Perhaps the most powerful panel I attended at the 59th annual Commission on the Status of Women was entitled “Criminalizing Sex Purchase: A Method to Combat HIV/AIDS?”. This session was sponsored by National Organization for Women’s Shelters, Young Women’s Shelters in Sweden, and Unizon, and its impressive panel included women physicians/healthcare workers, activists (such as Rachira Gupta, recipient of Clinton Global Initiative Award and an Emmy Award), and retired sex workers themselves from around the globe.
Boldly, these women began their presentation challenging the stance of the United Nations/UN Women in their effort to legalize prostitution. This, they argue, does not at all help protect or empower sex worker women for many reasons, the most important of which being that most women do not want to be sex workers at all. It is impossible to delineate prostitution from human trafficking and as long as prostitution continues to take place, so too will women being forced, captured, or sold into sex work because the demand for their services remains no matter where, why, or what conditions the women workers come from. Therefore, decriminalization of prostitution more times than often ends up decriminalizing pimping and brothels, and giving sex purchasers impunity while leaving sex workers alone with no support of the law behind them.
Furthermore, legalizing prostitution is flawed, the panel insisted, because it assumes that women possess equal status and opportunity to exercise choice in the matter of involving themselves in sex work in the first place, which disregards whether they are trafficked, monitored by pimps, or left with no other options to support their family. Additionally, it also disregards these women’s ability to exercise choice in the critical decisions that are part of such work such as using condoms, untraditional/violent penetration, or knowing whether their partners are infected with sexually transmitted infections. Unfortunately, many sex workers perceive their status as subordinate to their pimps and their purchasers, or are in desperate financial situations that lead them to silence their opinions, no longer consider their own health, and accept more money for riskier clients/behaviors.
Optimistically, the “Nordic Model” approach to prostitution has shown promising results in Europe after widespread enforcement of laws decriminalizing sex workers themselves, but criminalizing sex buyers for their purchases. Here, legislation attacks the overwhelming demand for prostitution by assigning punishment and accountability to purchasers, scaring them away and leading to less instances of prostitution altogether – a step towards the ultimate goal of total abolishment of sex work. Specific data on Nordic societies with this legislation, such as Sweden, compared to similarly cultured societies that legalized the transaction of prostitution, such as Germany, is striking. There is a steep decline in instances of sex work in Sweden where buyers are targeted, but a blooming industry in Germany under open purchase laws, with about 4,000 women catering to about one million men each day, with an increasing amount of those 4,000 women being trafficked into the industry.
Ultimately, the panel acknowledged that the eradication of prostitution is a long, hard battle, but they emphasized the importance of absolutely terminating such work, and offered a few strategic steps towards achieving this lofty goal. Firstly, they asked that more data, and more recent data be gathered on prostitution and its effects. This is important because current decisions to legalize prostitution are being made based on outdated and overall minimally available information on the trends and consequences of the industry. Secondly, the panel begged for the true lack of agency women are able to express to be acknowledged, and that these fundamentally unequal grounds in which they stand against men do not allow them a fair opportunity to exercise choice in sexual matters. And further, they called for the recognition that it is this societal inequality that causes the legalization of prostitution to continue to cultivate a culture where men believe women are items that can be used and bought under their own demand. Lastly however, the panel underscored the fact that the fight against prostitution should most importantly be recognized as every person’s battle that is in every person’s best interest, since it not only the sex workers and the sex purchasers that are at risk for adverse consequences such as sexually transmitted infections, but also these people’s own spouses and other partners that remain oblivious and not considered in the decision-making of such risky behaviors.