Is There a Better Prostitution Policy?

Sam Lee of NYU and Petra Persson of Columbia send an e-mail:

We have written a research paper [“Human Trafficking and Regulating Prostitution”] that theoretically analyzes the impact of prostitution laws on voluntary sex work and sex trafficking. The central message of the paper is a new policy proposal (see Q6 below). Here are some of the questions we ask and the answers we find:

Q1: Which regulatory approach, legalization or criminalization, is more effective against trafficking?
A1: Neither. Either approach can increase or decrease trafficking, depending on the appeal of voluntary sex work, which in turn depends on things such as the female-male wage gap.

Q2: What about studies that document higher trafficking inflows into countries that legalize prostitution?
A2: In the presence of sex tourism (which is, for example, non-negligible for Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands), the increase in trafficking in the legalizing country can be more than offset by a decrease in trafficking in the neighboring countries. Thus, overall, trafficking can actually decrease.

Q3: Which is more effective against trafficking: criminalizing prostitutes or criminalizing johns?
A3: Criminalizing johns is more effective against trafficking than criminalizing prostitutes. It is also less unjust toward coerced prostitutes.

Q4: If criminalization reduces trafficking, is it an attractive option?
A4: It would still pit the prevention of trafficking against the wellbeing (or civil rights, if you will) of voluntary sex workers. So, it depends on your perspective. This is very much reflected in the intense public debate between sex worker organizations and anti-trafficking organizations.

Q5: Which countries are prone to trafficking inflows? Which are most likely to enact and enforce anti-prostitution laws?
A5: Countries with high income levels and low male-female income ratios should have higher levels of trafficked prostitution. By the same token, countries with the lowest male-female income ratios are also the most likely to enforce effective laws against prostitution, such as criminalizing johns (examples: Sweden, Norway, and Iceland).

Q6: Is there a better policy alternative?
A6: We propose a “safe harbor” approach that combines legal regulated prostitution with severe criminal penalties on johns who purchase sex elsewhere. This policy is much more effective and can eradicate trafficking precisely because (!) it creates a “safe harbor” for voluntary sex workers. The logic is that, because (coerced and voluntary) suppliers of sex are competitors, we need to channel demand to the “desirable” suppliers. The above policy achieves that and so not only eradicates trafficking but also safeguards (the rights of) voluntary sex workers. The paper explains in more detail how that works, how it could be implemented, and whether this policy would be more or less expensive than the current approaches against trafficking (outright criminalization & law enforcement actions targeted directly at trafficking organizations). So far, this policy has not been tried by any country.


Why should prostitution be illegal in the first place? I thought this was a free country ;(


You know what would reduce both prostitution and human trafficking? Open immigration.


I don't think trafficking has much of anything to do with immigration. These are women who are essentially enslaved to perform sex acts. That they cross borders is just a matter of course, not the end itself.


Proposed solution is flawed. Any woman needs to be able to prostitute herself without having to go through official channels. This will always happen so it must be accepted. Target trafficking by targetting trafficking.

Al Mir Rey

I´m either not proud not shame to recognize to be (used to be is more apropriate) user of female prostitution, always with voluntary suppliers. It's sad that being so obviously a "better policy" the one you wrote, i'll be hard to reach a consensus for the benefit of innocents, voluntary providers, users, and society overall


I find it odd that the authors introduce a moral argument ("It is also less unjust toward coerced prostitutes") but fail to apply it to why we shouldn't legalize prostitution to begin with (as shown by their proposed alternative).


It should not be illegal, that does not make any sense at all. It is the oldest profession in the world and it will always happen even if its 'illegal'.
Check out the Netherlands where it is not illegal but allowed and controlled. The prostitutes over there do their job in comfortable and above all save places. They get free medical checks and actually receive a good payment for their the services they provide.


The paper doesn't say it should be illegal. Quite the contrary, no?

Francis Flaherty

Socialized prostitution, now there's a battle cry for some politician! Under government control, it could be a taxable service and solve the many budget crises. Would limiting them to floating sexinos protect family values? All those campaign issues would probably provide more interesting ads. And they would not be allowed in prime time. This policy proposal has lots of ancillary attractions.


High moral hazard here. A6 looks like something that would be manipulated by cartels and the government. Sex rates wouldn't be competitive at all. Reminds me somewhat of the taxi situation across much of the country.


I agree. But this also true in many other cases, where we've got licensing requirements: doctors, lawyers, accountants, school teachers, medical technicians, nurses, therapists, aerospace engineers, biomedical engineers, agricultural inspectors, anesthesiologists, insurance sales agents, insurance appraisers, bus drivers, building inspectors, to name just a few. Licensing is actually quite common. Here's a website where you can browse state-by-state which occupations require a license:

I'm sure that some of this licensing leads to "cartels" (here's an article on that: But I'm not sure that we would want not want to have licensing in some cases. The question is how to best implement it.


Doesn't the unofficial police containment policy in Western Australia and similar policies (official and unofficial) in other Australian states match the description of "safe harbor" that is described here?


The police containment policy was an "unwritten policy" and suffered from lack of clarity, the absence of legislative foundation and potential to afford opportunities for corruption. But the 2007 Report of the Prostitution Law Reform Working Group is very much along the lines of the proposal (certification + monitoring) but it also has several differences: It proposes certification instead of licensing, no registration of prostitutes, no certification requirement for employee-run small (less than 2 employees) operations, and no criminalization of buyers who purchase sex from an illegitimate source. Here's the report:

The former unofficial police containment policy actually included registration of sex workers. But having no legal foundation, I think, there was a problem with abuse of power by police officers. Clearly, any type of regulation (design) should make sure that such corruption is prevented.


Amy Storbakken

This makes sense to me. Some people will say prostituiton is always wrong, but it is hard to prevent someone of legal age fom engaging an an activitiy that supports them economically and potentially harms no one. If sex workers are free to exist and organize they can protect themselves instead of being virtual slaves to pimps and male dominated crime organizations.

Sex workers can earn much more money that those with regular jobs, hence the attraction to this field for some. There may be more oppression in working long hours at a tedious job that does not even cover ones living expenses than engaging in some prostitution.

Dan owens

i recently moved back from living in a country in central america where prostitution is not against the law BUT pimping is and that eliviates alot of problems . if a john does not pay the girl she simply calls the police and they come and he has to pay her plus pay them for coming. the pimps get the girls on drugs that in turn make them dependent on him. most all of the girls i knew did not do drugs and did not like to drink more than one or two drinks while they were working.they liked to keep their wits about them, its a business. again most of the girls were from other places and most of their money was sent home to their familys. From what i have seen on t.v it takes @6 cops to bust one john and most of the time it causes alot of problems at home[divorce]plus the courts time to prosicute a law abiding citizen that is only trying to get what hes not getting at home, i say save the tax payers money and put the cops to catching real criminals,save the court cost, the court time and take the pimps off the street ,and let everyone else persue happiness.

[WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us '0 which is not a hashcash value.


Eric M. Jones.

"So far, this policy has not been tried by any country."

When I read that, I suspect there is a very, very, very good reason.


This is quibbling over how to legalize counting angels on the head of a pin.

Renting out bodies for sex should be no more subject to law than renting out bodies to dig ditches or investigate quantum physics.

As far as sex slavery is about slavery, there are already laws for that. As far as sex slavery is about sex, it is none of the law's business any more than digging ditches or investigating quantum physics.


@Felix: Your argument (which is actually not an argument but just a personal view) sounds grand and universal but renting out your brain for legal counsel, renting out your brain and body to give medical treatment, renting out your brain and body to drive school buses, renting out your brain and body to be a kindergarten teacher, renting out your brain and body to design or fly airplanes, or more generally, renting out your brain and body for any type of profession should not be subject to law then. Curiously, though, many professions are. I guess, if there is concern about undesirable supply (bad doctors, bad lawyers, bad teachers, bad pilots, and, in this case, trafficked prostitutes), some at least think, regulation may make sense. So, it's not as simple as your cleverly phrased analogies make sound.

Gavin White

Beautiful work! I appreciate your willingness to examine closely such a charged issue, and contribute to the creation of safe, sane policy.

I'm also amusing myself with my immediate mental association with your answer to q6, when you write that no-one has yet tried this approach: I thought, "what about the ancient temples of Ishtar?" What about them, indeed! Do records survive regarding trafficking and criminalization at the time?

In any case, I think it's true of modern nations that none has tried your suggestion. And, given that the legal safe-harbor might be geographically agnostic in some ways (to minimize barriers to entry for voluntary sex workers, while still verifying their consent and safety), I think this is an idea worth trying.