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world wide wednesdays :: romantic traffic

a friend on facebook posted this article earlier on amnesty international's push to have sex work decriminalized. it sparked a debate about how helpful such a process would actually be and i find myself still mulling over the good arguments on both sides: there's the familiar [predominantly north american and european] argument that legality is a pathway to social acceptability and that it affords sex trade workers protections they can't get as long as they're treated as criminals. the flip side of that is that the vast majority of sex workers [particularly outside of north america and europe] are involved in the business because they are forced to be and making it legal implies approval of a system that enslaves women [because the vast majority of sex workers are women] and can give those who exploit them the cover of law. [if you don't think that's a potentially huge problem, consider how labour law is weighted in favour of the employer.] it also bears consideration that those arguments are not mutually exclusive and dealing with the problems of the sex trade [as well as the problems that people have with the sex trade] requires addressing both issues.

i don't pretend to have answers, but i thought that, in an attempt to figure out a stance, i'd dedicate this week's world wide wednesday to a look at the business of sex around the world.

legal status of prostitution


for starters, there's the question of where it's legal and what exactly is meant by "legal". most people know that over great swathes of europe, prostitution is legal and by and large unrestricted, except when it comes to minors. the same is true over much of south and central america as well. on both continents, however, there are a number of caveats in place that are intended to make prostitution safer for the prostitutes themselves [or to keep prostitution away from certain areas], for instance:

  • france, denamark, cyprus, costa rica, mexico and el salvador (among others) prohibit soliciting, abetting or profiting from the prostitution of another. many more countries have laws against operating brothels, but don't specifically forbid pimping. 
  • colombia has rules specifically to prevent sex tourism and the punishments are pretty serious: up to eight years in prison for those who organize and/ or facilitate. 
  • ecuador, greece, latvia, turkey, senegal and a few others require prostitutes to register with the government and to get health checks periodically. 
  • certain islamic countries allow "short-term marriages" to get around laws against prostitution. the man actually marries the prostitute for a few hours and divorces her immediately afterward. and no, she doesn't get to take half his stuff. those rules usually just apply to locals, though, not visitors.

in other areas, prostitution is restricted, which means that it's legal in some circumstances and illegal in a lot of others. that can encompass a wide range of options, so if you're planning on sampling the sexual wares of your chosen vacation spot, you might want to make sure you know exactly what's allowed and what isn't. here are a few examples:

  • the so-called "scandinavian model", favoured by many women's groups, makes prostitution legal, but soliciting sex is not. 
  • in japan, it's illegal to solicit or provide intercourse, but other acts are fair game. 
  • in bangladesh, female prostitution is legal, but male prostitution is not. 
  • the united kingdom, india and certain other countries haven't specifically made it illegal, but almost everything associated with prostitution is illegal, so you might want to get a lawyer's advice before taking the plunge. 
  • in australia and the united states, laws are passed on a more local level. a lot of people know that prostitution is legal in nevada, but in fact it's only legal in certain counties [11 of them and none in the cities]. every australian province has different rules and while prostitution is somewhat legal everywhere, there's a wide range of restrictions that vary from place to place. 

a small group of countries just don't address the issue: bulgaria, lesotho, mozambique, and indonesia don't have laws on the books. in indonesia, there are laws about public morals and decency which are occasionally used to crack down on prostitution, but the world's most populous islamic nation is surprisingly tolerant. [side note :: a number of countries have laws against prostitution, but don't really enforce them, especially in asia. still, if you get arrested, you're on the wrong side of the law.]

all in all, there are over a hundred countries where prostitution is illegal. punishments range from death by stoning in afghanistan [for any woman who has sex out of wedlock] to croatia, where most charges result in a fine. of course, any arrest gives the person arrested a criminal record, which in many cases doubly victimizes the sex worker, most of whom are forced into the trade to begin with. once in, it can be extremely difficult to get out: high end madams like heidi fleiss might make the news, but they are very much the exception. [side note :: in the middle ages across much of europe and asia, someone who worked with wealthy clientele wouldn't have even been considered a prostitute, but a courtesan. unlike common prostitutes, a courtesan could become quite powerful, while remaining independent. when the first laws against prostitution came onto the books, they were specifically worded to protect these women, usually stipulating that a prostitute was a woman who would have sex with anyone at all, as opposed to one who chose her clients from among the nobility and the elite.]

i think most of us know instinctively that glamourous call girls to the stars are not the norm, but it begs the question: who are the prostitutes?

  • there are roughly 42 million prostitutes in the world
  • 75% are between the ages of 13 and 25
  • 2 million are children 
  • child prostitution rates are highest in sri lanka, thailand, brazil, the united states and canada [where first nations and inuit children are especially at risk]
  • 75-80% are women and girls, 20-25% are men and boys [in america, men tend to start younger, but also get out younger, since most of them do not have pimps]
  • anywhere from 65 to 95% of prostitutes come from abusive homes
  • 60-75% have been raped during their time as a prostitute
  • 81% of prostitutes in the united states want to get out of their profession 

i'd like to call your attention to that last figure in particular, because it's a stinking point in the debate over legalization. there are women and men who are willingly part of the sex trade and who would choose to continue working in it. it's clearly not the majority, but one in five is not an insignificant number. keeping prostitution illegal is preventing these women and men from making a living in a field they've chosen in spite of the risks and denying them the ability to make their trade safer, healthier and more lucrative. however, there are also four in five that want to move on and feel that they can't. some might change their minds if they were offered greater security and greater independence, but it's safe to assume that a considerable majority would still want to leave. "happy hooker" [or at least, willing hooker] is one who is usually independent [i.e., not controlled by a pimp] and white. she's usually someone who can work out of a brothel or other comparatively safe space to begin with. and she's mostly found in the wealthiest parts of the world, where she can command higher prices for her services. any final answer to the puzzle of global prostitution needs to account for those who are happy to continue with their work. but it primarily needs to address the plight of the more than 80% who aren't. when people argue about the dangers of complete legalization, the counter-argument is often given that many choose prostitution of their own free will. but a lot more don't, especially in poorer countries. [side note :: nor are prostitutes in wealthier countries necessarily from those countries. many, especially in europe, travel to areas where money is more readily available, which is why addressing the issues of prostitution only on a nation by nation basis is problematic.]

two terms that are often confused, and which do often co-exist, are prostitution and sex trafficking. the former refers simply to remuneration for sexual services. the latter is broader and is used to describe a situation where a person is recruited, transported, harboured and exploited for sexual purposes. it can include prostitution, but it can also refer to people sold into sexual slavery or forced to work in pornography. the key element in sexual trafficking is that of coercion by another, so it necessarily excludes willing participants in the sex trade.

prevalence of human trafficking worldwide


criticisms of legalization in countries like germany, have made the argument that while the the laws may intend to help the former, the "independent entrepreneurs", the excess demand it creates actually favours the traffickers, who can quickly and cheaply recruit new prostitutes. it could be, and has been, pointed out that those two things are not mutually exclusive: both sex work entrepreneurs and human traffickers can benefit from the loosening of prostitution law. and as with every other type of market, a lot is going to depend on the customers: good employers will provide safer, cleaner environments and customers will go to them because they appreciate that and because they want to support a business that doesn't exploit workers or cut corners in order to lower prices or maximize profits. those involved in the trafficking industry will be able to offer services for much cheaper. now think about how many consumers choose to shop at walmart to save money.

the easy solution is to legalize prostitution while making trafficking criminal. however, if you read the der spiegel article linked above, the problem is with the enforcement. girls [and boys] who are dependent on their pimps/ procurers for food and shelter are never going to feel free to talk to the police during an inspection, even though that's their right. so clearly there is also a need to provide sex workers with the opportunity to talk to authorities outside of their place of employment and to create a "path to safety" for those who are being exploited.


going back to the amnesty international policy that was our starting point, it should be noted that they specifically refer to supporting legalization for the "consensual" sex industry. separating consensual from non-consensual participation can be difficult and has caused a backlash. there are others against the policy who have a much deeper issue: that prostitution opens a dangerous door to the buying and selling [or at least renting] of human beings and, since the majority of workers are overwhelmingly female, perpetuates a system in which women are simply used for their sexual parts. the argument that prostitution has been around since ancient times and is going nowhere may seem practical, but it's nonsensical: most dominant civilizations were built through the use of slave labour, but slavery is now illegal. more problematic is the question of the 20%: does the greater society have the right to bar willing participants from a certain line of work because it is possibly harmful. and if they do, where does that line of logic eventually lead?

it's not as simple as saying one is "for" or "against" the legalization of sex work. but with millions of lives affected by the "skin trade" and its variable legality, we shouldn't be allowing the fact that it's complicated stop us from working on the issue.

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