The late-August raid of the Rentboy.com offices in Manhattan by an interagency task force including Homeland Security, and the resulting arrests of seven past and current Rentboy employees, has caused many LGBT activists to call for an end to the prohibition against prostitution in the United States.
Just a week prior to the raids, Amnesty International issued a resolution calling on the nations of the world to decriminalize sex work in the interest of human rights and public health. It was a move endorsed by the Transgender Law Center, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the National Center for Transgender Equality. Sex workers are—along with men who have sex with men, drug users, and people living under incarceration — one of the key populations at risk for HIV.
Amnesty’s call for decriminalization was not universally lauded. A letter addressed to Amnesty International’s leadership, bearing the signatures of 400 organizations and individuals — including Lena Dunham, Angela Bassett, and a number of other Hollywood actors — said a policy of decriminalization “sides with buyers of sex, pimps, and other exploiters,” and would lead to a “system of gender apartheid.”
The authors accused Amnesty of forming its decriminalization policy “primarily from the perspective of the HIV/AIDS sector, including UNAIDS,” an organization they decried as being “far more concerned with the health of sex buyers than the lives of prostituted and sex trafficked women.”
Instead, they advocated a 2014 resolution of the European Parliament that urged its members to pass laws that “decriminalize solely those who sell sex and criminalize solely those who purchase it.”
The Sex Purchase Act was pushed through the Swedish parliament by feminist legislators who argued that selling sex is inherently damaging, both physically and psychologically, and that no woman enters into sex work voluntarily. It passed in 1999, criminalizing the purchase of sex as well as pimping and brothels. Similar laws have been passed in Norway, Iceland, Canada, and Northern Ireland — due in no small part to a well-funded international marketing campaign by the Swedish government.
An official evaluation of the SPA by the Swedish government in 2010 that claimed the law was a total success — reducing street prostitution, drying up demand, shifting societal attitudes, and having no negative consequences whatsoever — was roundly criticized by organizations working with sex workers and AIDS service organizations.
Swedish researchers Susanne Dodillet and Petra Östergren found that Sweden’s claims “do not appear to be supported by the available facts or research.” They point to a number of negative outcomes, including extensive unreported violence against prostitutes (by both clients and police), diminished condom use, and intensification of “the social stigma of selling sex.”
What about legalization? Well, there are 70 or so countries in the world that have legalized sex work outright. The first Western country to do so was New Zealand in 2003. Consequently, it has generated some of the most well-sourced and reliable research into the health and well-being of sex workers and the impact of legalization on society. Respondents to a survey published in 2007 with the support of the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (an organization which “advocates for the human rights, health and well-being of all sex workers”) reported that legalization gave them “greater powers of negotiation of safer sex with clients; gave them the right to refuse to do a client; protected them from violent attacks”; and was “mentally enabling, allowing them to feel supported and safe.”
Another small island state decriminalized sex work in 2003: Rhode Island, where a district court ruling unexpectedly decriminalized “indoor prostitution.” It was re-criminalized in 2009, but a joint study by Scott Cunningham of Baylor University and Manisha Shah from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs found that during that period, cases of gonorrhea decreased statewide — 39% for women, 35% for men — and reported cases of rape dropped by a staggering 31%.
Those who seek to bring an end to the oldest profession undoubtedly have in their hearts the best of intentions, but efforts to criminalize sex work or those who would buy sex always seem to harm sex workers. The Lena Dunhams of the world want to save people. But do sex workers need to be saved, or do they need to be empowered?