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No, decriminalising prostitution won't reduce sexual violence – this is why

The sex-trade survivors I interviewed for my book told me that, in countries where the sex trade is decriminalised or legalised, punters treat women however they wish now because they have no fear of legal reprisal

Julie Bindel
Wednesday 20 December 2017 17:09 GMT
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Countries that decriminalised prostitution are now admitting that it hasn’t gone to plan
Countries that decriminalised prostitution are now admitting that it hasn’t gone to plan (Getty/iStock)

The dramatic headline “Decriminalising prostitution could reduce sexual violence and STD transmission” feels familiar. I am reading this from a press release announcing new research published by the prestigious Oxford University Press US, based on a study by two academics in the field of public health.

“[The study] finds that Rhode Island’s six-year prostitution decriminalisation policy increased the size of the sex market, but it also appears that during this period both rape offences and female gonorrhea incidence declined dramatically,” continues the release. “Prostitution prohibition is mostly due to moral concerns, though disease transmission and victimisation risks associated with sex markets are also policy concerns.”

And there we have it. Any critique of the sex trade, whether from Christian evangelists or radical feminists concerned about the buying and selling of women’s bodies, are dismissed equally as “moralistic”. Additionally, use of the term “decriminalisation” when related to the sex trade is usually understood as merely stopping arresting the women.

I am a sex trade abolitionist, and as a feminist, want to see an end to prostitution. Every other feminist abolitionist I know campaigns for the decriminalisation of prostituted people but wants to see criminal sanctions against the brothel owners, pimps, traffickers and other exploiters. What blanket decriminalisation means, as used by the researchers in this report, is removing all criminal sanctions from those that run the trade.

“Recently, big organisations like Amnesty International and the Lancet Board have come out in favour of decriminalising sex work. This paper presents important causal evidence that doing so would improve public health outcomes and reduce violence against women,” said one of the paper’s authors, Manisha Shah. But what is the evidence relied on by the Lancet Board and Amnesty International? I researched this very closely for my recent book on the sex trade, and found the arguments to be wafer-thin.

In July 2014, a special edition of the Lancet was published focusing on “sex work”. It proved to be highly influential, and provided ammunition for pro-prostitution lobbyists to argue that removing all criminal sanctions from the sex trade would benefit public health. The authors of the special edition, and the Lancet editorial team, sent out a press release announcing findings from the research with the headline: “Decriminalising sex work would cut HIV infections by one third”. Many newspapers covered this astounding claim, and few people would have read the research that led to this conclusion.

Slaves on our Streets: The Vietnamese girl trafficked into London to work as a prostitute

The authors had made a number of assumptions on top of assumptions in order to come up with this claim. Decriminalisation across the board would result, they argued, in zero police corruption or violence, zero violence from punters, 100 per cent condom use and easy access to health clinics. Ignoring the fact that blanket equalisation increases the sex market, something even the authors of the recent report admit, which in turn results in more women being involved in prostitution, the claims seemed even more extraordinary.

As we know from basic free-market economy 101 theory, a saturated market results in lower prices, an increase in demand and supply and increased acceptance of the “merchandise”. When we apply this to the sex trade, this means more women abused in prostitution, more men paying for sex, and further risk of pressure to practice unsafe sex. It also results in a total acceptance of the system of prostitution, and of men paying women for access to the inside of their bodies for one-sided sexual pleasure.

In the study, the authors favourably cite pro-legalisation academic Ronald Weitzer, who, in his book Legalising Prostitution argues that indoor legalised prostitution usually involves less exploitation, less risk of violence, more control over working conditions, more job satisfaction and higher self-esteem. I have visited brothels and interviewed those women and in Holland, Germany, Nevada, New Zealand and Australia they have found that the opposite is true.

As far back as 2004, Dutch politicians and a number of police officers and citizens were admitting that legalisation had been an unmitigated disaster, and had delivered the opposite that it had promised. The sex-trade survivors who had been prostituted under decriminalisation or legalisation that I interviewed for my book told me that esteem had never been lower for them than when the punters were legitimised, and could treat the women however they wished because they had no fear of the long arm of the law.

Legalisation has been a disaster. Under this regime, demand, trafficking of women and girls, and the illegal brothel sector has increased. There is no evidence of a decrease in violence, HIV rates or murders of women in legal sex trades, but there is evidence that the rights and freedoms promised by lobbyists for legalisation and decriminalisation were transferred to the brothel owners and sex buyers.

The sex trade is a cesspit of abuse and horror for the women and girls involved in it. Risks to public health would be dramatically reduced if governments were to accept that prostitution results in serious mental and physical harm for those caught in its trap.

Julie Bindel is the author of The Pimping of Prostitution – Abolishing the Sex Work Myth

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