Will Legalized Prostitution End The Sex Trafficking Scourge?

09/13/2016 09:37 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2016
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For decades, proprietors in the commercial sex industry have advocated for the legalization of prostitution. One of the most well known is Denis Hof, owner of seven legal brothels in Nevada. His book, “The Art of the Pimp,” glorifies the pimp/prostitute relationship, which he believes can be legalized and regulated to “take all of the criminal elements out.” However, published peer reviewed research provides evidence directly refuting his claims.

Hof’s argument hinges on the idea of a substitution effect: If commercial sex were legalized, both prostitutes and consumers would choose to work for – and patronize – legitimate proprietors. However, available evidence suggests an opposite, scale effect, where expanding the prostitution market increases the illicit market as well. A recent study examining the impact of legalized prostitution on human trafficking inflows in 150 countries concluded that countries where prostitution is legal experience higher incidence of human trafficking.

Anecdotally, this finding is supported in the United States as well. Despite having legalized prostitution in multiple counties for over a century, Nevada is one of ten states with the highest number of reported human trafficking cases. This may be because legalized prostitution gives sex traffickers an additional protective veneer.

Unfortunately, victims of sex trafficking often masquerade as consenting prostitutes. Domestic sex traffickers, who colloquially refer to themselves as ‘pimps,’ will conceal exploitive intentions through entrapment and enmeshment schemes, portraying themselves as boyfriends/lovers or faux family. Many victims are originally recruited as teenagers, who lack the psychosocial maturity to detect the exploitative motives and withstand the manipulation of traffickers. As a result, it is often difficult to distinguish consenting prostitutes from sex slaves.

Human trafficking does not happen like a Hollywood movie; domestic sex traffickers see their crime as a game and do not necessarily need to use physical force. They typically coerce and deceive their victims into believing that the exploitation is a consensual way of life. “True pimping is done in such an urbane way that it actually possesses a touch of class… (A ho/whore) has to want the same thing as the pimp in order for their unionship of pimping and hoing to be a success,” explained Carlos Curtis, who was convicted of trafficking a 12-year-old girl from New York to Washington D.C.

While I (and many others) are theoretically open to legalization of consensual and protected sex work, it is difficult to determine who is truly consenting. In my work as a human trafficking expert witness, I have come across multiple victims who initially perceived themselves as consenting participants or co-conspirators, even though it was later revealed they were being coerced and deceived into exploitation. Many of them have a “trauma bond” or Stockholm Syndrome-type positive attachment with their offenders. This often creates a barrier to effective law enforcement intervention, because victims fail to report their victimization and resist cooperation with law enforcement, leading to misidentification and a credibility gap in court.

Empirically and anecdotally, legalizing prostitution may cause additional barriers to successfully identifying sex trafficking victims and prosecuting their offenders. However, despite all of this evidence, “sex-positive sex workers” and brothel proprietors continue making the erroneous claim that legalizing prostitution is a solution. For example, a recent Las Vegas Review Journal article quoted two “experts” who claimed that prostitution in Nevada has its advantages: Barb Brents, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas sociology professor and Christina Parreira, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas Ph.D. student and prostitute. Their arguments completely ignore the existing research on the effects of prostitution legalization on the sex trafficking market and hinge on a fallacy of composition. While they may know consenting prostitutes, who are sex-positive and find their line of work enjoyable and empowering, this is not the case for all women working in the commercial sex industry. Advocating for the legalization of prostitution, while completely disregarding the potential collateral consequences for victims of sex trafficking, is irresponsible and, quite frankly, selfish.

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