When Will The U.S. Catch Up With Global Trend On Prostitution Laws?

Sexually exploited girls are frequently detained or manipulated by the police -- those who are theoretically supposed to safeguard them from harm.
06/28/2017 06:02 am ET Updated Jun 29, 2017

Like many women, Jasmin Abuslin was still a child when she entered the sex trade. From age 17, she was sexually exploited by over two dozen men in Northern California, most ― if not all ― of whom were police officers. She was recently awarded almost $1 million from Oakland City Council for its failure to protect her.

The U.S. has a poor record on dealing effectively with prostitution. Although anyone under 18 who is bought or sold for sex is considered a victim of sex trafficking under federal law, incredibly, when they turn 18, they become “criminals” overnight. In many states, even well before the age of 18, those who are sold for sex are prosecuted as “criminals” under state law, while at the same time they are victims of sex trafficking under federal law. Being sold for sex is illegal in all states apart from certain counties in Nevada. Buying sex is also illegal but is rarely prosecuted, while those they buy – mostly women and girls ― bear the brunt of the law. This wrongly criminalizes those who are victimized while effectively giving their perpetrators a free pass. Sexually exploited girls are frequently detained or manipulated by the police ― those who are theoretically supposed to safeguard them from harm.

Between 70,000 - 80,000 people are arrested in the sex trade each year in the U.S., and the vast majority of these are women being sold for sex - including victims of sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. Only 10 percent of arrests are of buyers ― the fuel which sustains the industry. It is clear that policymakers need to urgently update their understanding of prostitution and punish the exploiters instead of the exploited.

European countries have been leading the way on this issue for a long time. Sweden was the first to introduce an equality-based approach in 1999, which decriminalizes and provides exiting services and support to those (mostly women) sold in prostitution, while criminalizing pimping, brothel-keeping and buying sex. It is called the Nordic or Equality Model. Norway and Iceland followed some years later. It is no coincidence that these three Scandinavian countries rank among the highest in the world in terms of gender equality. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, where sex trade survivor group SPACE International advocated for change, have followed suit. Just over a year ago, France also voted overwhelmingly in favor of this approach. France has made sure that only the exploiters are arrested, while giving support to victims of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking.

This “third way” is supported by the European Union and recognizes the exploitation inherent in prostitution and the power imbalance between those who sell sex ― or more commonly are sold for sex ― and the pimps and buyers who exploit them. It is a middle ground between full criminalization, which is used in most of the U.S, and decriminalization or legalization, which has proven to be a failed experiment in Nevada, where the illegal sex industry is nine times bigger than the legalized industry.

Germany and The Netherlands are among a handful of nations which have tried to “regulate” the sex trade through legalizing all components, but with disastrous results. Prostitution is closely linked to transnational sex trafficking. In Western European countries, there are simply not enough “local” women available to meet the demand for prostitution. In Germany, deemed “Europe’s Biggest Brothel,” at least two-thirds of people in prostitution come from overseas. This results in an increase in trafficking from Eastern European locations including Latvia, where MARTA, a partner of Donor Direct Action, provides urgent assistance to victims of sexual abuse and sex trafficking.

When all aspects of the industry are decriminalized (a similar approach to legalization), as they are in New Zealand, pimps and brothel-keepers can operate with full impunity, while the exploitation of the women they buy is legitimized. Melissa Farley, a San Francisco-based researcher, has documented the high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among those sold for sex, higher even than for war veterans. This is no “job like any other.”

The Equality Model has been much more successful. Simon Häggström, who works for the prostitution unit of Stockholm’s police force, has been very vocal about how this policy means that traffickers and pimps consider Sweden to be a “bad market,” and that the number of sex buyers has fallen in recent years, mainly due to the fact that they are afraid of being arrested. Street prostitution has been halved. Closer to home, Canada is also showing some success since it enacted an approach based on the Equality Model in 2014, although more training of police is needed to effectively implement this law on the ground.

South Africa could also be at the forefront of legislative change on the African continent. Sex trade survivors and anti-sex trafficking group Embrace Dignity have been advocating the adoption of the Equality Model, and the country’s Law Reform Commission has just issued a report reviewing options for law reform. More work will be needed to ensure the government follows the correct path, but there are some hopeful signs. Embrace Dignity’s Executive Director, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, a former parliamentarian and former Deputy Minister of Defense, believes that Nelson Mandela himself would have supported the Equality Model.

With growing evidence around the world that this is the most effective and sensitive approach to the commercial sex trade, the U.S. should be looking to the Equality Model as it aims to be a global leader in the campaign to end sex trafficking.

Jessica Neuwirth is founder of Donor Direct Action, an international women’s organization which partners with front line anti-sex trafficking groups MARTA in Latvia and Embrace Dignity in South Africa.

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