Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault and violence against women.
In Nov. of 2015 Amnesty International shocked the world by declaring full support for the movement to decriminalize prostitution around the globe. The move revealed an ugly divide within the feminist movement and forced many activists to face an incredibly difficult dilemma. Should prostitution be legal? It’s rare to find an issue with such compelling arguments on all sides — there isn’t an immediately obvious answer. With that being said, let’s dig in and take a closer look at prostitution.
For many feminists, legalizing prostitution is a dangerous concession to patriarchal powers. As Julie Bindel wrote in The Guardian, “prostitution is inherently abusive, and a cause and a consequence of women’s inequality.” Bindel’s perspective largely summarizes the views of the feminist abolitionists who fight against the decriminalization of prostitution. The abolitionist movement rejects the idea that women would choose to become prostitutes in a society where men and women were truly equal. Instead, due to society’s deeply-rooted inequalities, they claim some women are forced to consciously become prostitutes or, worse, become non-consensual victims of a widespread and well-documented trafficking industry. To decriminalize this profession, even if it helps to reduce the number of non-consensual participants, is a massive failure on the part of feminists and humanity as a whole. Or is it?
As many other feminists will argue, and as I will argue, decriminalization is the only path to equality. It is true that women are disproportionality compelled to sell sex due to societal inequalities that have been ingrained for quite literally thousands of years. It is also true that inequity does not go away in the blink of an eye; it takes a long time for change to come round. Right now, some women need prostitution to survive. Unless we can find a reliable way to alleviate that need, it’s irresponsible to refuse to regulate the sex industry. Too many women are hurt by the harsh realities of unregulated prostitution, as one Vancouver sex worker described: “what rape is to others is normal to us.” To Liesl Gerntholtz, the executive director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, this reality is unacceptable, but can be prevented: “You’re often talking about women who have extremely limited choices. Would I like to live in a world where no one has to do sex work? Absolutely. But that’s not the case. So I want to live in a world where women do it largely voluntarily, in a way that is safe. If they’re raped by a police officer or a client, they can lay a charge and know it will be investigated.”
When we look at complex problems like prostitution, we have to be sure to choose the right instrument to solve it. An outright ban, while well-motivated, is too blunt, and actually harms more than it helps. The only reasonable solution is to regulate the sex industry, bring it above ground so that victims of crimes can report them and ensure that people who need to sell sex are doing so in as safe an environment as possible.