By Lauren Hersh, Special for CNN
Editor’s note: Lauren Hersh is New York Director of Equality Now and head of its Sex Trafficking program combatting violence against women and girls. She is a former prosecutor at the Kings County District Attorney’s Office which covers Brooklyn.
Misguided attempts to reduce stigma through legalization mean governments benefit financially from sex trafficking at the expense of people in prostitution.
My friend Rachel Moran describes in her book, “Paid For,” how she was taken into state custody at 14 and within a year, was homeless, hungry and vulnerable. Her lack of choice fed her into the belly of prostitution. For the next seven years, she lived through repeated rapes from buyers and relentless violence. But physical harm and exploitation were not all she endured.
For Rachel and countless survivors worldwide, societal stigma is a concept that they have faced all too often. It arises because society dehumanizes people in prostitution, treating them as second class citizens at best.
Stigma prevents prostituted people from accessing adequate health care and places them at higher risk of violence by abusers who often act with impunity.
To some, the solution is simple – legalize the commercial sex industry and stigma will vanish.
But experts, government reports and academic publications are increasingly confirming what survivors have been saying for a long time – that the legalization or decriminalization of the commercial sex industry does not reduce stigma, does not eliminate violence and fails to make things safer for people in prostitution.
In an effort “to put an end to the exploitation of people for the purposes of prostitution: human trafficking,” the Netherlands introduced legislation in 2000, which legalized prostitution. For the last 13 years, the world has watched this important experiment to reduce stigma and violence.
The Netherlands is a known destination for sex tourism and continues to experience the commercial sexual exploitation of children and trafficking in both its legal and illegal sectors.
In an attempt to normalize prostitution and ‘bring it out in the open,’ women are encouraged to register for tax purposes in the Netherlands. And yet, only a small number of women actually register.
Rachel Moran describes the reasons for this in her book “Paid For:” “I understand exactly why many reject that and work illegally to avoid it, because if I had been forced to choose between working in secret or being officially tagged a prostitute I would have done exactly the same thing. The pro-prostitution lobby would say I was suffering from the ill-effects of ‘whore stigma.’ No. The only ill-effects I was suffering from were the ill-effects of prostitution.”
But the Netherlands is not alone in recognizing the huge failings in what was intended to de-stigmatize prostitution, to bring it ‘out of the shadows’ and to reduce exploitation.
In New Zealand, where prostitution and activities surrounding it were decriminalized in 2003, Prime Minister John Key has said this has not resulted in significant reductions in street and underage prostitution.
In a government report, women in prostitution also said that the deregulation of prostitution did not reduce violence in the sex industry and that “abuse and harassment of street-based sex workers by drunken members of the public is common."
Meanwhile, a service provider in Victoria, Australia, where prostitution was legalized in the 1980s, said that "women constantly tell us that their status as having done prostitution is used against them”. Germany is the latest country to openly discuss the failure of legalization in its national media.
Neither legalization nor decriminalization cures the inherent gender inequality that arises when a buyer purchases the body of a woman or girl. Stella Marr, a survivor of prostitution and founder of Sex Trafficking Survivors United, emphasizes that stigma originates on the demand side “from the buyers who use their political and financial power to buy the younger, poorer, disadvantaged and more vulnerable. The secrecy demanded by these buyers to conceal the harm they cause creates an especially devastating form of stigma: a suffocating silence enforced by fear and shame.”
When governments fail to tackle the demand side of the commercial sex industry, they not only fail to protect people in prostitution, they also financially benefit through the increased tax income generated from the exploitation of people.
But they are not the only ones to benefit. By bringing the commercial sex industry ‘above ground’, traffickers, pimps, brothel owners and sex buyers all profit in this billion dollar business.
In an effort to prioritize the human rights and safety of people in prostitution, Sweden, Norway and Iceland have adopted the Nordic Model, an approach that criminalizes the purchase of sex, decriminalizes the sale of sex and provides exit strategies for those who are being purchased.
At the launch of the EU Civil Society Platform against Trafficking in Human Beings in Brussels this May, Myria Vassiladou, EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator suggested that: “Member states of the EU are legally obligated to take measures to tackle the demand that fuels trafficking." Yet, few have done so.
After courageously exiting the commercial sex industry, Rachel Moran explains in “Paid For” what is fundamentally wrong about government attempts to legalize prostitution rather than focus on demand: “To be prostituted is humiliating enough; to legalize prostitution is to condone that humiliation, and to absolve those who inflict it. It is an agonizing insult.”