Tuesday, March 11, 2008

It's Really About Prostitution, But What's the Answer?

The real issue we're talking about when we bring up the latest scandal with Elliot Spitzer is the uncomfortable place of prostitution in our society. Our current model of outlawing it mostly ends up hurting the women that sell the sex than the men who buy it. After all, Spitzer wasn't actually charged with a crime. Samhita over at Feministing purports legalizing prostitution -- something that at best makes me uneasy, mostly because I think the majority of women are coerced into the sex industry. The number who voluntarily sell their bodies are fewer than I think many prostitution legalization activists like to admit.

Luckily, Brad Plumer has a history of thinking about this in the practical policy sense, and he has some great information.
[T]here's at least some basis for hesitation. In 2003, the Scottish government, looking to revamp its own prostitution laws, did a massive report on policies in different countries around the world, and discovered that legalization-plus-regulation comes with its own set of problems.

The study found that legalization often led to a dramatic expansion of the sex industry: In Australia, brothels proliferated to the point where they overwhelmed the state's ability to regulate them, and they became mired in organized crime and corruption. In many countries, child prostitution and the trafficking of foreign women also increased dramatically. Meanwhile, surveys found that many sex workers still felt coerced and unsafe even after decriminalization. In the Netherlands—often held up as a model—a survey done in 2000 found that 79 percent of prostitutes were in the sex business "due to some degree of force." Back home, I'm not sure how well Nevada's legalization scheme has worked. Here's a study showing that women in regulated brothels face significantly lower levels of violence, although here's evidence that conditions are still horrific.

I used to think the most promising approach was Sweden's. There, prostitution is considered "an aspect of male violence against women and children" and treated as such. Legislation, passed in 1999 as part of a broader "violence against women" bill, partly decriminalized the selling of sex while making the buying of sex illegal (pimping was already outlawed). On the other hand, prostitutes are still punished in various ways—known sex workers can lose custody of her kids, for one. And although the bill provided funds for helping prostitutes who wanted to get out of the business, many sex workers say the assistance is inadequate. Worse, because prostitution is not supposed to exist, there are now fewer drop-in health centers available for sex workers.

The actual effects of the law are still murky. Prosecutions of male buyers and johns went up dramatically, and street prostitution in Stockholm has dropped by two-thirds since 1999. But it's unclear whether the sex trade was simply pushed underground, as was originally feared.

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