It is very difficult to defend the current status quo that criminalizes prostitutes, even to a greater degree than johns. Aside from being morally dubious, this has adverse consequences, worst of all that it allows police-men to routinely rape prostitutes.
If the current system is broken, what might it be changed to? There are different models: you could decriminalize and regulate (as in Nevada and the Netherlands) or you could decriminalize selling sex, but criminalize soliciting sex from a prostitute (Sweden adopted this method). Though the first solution is better know, it is the latter solution I will deal with first.
Nicholas Kristof made the case for the Sweden model in a recent New York Times Op-Ed.
Prostitution is inevitable, so we might as well legalize and regulate it. That’s a pragmatic argument that I used to find persuasive. If brothels were legalized and inspected, I believed, then we could uproot child prostitution and reduce AIDS and sexually transmitted infections.
I changed my mind after looking at the experiences of other countries. The Netherlands formally adopted the legalization model in 2000, and there were modest public health benefits for the licensed prostitutes. But legalization nurtured a large sex industry and criminal gangs that trafficked underage girls, and so trafficking, violence and child prostitution flourished rather than dying out.
As a result, the Netherlands is now backtracking on its legalization model by closing some brothels, and other countries, like Bulgaria, are backing away from that approach.
In contrast, Sweden experimented in 1999 with a radically different approach that many now regard as much more successful: it decriminalized the sale of sex but made it a crime to buy sex. In effect, the policy was to arrest customers, but not the prostitutes.
Some Swedish prostitutes have complained that the policy reduced demand and thus lowered prices, while forcing sex work underground. But the evidence is strong that the new approach reduced trafficking in Sweden, and opinion polls show that Swedes regard the experiment as a considerable success. And the bottom line is that if you want to rape a 13-year-old girl imported from Eastern Europe, you’ll have a much easier time in Amsterdam than in Stockholm.
A growing number of other countries are pursuing the Swedish model. South Korea had a vast trafficking industry in the 1990s, but a crackdown has led Korean gangs to traffic girls to California instead — because pimping teenagers there is seen as safer and more profitable than at home.
No approach is going to work perfectly. But the Swedish model seems to have worked better than any other. The New York law that Governor Spitzer pushed was inspired partly by the Swedish experience, and New York should enforce that law firmly, by cracking down on pimps and customers.
This seems convincing enough, even though what Kristof says is a crackdown on regulated prostitution is in fact a crackdown on unregulated and criminal-connected sex-work (he may also be referring to gentrification encroaching on the red-light district).
Brad Plumer makes the case that all solutions have sizable drawbacks, but "legalize-and-regulate" is probably the least bad option. I'd agree.
So there's that. But I'm also not totally convinced that we should do what many sex-worker advocates in Nevada are calling for and decriminalize the business entirely. Now, these advocates talk and listen to actual sex workers and know infinitely more than I do about this, but there's at least some basis for hesitation. In 2003, the Scottish government, looking to revamp its own prostitution laws, did a massive report on different policies around the world, and discovered that legalization-plus-regulation comes with its own set of problems.
The study found that, as you'd expect, 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 became mired in organized crime and corruption. In many countries, child prostitution and the trafficking of foreign women also increased dramatically. More importantly, 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 frequently 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 their kids, for one. And although the bill provides funds to help prostitutes who want to get out of the business, many sex workers say the aid 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. Official statistics give conflicting answers. Some studies estimate that the total amount of prostitution has remained unchanged, although one Stockholm non-profit estimated that about 60 percent of prostitutes took advantage of the social service funds and succeeded in getting out of the business. My sense is that there's just not a lot of reliable data here.
For an anecdotal take, Petra Östergren interviewed a number of Swedish sex workers who agreed that prostitution had been forced underground. Many now have to work indoors, alone, and are ripe for exploitation, especially by "rent pimps." A 2004 report by the Norwegian Ministry of Justice, comparing the Swedish and Dutch approaches, argued that many Swedish sex workers are now "more difficult to reach by the support system," and their reliance on pimps—who can help them avoid police detection—"has probably increased." The Norway report seems bullish on legalization, but notes that even in Netherlands, a "gray market" has emerged, beyond the eye of the state, where trafficking and coercion remain prevalent.
So, yes, our currently policies are grotesque, but honestly, I don't know what the ideal alternative is. I'd lean toward legalize-and-regulate as the least-bad option, although the idea of providing generous support for women who want to get out of the sex trade sounds like the best idea on offer.
Though both plans of reform have drawbacks, I think that either would be superior, morally to our monstrous system in place today.