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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.