the document posted by Amnesty does not explicitly go beyond the Nordic model.  Instead it refers vaguely to “the highest possible protection of the human rights of sex workers, through measures that include the decriminalisation of sex work.”  Okay . . . but what else does it include?  Given the sharp disagreement on precisely this question, the Amnesty resolution is not a model of intellectual clarity or candor, but perhaps the vague language was necessary to get the votes needed to pass it.

Whatever political reasons there might have been for the vague wording, analytical clarity is nonetheless important.  Three different questions about prostitution laws should be distinguished.  First, should the sale of sex be decriminalized?  Second, should the purchase of sex be decriminalized?  Third, should the operation of a sex business such as a brothel be decriminalized.  The answer to all three questions might be yes, or it might be no, or it might be yes to some, and no to others.   Although it is sometimes said that is “inconsistent” or “illogical” or “absurd” to support decriminalization of sale while supporting the criminalization of purchase, these charges should strike anyone who has taken a first-year logic class as confused.  But the confusion is not simply a failure of logic.  It is also a failure to appreciate the possible grounds for these positions.

Here is an argument for decriminalizing sale but not purchase: Each of us has a right to control our own minds and bodies.  Because laws that criminalize the sale of sex violate this right, the sale of sex should be decriminalized.  It doesn’t follow that the purchase of sex or brothel ownership should be decriminalized.  The right to control one’s own body involves being at liberty to consent to sex with someone, and so being at liberty to consent to sex with someone only under certain conditions: if and only if they turn you on, if and only if they are not drunk, if and only if they are thoughtful and gentle, if and only if they pay, etc.  But your right to control your own body does not require that anyone else agree to have sex with you.  It doesn’t require a higher rather than a lower number of persons who are likely to agree.  Owning a brothel might be necessary for a pimp or a madam to make a living from other people’s sex work, but it’s not necessary to control his or her own body.  It is therefore consistent for a human rights advocate to support the decriminalization of sale, but not the decriminalization of purchase or brothel ownership.

Here is an argument for decriminalizing sale and purchase, but not brothel ownership:  Not only does each of us have a right to control our own bodies, sex has psychological value in creating feelings of closeness, intimacy, and acceptance, and in relieving feelings of loneliness, rejection, and stress.  Some people who would benefit psychologically from sex have psychological or physical disabilities that prevent them from pursuing non-commercial sex successfully.  If paid sex would provide these benefits to such persons, then laws that criminalize purchase impose a substantial burden.  Consequently, they can be justified only by a strong argument.  Proponents of the Nordic model believe that criminal penalties for purchase substantially reduce sex work and the psychological, physical, and social harms it is thought to involve.  Others are skeptical.  Despite the rhetoric on both sides, we don’t have conclusive evidence either way.  Suppose, though, for the sake of argument that penalties for sale do not substantially reduce these harms.  Then given the substantial burden they impose on persons with unusual needs, they violate their right to sexual freedom, and purchase should be decriminalized.  It does not follow that brothel ownership should be decriminalized because the opportunity to own a brothel is neither necessary for people to control their own bodies or to meet these unusual psychological needs.  One can therefore consistently argue for the decriminalization of sale and purchase without arguing for the decriminalization of brothel ownership.


Dan Demetriou:

Let copulation thrive—even the paid variety. Opponents of legalized prostitution have had ample time to forward a plausible justification for their view. In the absence of such, they trade upon divine command, distraction, or dudgeon. Hopefully Amnesty International’s moral aegis will mainstream the call to decriminalize one of the most ubiquitous, accessible, profitable, and (potentially) harmless of all markets.

Refuting prohibitionists is slow-pitch philosophy:

  • Extramarital sex is wrong/sinful! — Really now.
  • Sex must be “loving and equitable!” — In your household maybe, but why in mine?
  • Purchasing sex “buys bodies” and “uses people as means”! — No more than buying massages must.
  • The ickiness involved in the job’s tasks “demean” prostitutes! — How do you feel about the permissibility of sewage maintenance?
  • But some johns are sadists, or at least enjoy degrading sex workers! — The fact of sadistic clients is unfortunate but irrelevant; bad actors show up in all industries; uncontracted-for abuse should/would be illegal.
  • Omnipresent power disparities render apparently consensual acts actually coercive! — This is patently condescending, morally condemns all low-paid labor, and doesn’t apply to high-priced prostitutes, who often earn more than their johns.
  • Most prostitutes would rather not be sex workers! — Few people get to work in their careers of choice and, as bad as that may be, it is no comment on the permissibility of their industry.
  • Sex work is brutal on the body! — Prostitution isn’t nearly as demanding as professional boxing, crab fishing, or mining.
  • Many prostitutes are seriously harmed and killed! — Not as many as soldiers, police, loggers, or roofers—all permissible forms of labor.
  • There are millions of sex slaves, including children! — Would it be wrong for a conscientious antebellum Southerner to hire someone to pick his cotton? Would his doing so somehow promote slavery?
  • Prostitution makes men feel entitled to sex! — How could paying for it possibly communicate an entitlement?
  • Men will view all women as sex workers! — There are more waitresses than prostitutes, and no one sees all women as waitresses.
  • If legalized, women will have to seek employment as prostitutes to get welfare benefits, and sexual services might be added to job descriptions! — No equivalent consequences followed upon the legalization and acceptance of pornography.

As educated Westerners grow increasingly comfortable with sex and individual liberty, prohibitionists have seen their support erode. Pornography, which in many cases is filmed prostitution, has been normalized. Thousands of entrepreneurial women with perfectly good prospects supplement their incomes by becoming “cam girls,” or by selling their dirty underwear to fan bases they’ve cultivated online. Billboards advertise “sugar daddy” matchmakers for college students looking to monetize their sexiest (and most sexual) years. Demi Moore’s Indecent Proposal might have shocked sensibilities a generation ago, but here in 2015 most of us would demand much less than a cool million for a night’s work, despite inflation. Perhaps we are coming to see our sexual organs as less sacred than our moral rights. Prominent among these rights is the freedom—whatever aims others might have for our souls or our genders—to make mutually beneficial exchanges, including those involving sex.


Brian D. Earp:

Some of the most interesting recent philosophical work on the question of whether paying for sex should be prohibited — on the assumption that it’s truly a consensual exchange (so trafficking, sexual slavery, and prostitution-by-coercion are all ruled out by definition) — comes from Ole Martin Moen, in a series of papers in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

Moen’s basic argument has two parts: (1) much of the harm that is associated with prostitution (or being a sex worker; the terminology is extremely contentious) is actually a consequence of its being illegal, and is therefore not inherent to the act of trading sex for money per se. And (2) to the extent that prostitution does have intrinsic harms — and Moen grants that there are good arguments to this effect — this would still not be sufficient to show that it should be legally prohibited. This is for two reasons. First, many lines of work have intrinsic harms, and yet rather than banning them, we instead compensate the workers, usually monetarily, but also through the establishment of health and safety regulations, etc., for the various risks to which they are likely to be exposed (again, on the assumption that they have not been coerced into entering the line of work to begin with, and therefore see it as being preferable to at least the next-worst viable alternative). And second, if Moen is right that prohibition is actually responsible for much of the harm of prostitution (or sex work), then driving the practice underground is not only bad policy, but actually directly counterproductive.

Now, there are a lot of possible objections to this line of thought. One argument you could make is that prostitution is so inherently degrading to the prostitute (or otherwise problematic), that as a matter of fact, there is no such thing as “autonomously” choosing to be a prostitute. According to this argument, only people who are “forced” to do so by their circumstances — such as extreme poverty, let us say — would ever turn to prostitution to make ends meet.

Perhaps that is really the case, but it is important to be clear about what we mean when we say that someone is “forced by their circumstances” to sell X for money. As Like Semrau has argued with respect to the debate over establishing a marketplace for kidneys, there is an important distinction to be drawn between “pressure to sell X” and “pressure, with the option to sell X.” If someone is being directly pressured to sell her kidney (or become a prostitute, or whatever), then prohibiting the selling of X could at least in principle be of some help (of course, prohibition often drives problematic vending practices underground, as we have already discussed, but let’s set that aside for the moment).

On the other hand, if someone is experiencing a more general pressure (such as extreme economic insecurity), but has a number of ways — including, but not limited to, selling X — to begin to relieve this pressure, then prohibiting the selling of X is actually likely, all else being equal, to make this person even worse off. This is because it would remove (or drive underground, and therefore make more dangerous) at least one otherwise viable option for “making ends meet.” As a consequence, the person who was considering selling X, and who do so if it were not prohibited, must now turn to an even less desirable option (as judged by them) to relieve the more general pressure.

If this sort of view is correct, then as long as the background pressure continues to exist, and as long as someone enters into prostitution (or sex work) because of this more general background pressure as opposed to direct coercion (such as having a gun held to their head), it is unlikely to be the case that prohibition will improve this person’s situation. Instead, it is likely to make it even worse. On the other hand, when it comes to direct coercion — and this is the issue with trafficking and sexual slavery — there is no question that such behavior must be prohibited, and indeed punished to the fullest extent.

Much more could be said. I have given an extremely narrow analysis of just one aspect of this debate. And counterarguments galore could easily be raised. But I hope this puts at least some dimensions of the recent Amnesty International proposal in a helpful philosophical context.

Amnesty International’s vote in favor of a resolution supporting the full decriminalization of sex work is a bold move in the right direction.

It is against an unjust background of structural oppression and economic marginalization of women that we should assess the policy Amnesty proposes. Since in most countries some aspects of sex work are criminalized (solicitation and brothel keeping, for instance), women who are already vulnerable are further burdened both by the prospect of incarceration and fines, as well as the violence and coercion to which they are subject in the course of their work because they cannot report these abuses to the authorities. In part to protect themselves against these dangers, many women resort to employing the “protection” of pimps or others who can also bail them out of jail, provide them with a place to live, etc. But this “protection” comes at the cost of exploitation, since inevitably it must be purchased with sex workers’ earnings.

Decriminalizing sex work would help eliminate some of the burdens that these women bear. As Amnesty documents point out, if (aspects of) their work were not illegal, then sex workers would be “able to enjoy better relationships with and protection from the police”. The criminalization of sex work requires them to choose between their right to security of the person and their ability to earn a living – a choice no one should have to make. It is unjust to deny sex workers equal protection of the law on the basis that their work is stigmatized by society.

If sex workers could avail themselves of the protection of law enforcement, then this should reduce the need to seek “protection” from those who seek to exploit and control them.  In turn, this should allow them to keep more of their earnings in their own pockets. And other elements of their quality of life would be improved. For instance, if sex workers were not subject to criminal charges, then many fewer of them would have a criminal record, which in many countries is a major impediment to gaining access to other types of employment, decent housing and services. They would then be in a much better position to lead decent lives and to make meaningful choices.

Some critics of full decriminalization argue that buying sex should be a criminal offense, since these “customers” provide the demand for a service which is inevitably supplied by women who have few other options. For example, journalist Julie Bindel argues that decriminalizing the buying of sex amounts to the “state-sanctioned abuse of adult women” and privileges those “who believe it is their human right to violate others.”

These are serious claims, made in the spirit of protecting women and in support of gender equality. Arresting those who buy sex seems to promote gender equality by punishing those who view women’s bodies as objects for their use. However, criminalization of any aspect of sex work merely encourages concealment and so subjects actual women’s bodies to greater risk of abuse. And until the unjust background conditions that deny women better opportunities for education and gainful employment are rectified, the least we can do is implement policies that protect them from the threat of violence and incarceration that currently characterizes sex work in most countries.


Jeffrey Gauthier:

Amnesty International’s new policy comes in the midst of the debate between those calling for full decriminalization and regulation of prostitution, and those favoring asymmetrical decriminalization (decriminalizing the sale but not the purchase) and abolition of the practice. Amnesty puts forward a human rights case against the latter by arguing that “respecting, protecting and fulfilling the human rights of sex workers” requires full decriminalization of all aspects of sex work. Does this effectively resolve the debate? That seems doubtful.

The Amnesty policy openly relies on the experience and testimony of those who have been and currently are willingly employed as prostitutes. Were this the only class of persons with a legitimate stake in the debate, the case for full decriminalization and regulation would have great, perhaps decisive, force. Such a policy could serve to curb the worst forms of exploitation and abuse, while not aiming to eliminate the sexual marketplace upon which sex workers depend for a living. Abolitionists, however, tend to have a more expansive view of the legitimately interested parties, including current and former sex workers who are critical of the practice, and perhaps more importantly the young people (primarily young women) who will become the next generation of prostitutes. Assuming that nearly all people seek to avoid prostitution as a job, the supply of willing sex workers inevitably falls far short of demand, pressuring the most disadvantaged into prostitution. Abolitionists assume that all people have a reasonable interest in not being pressured into prostitution and that criminalizing demand is the best way to give effect to that interest—even if that disadvantages those already engaged in prostitution.

It is worth noting that asymmetrical criminalization—where the offer but not its acceptance is illegal—is not peculiar to sex work. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1967, for example, an employer is liable for offering hazard pay for technologically eliminable risks even if a worker accepts or welcomes the offer. As in the case prostitution abolitionism, the interests of willing risk-takers are compromised in the interests of a putatively larger class of risk-averse workers who have a reasonable interest not having to field such offers.

Nothing I’ve said should be taken to settle the question one-way or the other. Abolitionists could be wrong about the supposed harm associated with a suitably regulated practice of prostitution, and thus wrong about the existence of a reasonable interest in not having to field offers for sex work. Perhaps asymmetrical criminalization does not sufficiently curtail demand to justify the policy. These are questions for debate. Amnesty’s policy, however, effectively cuts off the debate altogether by placing the rights of willing sex workers already engaged in the trade ahead of all others.


Carol Hay:

What’s significant about Amnesty International’s vote is its call to decriminalize the buying as well as the selling of consensual sex.  Critics argue that this would let pimps and johns and those who profit off the exploited women who engage in sex work off the hook.  Proponents argue that keeping sex work in a legal grey area where it’s legal to sell but not to buy forces these women to operate in the shadows where they’ll continue to be at risk of considerable violence.

Before looking at the details of this case in particular, let’s look at what we should clearly agree about, and what we might reasonably disagree about, when it comes to sex work in general.

We should all agree that sex trafficking—forcing women, often as girls, into the sex trade—is abominable.  We should agree that those who participate in sex work are often multiply disadvantaged by racism, poverty, or a history of childhood sexual abuse.  We should agree that these vulnerable members of our society are at risk for exploitation, and that our goal should be to protect them.

One thing we might reasonably disagree about is whether the sex trade can ever be entered into consensually.  Some argue that it can be, that the choice to enter into sex work is no more coerced than the choice to enter into any other low-wage, low-prestige, or dangerous occupation that might not be most people’s dream job but that we aren’t about to criminalize.  Others argue that sex work is an occupation that no one would choose in the absence of coercion, that the “choice” to become a sex worker is no choice at all, and that the criminalization of this work is a legitimate bit of paternalism that’s necessary to protect vulnerable people.

Another thing we might reasonably disagree about is whether selling sex is intrinsically different from selling other kinds of labor or bodily services.  Some argue that there is no relevant difference, that in occupations ranging from masseuses to therapists to models to writers we put the most intimate parts of our bodies and our minds up for sale all the time.  Others disagree, arguing that sex work is an institution that entrenches and legitimizes misogynist norms and beliefs such as our culture’s eroticization of gendered relationships of dominance and submission or the view that women exist primarily for the sexual use of men.  (It’s worth saying that certain prurient views that underlie some people’s belief that sex work is different in kind from all other work should be rejected out of hand as unreasonable.  These include a hatred or fear of sex in general and female sexuality in particular, and the belief that women’s sexuality is inherently dangerous and must be controlled both for their own sakes and for the sakes of others.)

These reasonable disagreements are important, and they’re worth sorting out.  But we shouldn’t let them distract us from another reasonable disagreement that’s more pressing here.  We agree that the vulnerable and potentially exploited women who engage in sex work should be protected, but we can still debate the practical question of whether the full decriminalization of sex work will have the effect of making these women safer.

Proponents of full decriminalization argue that the harms and vulnerabilities of consensual sex work are at worst entirely caused by, or at best exacerbated by, its illegality.  They argue that criminalization deprives women of the ability to depend on the police for their protection, prevents them from unionizing or banding together for safety and support, and forces them to rely on exploitative pimps for security.  And they argue that fully decriminalizing consensual sex work will free up the legal resources to prosecute those who actually deserve it—the pimps and traffickers who force women and girls into this work, who profit off their work, and who prevent them from leaving.

Amnesty International’s gamble is that decriminalizing not only the selling of sex but also the buying of it will grant sex workers the same labor protections as all other workers.  Critics have argued that this move will make it easier for pimps to exploit women.  Amnesty International’s gamble is that it will either eliminate the need for pimps altogether or at least subject their activities to the same level of public and legal scrutiny as any other employer.  Given the dire state of sex trafficking worldwide, this might well be a gamble worth taking.


Patricia Marino:

Amnesty’s resolution is based on a belief that decriminalization is the best way to protect the rights of sex workers, by reducing the associated exploitation, coercion, stigma and abuse that they often suffer. Sometimes this belief is challenged on empirical grounds, with a denial that decriminalization will have the intended effects. These matters are complex, but I find plausible Amnesty’s claim that decriminalization facilitates sex workers’ ability to protect themselves and defend their rights. Other times, though, the belief is challenged on normative grounds. It is suggested, for example, that sex work is, in itself, inherently degrading or exploitative, a “desperate choice” that no one would make, except under duress or delusion.

But why should this be? After all, doing things in exchange for other things is one of the basic ways most of us get through life. What is it about sex that would make it different? One answer sometimes given is that because of the special relationship of sex to one’s identity, the activities of sex work are unlike those of other exchanges: sex work damages the self. But why should we think sex plays this special role for everyone — or even for most people? Presumably people’s relationship to their sexuality varies widely. Another answer proposed is that sex work requires workers to alienate themselves from their subjectivity: in accordance with the norms of commerce, sex workers must show their clients a good time and thus cannot show their true feelings. As my students frequently point out, in modern life this is true of many jobs, including retail sales clerk, barista, and therapist. Too often forgotten, in my opinion, is that the best source of information on many of these matters is sex workers themselves: especially when they speak about the relevant harms and their causes, we have an obligation to treat their voices as authoritative.


Philip Pettit:

Most of us will agree that consensual sex work is not something valuable in itself: sexual favor is ideally earned in reciprocal affection, not granted for payment in cash. But most of us will equally agree that criminalizing consensual sex work is unlikely to undermine the oldest profession. So why criminalize it? Why not choose instead to allow it but to impose regulations to guard against the dangers of domination and disease?

Some will say that criminalization serves to express the widely shared values of the community and others that it is likely to reduce the incidence of a morally offensive form of behavior. But even if they are admitted as relevant or sound, those considerations are vastly outweighed by the bad effects that criminalization promises, and has indeed proved, to have.

These effects are: to make it impossible to regulate the sex industry, thereby opening up the dangers of domination and disease; to create a source of reliable income for criminal organizations; and to make it likely that that money will be used to bribe and corrupt police and other officials.

Those who righteously insist that consensual sex work should be criminalized, notwithstanding these effects, fail to recognize that in this instance, as in so many instances of law-making, the best is the enemy of the good.


Rebecca Whisnant:

In my view and that of other feminist abolitionists, prostitution both reflects and cements the broader subordinated condition of women under male supremacy, while also constituting its distinctive “bottom,” setting a subclass of women (and children, and a relative few men) apart and dehumanizing them in an especially devastating way.

For us, then, Amnesty’s decision—though more or less expected—is difficult to bear. Because we believe prostitution itself to be a massive violation of women’s human rights, to have the world’s largest and most respected human rights organization recommend its full decriminalization is a bitter pill indeed, prompting raw expressions of grief and rage on social media and in personal communications. As prostitution survivor, activist, and author Rachel Moran has put it, “To be prostituted is humiliating enough; to legalise prostitution is to condone that humiliation, and to absolve those who inflict it. It is an agonising insult” (Paid For, 2013, p. 221).

Amnesty proudly heralds “a vote to protect the human rights of sex workers”—no doubt leading many to wonder who could possibly oppose such a manifestly noble endeavor. One has to take a second look in order to see whose rights—to do what—are being protected here. Amnesty assures us, “Our policy is not about the rights of buyers of sex—it is entirely focused on protecting sex workers who face a range of human rights violations that are linked to criminalization.”

In fact, they are quite clearly and unequivocally recommending the full decriminalization of all parties in the sex trade: pimps and buyers as well as prostituted persons. Those inclined to celebrate this decision should at least fully understand what they are celebrating. In regimes of legalized or decriminalized prostitution, male sex-buyers become legitimate customers of a service like any other, free from any whiff of stigma or legal risk. Pimps of all stripes, from street to Craigslist to the mega-brothels of Germany and more, become legal, respectable businessmen.

The way to address the harms of prostitution is by disincentiving both pimping and sex-buying—that is, making both selling women and buying women riskier and more stigmatized (and, in the former case, less lucrative). Legalizing or decriminalizing prostitution does exactly the opposite. As prostitution survivor and activist Natasha Falle recently tweeted:

If full decriminalization (wiping out pimping laws) is not a ‘green light for pimps,’ why is my pimp laughing on his page right now? @amnesty

To recognize Amnesty’s decision as fatally and tragically wrong, all one needs to know is two things: first, prostitution as we know it, here in the actual world, is rife with human damage and tragic abuses, some of which are considered “trafficking” and some of which are not. And second, legalizing or decriminalizing prostitution facilitates and increases these abuses.

Wherever women and girls have even minimally tolerable other options for feeding and sheltering themselves and their children, very few choose to engage in prostitution. Certainly, not nearly enough do so to fulfil the apparently insatiable demand of men (as a class) to pay for the sexual use of female bodies. Therefore, because there’s serious money to be made off of said demand, more desperate women and girls will be found elsewhere and brought in to satisfy the surplus demand. Or, manipulative and coercive means will be used to induce unwilling women into prostitution and keep them there. Hence, in both cases: trafficking.

When sex-buying is legalized (or decriminalized), more men do it; so demand goes up. When pimping is legalized (or decriminalized) in a particular country, the pimps already there are emboldened, and pimps elsewhere head straight for that country’s borders, where the money’s good and the legal risk nonexistent. Both heightened consumer demand and reduced risks for pimps feed trafficking; therefore, trafficking goes up, not down. Thus, if you are opposed to trafficking, you should oppose decriminalizing pimps and johns.

The Amnesty documents emphasize repeatedly that only consensual sex work should be decriminalized. Furthermore, they say, the eventual policy will be “fully consistent with Amnesty International’s positions with respect to consent to sexual activity, including in contexts that involve abuse of power or positions of authority.”

Given all we know about the global realities of prostitution, and all that many of us have come to understand about the complexities of sexual consent, surely we must take Amnesty’s assurances here with a hefty grain of salt. Let’s just say that if Amnesty really wants to decriminalize only fully consensual “sex work,” and if they apply to this endeavor even a moderately stringent (and feminist) conception of sexual consent, they will find themselves with damn little left to decriminalize.


Discussion welcome in the comments.

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