The Consequences of Legal Policy on Prostitution and Trafficking in Women
Budapest, Hungary, May 28, 2004
Janice G. Raymond, Ph.D.
Co-Executive Director, Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW)
I want to begin my talk by telling you that the debate about legal policy on prostitution and trafficking is taking place in many countries today. In Europe especially, some governments and civic groups are promoting legalization and decriminalization as easy answers to the difficult problems of prostitution, trafficking and the global sex industry. But the political and economic powers behind such proposals to legalize prostitution are global and national sex industries.
Legalization, however, has failed in the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria. It has failed to protect the women in prostitution, it has failed to control the enormous expansion of the sex industry in these legalized countries, it has failed to decrease child prostitution and sex trafficking from other countries, and it has failed to prevent HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. And it has transformed these countries into brothels. When people think of the Amsterdam, for example, they think of a city of prostitution. Already, Budapest is gaining a similar reputation, because you have legalized prostitution tolerance zones.
In Hungary, you have the chance to do something different and NOT legalize prostitution. Legalizing prostitution means legalization of sexual slavery for women and children. You have the chance to reject the old and failed policies of legalized prostitution that make inequality of women and men legal. You have the chance instead to promote equality by giving women in prostitution the chance for a real future - by assisting them to get out of prostitution. Legalization keeps women IN prostitution.
Well-meaning people often think that by calling women in prostitution "sex workers," they are dignifying and professionalizing the women. But calling women in prostitution "sex workers" neither dignifies nor upgrades the women; it merely dignifies and professionalizes the sex industry. People don't realize that you can't promote "sex workers" without promoting "sex work." Sanctioning prostitution as ordinary work makes the harm to women invisible.
In 1999, the Hungarian Parliament started the process of legalization of prostitution by making prostitution legitimate in so-called "tolerance zones." Each city in Hungary that allegedly had large numbers of women in prostitution was mandated to develop these zones of prostitution. The unstated reality in these cities is not the large number of women in prostitution, but the large sex industries.
Let me say this clearly. Legalizing prostitution is legalizing the sex industry. Legalizing prostitution is legalizing pimps, traffickers, brothels and other sex venues, and sanctioning the right of men to buy women for commercial sex. It is the power of the sex industries that remains hidden. The power of the sex industry to seek out its legal market share drives the expansion of prostitution into more cities across the country. Advocates of legalizing prostitution don't tell you about the sex industry and its campaign to legalize prostitution.
In effect, tolerance zones are actually "sacrifice zones" where certain women and children are offered up for the sexual satisfaction of mostly men who can buy them. Would you want your daughters, sisters, mothers or friends to "work" in these zones?
The Hungarian law permitting tolerance zones is a very harmful law. It is a law that surrenders women and children to the exploitation of sex industry. Instead of protecting women and children, it institutionalizes sexual exploitation by claiming that these zones give protection to those in prostitution. In reality, tolerance zones mostly protect pimps, customers and sex venues. These zones segregate prostituted women from the mainstream of society and confine them to brothels where there is no future for them. The institutionalization of tolerance zones is the first step in the campaign of the sex industry, and those who make enormous profits from it, to gain a legal market share.
My organization, the international Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), advocates against state-tolerated prostitution in many parts of the globe. We work with legislators to devise legal and program remedies that do not involve decriminalizing the sex industry and abandoning women in prostitution to what has to be "the most demeaning job in the world." CATW supports the decriminalization of women in countries where women have been criminalized for prostitution, because we believe that no woman should be punished for her own sexual exploitation. But we do not support the decriminalization or legalization of the sex industry. Although forms of decriminalization or legalization of the industry may vary from country to country, or city to city, we call all these forms state-sponsored prostitution because the common element is that the system of prostitution itself becomes accepted and legitimated by the State.
What happens when prostitution is treated as "sex work" rather than when it is treated as sexual exploitation and violence against women? The example of other countries and cities is sobering.
1. We get Tolerance zones - Tolerance zones are treated as quick fixes to the spread of the sex industry and advocated as protected zones for prostituted women. But the problems with tolerance zones are many. The biggest is the NIMBY ("Not in My Back Yard) problem. No neighborhood wants prostitution to be zoned there, so it gets pushed into backwater or industrial areas, areas that dangerous for women to be in, or poorer districts of the city where residents don't have the financial and political clout of more economically advantaged areas.
2. We get Local Council Control of Prostitution - When prostitution is legalized, control is taken out of the hands of the police and given to the local councils. Since local councils don't have police authority, and since the police vice squads are disbanded when the sex industry becomes legal, local councils are left to control licensing, location of prostitution zones and brothels, complaints, abuse of women, and violence in the brothels. The local councils do not have the resources to investigate illegal brothel operators. Nor do they have the power to close brothels that are violating the law. Put simply, prostitution is out of control in countries that have legalized prostitution, which is legalizing the sex industry, and can't be controlled by the local councils who are more planning boards than enforcement authorities.
State-sponsored prostitution most often hands over to local authorities or councils, tasks they do not want. Many localities or municipalities don't want any prostitution in their areas, yet in countries where legalization or decriminalization is a federal law, they can't reject brothels. Following legalization of prostitution, 43 of the 348 municipalities (12%) in the Netherlands choose to follow a no-brothel policy, but the Minister of Justice has indicated that the complete banning of prostitution within any municipality could conflict with the federally guaranteed "right to free choice of work."
In New Zealand where a Prostitution Reform Bill legalizing prostitution passed by just one vote in June, 2003, implementation of the law has been handed over to the city development committee who now controls brothels, massage parlors and sex shops. Enforcement has been taken out of the hands of police, as in Australia. There have been calls from communities to prohibit prostitution altogether, but many local councils regret that they do not have this power.
Instead, local councils are forced to decide a host of things including should brothels be located near schools, with school children passing them on their way and seeing graphic signage of sexually objectified women. Should brothels be on the ground level? Should brothels be in residential districts? Should brothels be permitted under the district definition of a "home-occupation business?" As the mayor of Auckland commented, after all these considerations, there may not be much of the city left. However, the city shoulders the load of implementing the law fearing it will become known as the "city of sleaze."
3. We get Protected Brothel Owners - The new law in New Zealand mainly provides protection for the brothel owners, not the women. As a provision of the new law, the list of certified brothel operators will be kept secret, making it difficult for anyone, including local health authorities, to find out where all the brothels are. Anyone can find out who holds a liquor license but no one can find out who owns and operates a brothel. Those whose identities end up being protected are not the women, but the brothel owners.
4. We get Organized Crime and Illegal Brothels and Sex Industries
The legal sex industry serves as a magnet for the illegal sex industry and organized crime. Illegal brothels and trafficking are flourishing in Melbourne, Australia, not only in the industrial areas but in the suburbs. From 2001-03, local councils have discovered 164 illegal brothels operating from suburban homes in Yarra, Monash, for example. Another 22 illegal brothels are being investigated.
Illegal brothels flourish with hundreds of trafficked women bought and brought from Asia. Even the Australian Adult Entertainment Industry, which represents many of the legal brothels, acknowledges that the illegal sex industry is out of control across Victoria. Many legal brothel owners have been involved in setting up and profiting from illegal brothels. And there is increasing tension between police and councils over who should combat illegal prostitution. Several local councils have called for police enforcement and the reconstitution of vice squads, disbanded in 1996.
Germany has become the destination of choice for traffickers in Europe because of its legal sex industry. Traffickers recognize the legal climate in Germany is permissive and makes it easier for them to operate as legitimate businessmen. In reality, however, these pimps and traffickers are members of organized crime networks who make billions of euros off the bodies of women and children. Germany is the most lucrative prostitution economy in Europe, earning 7.5 billion dollars between 2002-03. Legalization has opened not only the back door but the front door to hundreds of pimps and traffickers, posing as legitimate businessmen, who move thousands of women per year into Germany for prostitution.
The question governments and civil society must ask is: do you want Budapest to be another playground in Europe for traffickers, pimps, organized crime, and men from other countries who want to make Budapest into their brothel of choice? If we don't stop legalization now, not only the reputation but the stability of the country is threatened by organized crime who are very skilled at making large cities in Europe into mega-sex centers for the entertainment of those who can pay.
5. We get Prostitution as just another Ordinary Job. Government Job Centers are Required to Take Advertisements for Brothels and Promote "Training" for Women to Practice Prostitution
Federal or local government labor offices that advertise jobs have been forced into taking advertisements for prostitution. In Germany, although prostitution is legal, its Federal Labor Office rejected the job advertisements of a local brothel owner. When this office that runs a network of job placement agencies refused to place the brothel owner's "job" ads, he sued for being discriminated against and not having equal status in the job placement listings.
Most recently in Germany, the federal government has announced that it will levy fines on companies that fail to hire trainees. This directive will also apply to legal German brothels. Brothels that fail to employ a certain number of beginners, and teach them how to do prostitution, will be subject to financial penalties for not promoting the sex trade. One apprentice will be required for every 15 employees.
Advocates of legalized prostitution in Germany used the argument that legalizing prostitution would control the expansion of the sex industry. In effect, the exact opposite is happening. Instead, the new law REQUIRES the expansion of the sex industry and insures that new sexual apprentices will be recruited all the time.
Likewise in Britain, which has not legalized prostitution but has recently lost a court case banning a corporation from advertising erotic services, the government-run employment agency has announced that it will now take ads for escort services and massage parlors, both which are open fronts for the UK sex trade. Prior to the Court's decision, the government Jobcentres, as it is known, did not take ads for the sex industry. MP Sandra White predicted that this case will lead to government giving a "green light to pimps." "The bosses now say they can't discriminate against any employer. That now includes pimps."
This decision will open the floodgates to vulnerable women who, because these jobs are advertised under government auspices, will think that they are going to work in safe and secure venues that are not fronts for prostitution.
6. If we are Lucky, We get Second Thoughts About State-Sponsored Prostitution
Amsterdam is having second thoughts about its blanket legal permission given to all forms of prostitution. Widely recognized as fronts for prostitution, erotic bars and clubs will be shut down in Amsterdam and the city's all-night brothels will be limited, if the mayor and police have their way. The Dutch population's tolerance for sexual exploitation is wearing so thin that SBS television is canceling its pornographic shows. Stricter law enforcement is being demanded by voters, and they are electing new conservative parties to govern town halls to reverse the decline in Dutch society.
Some members of Parliament who originally supported the legalization of brothels on the grounds that this would liberate women in prostitution are now seeing that legalization actually reinforces the oppression of women.
7. We get Increased Trafficking in Women from Other Countries
Contrary to claims that legalization and decriminalization would control the expansion of the sex industry, prostitution now accounts for 5% of the Netherlands economy. Over the last decade, as pimping was legalized, and brothels decriminalized in the year 2000, the sex industry increased by 25% in the Netherlands. At any hour of the day, women of all ages and races, dressed in hardly anything, are put on display in the notorious windows of Dutch brothels and sex clubs and offered for sale. Most of them are women from other countries who were probably trafficked into the Netherlands.
One argument for legalizing prostitution in the Netherlands was that legalization would help to end the exploitation of desperate immigrant women who had been trafficked there for prostitution. However, several reports state that 80% of women in the brothels of the Netherlands are trafficked from other countries.
By 1993, it was widely recognized that 75% of the women in Germany's prostitution industry were foreigners from Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay and other countries in South America. After the fall of the Berlin wall, 80% of the estimated 10,000 women trafficked into Germany were from Central and Eastern Europe.
Faced with a dwindling number of Dutch women who engage in prostitution activities and the expanding demand for more female bodies and more exotic women to service the prostitution market, the Dutch National Rapporteur on Trafficking has stated that in the future, a solution may be to "offer [to the market] prostitutes from non EU/EEA[European Union/European Economic Area] countries, who voluntarily choose to work in prostitution..." These women would be given "legal and controlled access to the Dutch market." As prostitution has been transformed into "sex work," and pimps into entrepreneurs, so too this recommendation transforms trafficking into "voluntary migration for sex work." Looking to the future, the Netherlands is targeting poor women for the international sex trade to remedy the inadequacies of the free market of "sexual services." Prostitution is thus normalized as an "option for the poor."
8. We get Lots of Romantic Ideas about Brothels Protecting Women from Street Exploitation
One expressed goal of legalized prostitution advocates is to move prostituted women indoors into brothels and clubs where they would be allegedly less vulnerable than in street prostitution. However, many women are in street prostitution because they want to avoid being controlled and exploited by pimps (transformed in legalized systems into sex businessmen). Other women do not want to register or submit to health checks, as required by law in some countries where prostitution is legalized. Thus, legalization may actually drive some women into street prostitution. Arguing against an Italian proposal for legalized prostitution, Esohe Aghatise has suggested that brothels actually deprive marginalized and trafficked women of what little protection they may have on the street, confining women to closed spaces where they have little chance of meeting outreach workers or others who might help them exit prostitution.
In the Netherlands, women in prostitution point out that legalization or decriminalization of the sex industry does not erase the stigma of prostitution. Because they must register and lose their anonymity, women are more vulnerable to being stigmatized as "whores," and this identity follows them everyplace. Thus, the majority of women in prostitution still operates illegally and underground.
In two studies conducted by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women where 186 victims of commercial sexual exploitation were interviewed, women consistently indicated that prostitution establishments did little to protect them, regardless of whether the establishments were legal or illegal. One woman said, "The only time they protect anyone is to protect the customers."
Women who reported that sex businesses gave them some protection qualified it by pointing out that no "protector" was ever in the room with them. One woman who was in out-call prostitution stated: "The driver functioned as a bodyguard. You're supposed to call when you get in, to ascertain that everything was OK. But they are not standing outside the door while you're in there, so anything could happen."
Alleged distinctions between street and brothel prostitution are illusory as indicated by studies demonstrating that women in prostitution suffer similar kinds and rates of violence whether on the street or in a brothel; that prostitution is harmful to women whether it occurs in a private venue, a massage parlor, a sex club, a brothel or on the street; and that the purpose of the anti-brothel legislation is to prevent the exploitation of women. The violence that women are subjected to in prostitution is an intrinsic part of the sexual exploitation, no matter where it occurs.
Alternatives to State-Sponsored Prostitution
If we take seriously the reality that prostitution is violence against women, we must promote a zero tolerance approach to systems of prostitution, including state-sponsored prostitution regimes. Not enough people believe that prostitution per se is violence against women. Instead, they rationalize differences between forced and voluntary prostitution, saying that if women consent to being in prostitution, only forced prostitution should be prohibited. Whether or not women consent to or are forced into prostitution, they are still exploited. Any consent in the context of sex trafficking is better understood as a survival strategy.
Any division between forced and voluntary prostitution, especially when this division is institutionalized in law, is flawed. It will not protect the largest number of victims. It draws distinctions between deserving and undeserving victims of the sex industry- those who can prove they were forced and those who cannot. It allows pimps, or newly crowned sex businessmen in a legalized system, to use a consent defense to escape prosecution. It puts the burden of proof on the exploited and removes it from the exploiters. And does not aid international efforts to end trafficking because it is ambiguous and offers a loophole to traffickers.
So often we hear that prostitution is inevitable, and that a zero tolerance approach to systems of prostitution is unrealistic. Therefore the focus must be on managing and regulating it, rather than seeing all prostitution as violence against and sexual exploitation of women. People mindlessly repeat the mantra that prostitution is the oldest profession, being with us from time immemorial. Well, they've got it wrong. Pimping is the oldest profession. And pimping is guaranteed even more longevity by legitimating pimps as sex businessmen.
It is no more unrealistic to work for an end to poverty than to work for an end to prostitution. For that matter, why not say that slavery is inevitable, because it still exists in many parts of the world. Why not argue that our best bet is to regulate it. This, of course, is exactly what happened historically in the United States and Europe when the debates between abolitionists and regulationists took place.
Some of the same issues that we are now debating in the prostitution context were historically debated in the African slavery context in western counties. For example, rather than abolish the system of slavery, there were those who seriously proposed to regulate slavery as a business and as a state-sanctioned "economic sector." Some countries wanted to regulate slavery by official inspection of the slave ships; some argued for standards of hygiene on vessels carrying the enslaved from Africa; some even argued a variation on the forced/free distinction stating that only if slaves had been kidnapped, not bought, should they be returned to Africa. Portugal regulated conditions in the slave trade by limiting the duration of the slave ship voyages. And many argued that slaves in North America were "better off as slaves than as freemen."
Rather than setting up tolerance zones for brothels or for their surrogates - sex clubs, lap dancing establishments or massage parlors - governments and municipalities should be setting up centers where women can get out of the clubs, come off the streets and be provided with support, drug treatment, and a wholistic program that would give women in prostitution a future instead of a return to the past. Legalizing locks women into prostitution. When prostitution is legalized, resources decrease to help women get out of the sex industry, because governments no longer acknowledge that prostitution is a problem, a crime or violence against women. Everything that the sex industry wants becomes permitted. Existing sex industries should be closed down, and assets should be seized from these quarters and used to assist women out of prostitution.
For some reason, cities who are searching for some solution to the prostitution problem think some form of legalized or decriminalized sex industry is the solution. They think a zero tolerance approach is unrealistic. There are cities, however, such as Glasgow, Scotland that have rejected tolerance zones and other forms of legalization. As the largest local authority in Scotland, the Glasgow City Council sees its responsibility to put in place policies that prevent women entering prostitution and that help women exit prostitution. They understand that the real problem with prostitution is not the women, but the sex industry itself which is now the major lobbying group for legalizing prostitution, and the men who demand more and more prostitution venues. Glasgow has a city ordinance that also rejects applications for lap dancing clubs on the grounds that they "demean and exploit women." Budapest should be looking seriously at the Glasgow solution.
Ultimately, any measures will be a bandaid approach unless local councils and governments get serious about addressing the demand for prostitution. State-sponsored prostitution reinforces the demand for prostitution. Many men who previously would not risk buying women for sex now see prostitution as acceptable. When legal barriers disappear, so too do the social and ethical barriers to treating women as sexual merchandise. Legalization of prostitution sends the message to new generations of men and boys that women are sexual commodities and that prostitution is harmless fun.
Once prostitution is legalized, for example, women's reproductive capacities are sellable products. Some buyers find pregnancy a turn-on and demand breast milk in their sexual encounters with pregnant women. In the State of Victoria in Australia, specialty brothels are provided for disabled men. State-employed caretakers (who are mostly women) must take these men to the brothels if they wish to go and literally facilitate their physical sexual acts. Advertisements line the highways of Victoria offering women as objects for sexual use. Businessmen are encouraged to hold their corporate meetings in clubs where owners supply naked women on the table at tea breaks and lunchtime. A Melbourne brothel owner stated that the client base was "well educated professional men, who visit during the day and then go home to their families." Women in relationships with men find that often the men in their lives are visiting the brothels and sex clubs.
There is no evidence that legalization of prostitution makes things better for women in prostitution. It certainly makes things better for governments who legalize prostitution and of course, for the sex industry, both of whom enjoy increased revenues. The popular fiction that all will be well in the world of prostitution once the sex industry is legalized or decriminalized, is repudiated by evidence that the degradation and exploitation of women, as well as the harm, abuse, and violence to women still remain in state-sponsored prostitution. State-sponsored prostitution sanitizes the reality of prostitution. Suddenly, dirty money becomes clean. Illegal acts become legal. Overnight, pimps are transformed into legitimate businessmen and ordinary entrepreneurs, and men who would not formerly consider buying a woman in prostitution think, "Well, if it's legal, if it's decriminalised, now it must be O.K."
Instead of abandoning women to state-sponsored prostitution, existing sex industries should be closed down, and their assets should be seized and used to assist women out of prostitution. Laws should address the predation of men who buy women for the sex of prostitution. Men who use women in prostitution have long been invisible. Legislators often leap onto the legalization bandwagon because they think nothing else is successful. But there is a legal alternative. Rather than sanctioning prostitution, states could address the demand by penalizing the men who buy women for the sex of prostitution.
Sweden has drafted legislation recognizing that without male demand, there would be no female supply. Thinking outside the repressive box of legalization, Sweden has acknowledged that prostitution is a form of male violence against women and children, and the purchase of sexual services is criminalized. Sweden's Violence Against Women Government Bill prohibits and penalizes the purchase of "sexual services." This approach targets the male demand for prostitution. The Swedish legislation criminalizing the buyers is based on the policy that "Prostitution is not a desirable social phenomenon" and is "an obstacle to the ongoing development towards equality between women and men. Furthermore, the law against purchasing sexual services is part of a wider Violence Against Women Bill that allocates resources to support the development of alternatives for women in prostitution.
Gunilla Ekberg will speak more about the results of the Swedish legislation. Governmental and non-governmental groups should be advocating for study and replication of the Swedish law. Instead of giving legal permission to profoundly abusive sex industries, governments should respond to the male violence and sexual exploitation of women in prostitution by legally addressing the demand for prostitution.
Finally, I want to say to the Hungarian city councils and the Parlimentarians. Let's hear what you intend to do about the pimps and perpetrators other than turning them into legitimate businessmen. And let's hear whether and how you intend to address the demand. When will authorities have the courage to do something about the male demand for commercial sexual exploitation?
Prostitution is commercial sexual exploitation posing as commercial sexual entertainment. It depends upon women's inequality and the sexual objectification of women, where women are viewed and treated as sexual commodities for men's pleasure. Let's hear more about how Budapest and other cities can provide resources to women in prostitution who need them, rather than providing resources to the sex industry, such as tolerance zones or legalized brothels. Let's hear less about how to keep women in prostitution. And let's hear more about how to help women get out. The international women's rights community is watching what Hungary will do. Will Hungary promote sexual equality or sexual exploitation?