Prostitution and Trafficking: A Policy Debate

Great article/debate from our friend Amanda Kloer. Lets start the debate and really burn up the comments on this one.

By Amanda Kloer and Tessa Lynn

6a00d83452364969e2010536ee1642970c-800wiOne of the most controversial topics both in the anti-trafficking field and on this blog has been  whether legalized or decriminalized prostitution policies will help end human trafficking or exacerbate the problem.  I believe, based on overwhelming evidence, that legalizing prostitution increases human trafficking and other harms to women and girls.  A regular reader, Tessa Lynn* feels differently.  I invited her to an email debate, and she accepted.  Below is the beginning of what is a much larger debate, and Tessa and I hope you will continue to engage in it openly and respectfully.  

Amanda: Legal commercial sex markets exacerbate human trafficking because they increase demand for commercial sex, provide a safe place for criminals to exploit victims, and create barriers for police to help victims.  For example, since prostitution was legalized in Holland, human trafficking has risen, so much that Amsterdam’s mayor is now closing many prostitution zones.  The legal market has allowed criminality- including drugs, rape, and trafficking– to thrive, harming thousands of women and lining traffickers’ pockets. 

Tessa: Thank you for inviting me to participate in this debate, Amanda.  Abuses you described thrive under the criminalization of prostitution.   Criminalizing prostitution encourages human trafficking and violence, while also creating barriers to receiving police protection.  In some cases, the police enforcing the anti-prostitution laws are the abusers.  Criminalizing prostitution shifts the main focus away from stopping human trafficking and towards incarcerating sex workers.  Trafficking sex workers into jail cages does not stop human trafficking.

Amanda: Keeping prostitution illegal does not jail trafficking victims or women in prostitution, but gives law enforcement a legal tool to identify and arrest abusers, traffickers, pimps and buyers.  Police brutality is a serious issue to be addressed, but should we make every crime where the perpetrator has suffered police brutality legal?  No.  Keep prostitution illegal and focus resources on educating and training police to identify the abusers, pimps, and traffickers and protect and respect women.

Tessa: Even if you don’t intend for illegal prostitution to jail trafficked people or sex workers, this is what’s happening.  A study by the Sex Workers Project found that numerous sex workers as well as trafficked people have been incarcerated under law enforcement raids that are “supposed” to be about fighting trafficking.  This report found that community based approaches to fighting human trafficking are more effective than law enforcement tactics focused on incarcerating sex workers. 

Amanda: I agree we need more community-based approaches to fighting trafficking, but that doesn’t mean we can or should disempower law enforcement from helping victims as well.  Law enforcement agencies have helped hundreds of victims find safety and get T-Visas.  We can empower both law enforcement and community groups to combat trafficking without legalizing an industry that has the highest homicide rate of any for women.  Police and community organizations can reduce victimization of women together.   

Tessa: Decriminalizing prostitution doesn’t disempower anybody from helping victims. Rather, it would free up resources that could be used for this purpose.  In response to comments about prostitution having a high homicide rate, this isn’t the case under every system of prostitution.  Instead, the criminalization of prostitution encourages homicides.  It’s scary to think about how many more sex workers might be murdered before the dominant society realizes how harmful these prostitution prohibitionist laws are.

Amanda: Legalizing prostitution won’t save lives, but cost lives.  It would remove tools and resources from law enforcement- those with the most experience rescuing trafficking victims.  It would increase the number of men demanding commercial sex, and the number of women and kids traffickers lure to meet that demand.  Traffickers thrive in legal markets, where humans are commodities.  Keep prostitution illegal, empower community groups and law enforcement to collaborate, prevent trafficking, prosecute traffickers, and protect victims. 

Tessa:  Criminalizing prostitution pushes it further underground where traffickers and other abusers thrive, often without being held accountable for their abuses.  Incarcerating sex workers and trafficked people doesn’t protect victims or prevent trafficking.  It’s essential to reform policies in a way that decreases the likelihood of becoming trafficked in the first place.  Though decriminalizing prostitution is part of such efforts, trafficking occurs in various industries. It’s also important to reform immigration laws and global socioeconomic policies.

So what do you think?  Can Tessa and I find any common ground in our differing positions?  Can we move forward and work together to prevent human trafficking, arrest the traffickers, and care for the survivors? 

*Tessa chose to use a pseudonym for the debate to protect her confidentiality, safety, and security.

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