Prostitution Part II: Legalization?

This is part II in a V part series on my views on prostitution. Please, make sure you have read Why Men Suck and Part I before this so that it makes sense.

Already prostitution, or some part of prostitution, has been legalized in various countries including Germany, Netherlands, Greece, New Zealand, Japan (fellatio only), Australia (New South Wales only), United Kingdom (although restricted) and Turkey (only street walking). Legalization is thought to help reduce violence, criminilization and stigma of sex workers. Many powerful organizations, such as the UN, UNAIDS, and WHO, support the legalization of sex work assuming it is only legalized for adults and is regulated. De-criminilization will allow the police to help protect prostitutes from dangerous and illegal situations, while at the same time not creating a criminal record that would keep them from attaining other work. Moreover, it would help the healthcare system reach sex workers, get STIs treated more quickly, and give them more autonomy in the choice to use a condom. Mandatory HIV testing is encouraged to be part of the legalization laws.

The liberatory approach to legalization sees prostitution, or sex work, as liberating for women and a legal contract between two consenting individuals. This stance says that prostitution is a choice, and like other venues of work, should be legalized and without stigma. Delores French, a well-known pro-prostitution advocate explains:

A woman has the right to sell sexual services just as much as she has the right to sell her brains to a law firm when she works as a lawyer, or to sell her creative work to a museum when she works as an artist, or to sell her image to a photographer when she works as a model, or to sell her body when she works as a ballerina. Since most people can have sex without going to jail, there is no reason except old fashioned prudery to make sex for money illegal. (as cited in Carroll, 2005).

The human rights framework also sometimes seeks to legalize prostitution; however, it clearly states that women or children forced into prostitution are victims. This framework ventures that there is a legitimate difference between those who want to be part of the sex trade and those who are trafficked or forced into it. Moreover, this framework, calls for improved conditions for those women who have chosen to work in the industry. Often people who want to legalize prostitution are misunderstood on their stance of child prostitution; few people think that children should or can have the choice to be prostitutes.

The argument to legalize prostitution has gained credibility with the spread of HIV/AIDS. Many people who do see prostitution as violence against women are now arguing for legalization so that there can be controls and medical checks in place. Minh and friends’ (2004) study showed that 22.5% of the sex workers in Vietnam were infected with HIV and that prostitution was quickly becoming a popular route of infection. My personal experience living in Cambodia and working with children who were trafficked into the sex trade makes me think that rates may be even higher for younger people in the sex trade as their is a myth that sex with a virgin can cure AIDS. Although many sex workers, both in western and non-western countries, understand the modes of transmission of HIV, many do not have control over the use of condoms. One U.S. study showed that prostitutes only use condoms with clients 51% of the time. Those who favor legalization think that it could reduce harm by slowing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other STIs through consistent testing and treatment of sex workers.

Additional citations from:

El-Bassel, N., Witte, S.S., Wada, T., Gilbert, L., and Wallace, J. (2001). Correlates of partner violence among female street-based sex workers: Substance abuse, history of childhood abuse, and HIV risk. AIDS patient care and STDs, 15(1), 41-51.

Farley, M. (2003). Prostitution, trafficking, and traumatic stress. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Maltreatment & Trauma Press.

Rekart, M.L. (2005). Sex-work harm reduction. The Lancet, 366, 2123-2134.

Please stay tuned for parts III, IV, and V.



  1. This is a really interesting series of articles Clare. In that last article you posted a link to Let’s call a Whore a Whore. I thought most of the article was pretty erroneous. Saying that a women chooses that lifestyle to supply her drug habit I would doubt it usually the case. Most of the time that lifestyle finds them and they can’t find a way out.

  2. I agree. The article was sent to me in a convo under my piece Why Men Suck, so I felt the need to put it out there– that said, I really think she tries to simplify the reality and has no good understanding of why and how women (and men) end up in prostitution. Overall, I thought the tone was incredibly condescending and judgmental– then again, what did I expect, she said in her title that she wanted to call them whores.

  3. Clare,

    it is difficult to write anything in a short piece on such a vast subject dealing with a very diverse area of human behaviour. Also writings on this tend to very much coloured by opinion as opposed to empiric evidence and is often highly polarised and conflates and inflates much of what is known.

    I also find that people with some experience of the sex trade tend to write from the perspective of which angle they have encountered it. For instance if it was a sexual assault centre or addiction service they will have a very different impression from someone working on organising and empowering sex workers, and experiences also vary from country to country.

    However the point I want to make as someone who is involved in academic prostitution studies and who works alongside sex workers is that people generally do not understand terms such as legalisation and decriminalisation. Nor, because of the way these schemes are implemented, can one use the terms as a generalisation. For instance legal reform in the Netherlands or Germany is very different from New Zealand which is different from Australia.

    Legalisation is generally opposed by sex workers, and does not work. It means regulation of the sex trade, often by police. It tends to create two cultures, legal and illegal (underground).

    Decriminalisation means removing prostitution from the criminal law, and treating it as a service profession such as a beauty salon. (For instance, New Zealand)

    For citations see my website dealing with this.

  4. Dr. Goodyear makes a distinction between the terms “legalisation” and “de-criminalization.”

    He defines “legalisation” as “regulation of the sex trade,” and “de-criminalization” as “removing prostitution from the criminal law, and treating it as a service profession such as a beauty salon.”

    I think he is politely trying to say you are interchanging the two terms. Are you?

    On the one hand, we have “legalisation,” which would regulate the trade, and we have “de-criminalization,” which would make it not a crime.

    Dr. Goodyear goes on to say that “legalisation” is opposed by prostitutes (he uses the term “sex workers”) and that it “does not work.” He says that “legalisation” creates two cultures, the legal and illegal.

    My question to him would be “Why doesn’t it work?” Is he not making a generalisation of his own by saying it doesn’t work and not defining where it doesn’t work? It seems to me he is generalising.

    You cite statistics that say it reduces HIV/AIDS, and you base it on your experience and research. I don’t see how he can argue this.

    Generalisations are not a good argument. But don’t we need to question our environment and try to pose solutions to the specific situations we encounter around us?

    I applaud your reasoning and think that while I respect Dr. Goodyear, he is being too harsh.

  5. Michael Goodyear is not being harsh at all! He is merely drawing attention to complexities of even discussing models of regulation. And if you think that is potentially confusing, try looking at the European Community’s attempts to classify these schemes:

    Anyway since we have started a discussion on this, I should point out what I consider to be a number of errors in the first paragraph regarding the statement ‘legalized in various countries’ which I think is misleading.

    There are details on most of these countries on my webpages. While it is true there has been some relaxation of laws in Germany and the Netherlands, New Zealand would be considered decriminalisation (underage prostitution remains a crime, and brothels are subject to health and safety inspection), Australia is very complicated, but many States have legally regulated brothels to varying degrees (Victoria is much more regulated than NSW and ACT for instance) and WA is about to license brothels. The UK is actually passing more and more restrictive legislation. More details on many other European countries can be found in the above document.

    Let’s just say that some countries are relaxing laws and others tightening them. Some degree of generalisation is almost impossible to avoid or we cannot draw any conclusions at all! In New Zealand which decriminalised in 2003, nothing bad appears to have happened, although the situation is being carefully monitored. However since sex workers tend to be resistant workers, the more regulations the more likely they are to avoid them, which is what I mean by saying something does not work – it does it achieve its stated aims. That is not uncommon when legislation adopts half measures or merely tinkers with social issues.

    Since many of the problems that sex workers encounter arise from criminalising their activities and stigmatising them, the rationale is that removing restrictions will make them less vulnerable, and make it easier for them to use health and social services. Experience to date seems to support that.

    With regards to HIV/AIDS and STIs in general, sex workers are now considered a low risk group because they are scrupulous about sexual health, however they remain at risk from intimate partners and those who use iv drugs are also a higher risk group.

    The experience with testing (for instance in Victoria) is that it is a waste of time. Mandatory testing there has failed to identify disease, and it has been recommended this be dropped. Coercion rarely works in public health, compared to education. Prostitute services work very well in countries like New Zealand where the Prostitutes Collective is now funded by the Ministry of Health as a partner.

    I don’t have much experience with Cambodia although I know field workers and sex workers in that region. Africa has been the biggest concern but again as the World AIDS conference showed, sex workers were in the vanguard of disease control. They are now considered a low risk group in Africa. However in many developing countries US policy that is against prostitution and contraception has seriously damaged AIDS programmes.

    The bottom line is that it is extremely difficult to assist sex workers with services where their activities are criminalised. We have found that when there are police crackdowns, their health and wellbeing deteriorates and violence against them increases.

    regards, Michael

  6. Dr. Goodyear makes a good point that generalisations lead to errors, but some are necessary in drawing any conclusions.

    It is also very enlightening about the generally good state of sexual health that prostitutes enjoy.

    I also found his facts on prostitutes as a low risk group for HIV/AIDS surprising.

    I retract my rash judgment that he was being too harsh.

    An interesting and very provocative discussion you have sparked with your article series!

    I would be interested in learning why prostitutes would resist regulation. I suppose it’s related to income. The more regulation, the less income. Still, it might be worth it to not to have to run from the law. Also, they might be less likely to get abused by their johns and pimps. A study of the effects of regulation on the sex industry would be very interesting.

  7. Wow! Great conversation.

    First of all, I think that Michael is correct in his statement that people come at this from which ever background or experience they have. My take on prostitution is strongly influenced by my work in the counter-trafficking movement and with women and children who have been coerced and exploited within the sex industry.

    As for the debate between legalization and decriminalization– I would say that I am not necessarily confusing the two, although perhaps I am not being specific enough about the meaning. And in that he is right. Originally, I was writing to juxtapose the situation of illegality versus legality (however, I was not clarifying how this decriminalization came to be, if it included regulation or not). Obviously, this looks very different in different contexts (as is written out in the document sites above).

    As for the comments about HIV/AIDS written above. I guess I was surprised by that. Most of what I have read HIV/AIDS is still a huge risk– although admittedly that is cited because of their lack of ability to negotiate condom use. In Cambodia, for example, sex workers have near no ability to negotiate condom use and there is no regulation; therefore it is a key means of spread of the disease. It can be assumed that other STIs are being passed similarly.

  8. Clare, I must say this discourse is one of the most civilised I have seen in an area of exchange that is often bitterly divisive. I didn’t think you were confusing the issues, but I was concerned that others might!

    I was interested that one of the organisations offering services and support to sex workers had picked up something from an earlier article of mine and posted it:

    “Contrary to popular opinion, research shows sex trade workers tend to be much more diligent about safe sex practices and less likely to carry
    sexually transmitted diseases than the general population. But when fear of prosecution drives prostitutes away from the support services they
    rely on to maintain their health, that falls apart. Dr. Michael Goodyear, Dalhousie University”

    Again one has to be careful about generalising, and the problems of sex workers in SE Asia, especially those who are employed by third parties are recognised, and are being combatted by aid organisations like Oxfam.

    I would add one other complexity to the issue of evaluating legal reform, and that is implementation. For instance in both the Netherlands and Germany the implementation of national law has been patchy and delegated to local authorities and therefore been inconsistent. Many of the often referred to problems in those countries are due to this consideration. For instance the closing of large numbers of brothels led inevitably to new unintended consequences. Even in New Zealand local authorities keep introducing by laws to restrict the sex trade which sex workers then challenge in court and get struck down.

  9. Michael, your link on Jeffrey and MacDonald’s recent work is messed up. It gave me an error when I tried to connect.

  10. Michael, I connected with your link and read the paper. Very interesting about the sex workers’ independence. Captitalists, I reason.

    It still did not give me a lot of details about their view of violence. They seem to not want regulation because it limits their independence, but the upside is some control over violence.

    I wonder why the need for pimps. I am ignorant of the whole “scene” of prostitution, obviously. But I think, “Why do they need pimps? Can’t they promote themselves?” I wonder if there are “feminist prostitutes”? Wouldn’t this be a very enlightening study– feminist prostitutes that didn’t need pimps or anyone to promote their agenda?

  11. Hi, Donna, we seem to have the field to ourselves here. You can also e-mail me for other information if you like.

    Well nobody likes violence, and a lot of the projects I am involved in are about ways of reducing violence, such as ‘Safety First’. There are now a lot of educational projects for sex workers. Police in Vancouver teach sex workers martial arts, but another one was killed this week.

    Pimps traditionally provided shelter, some love even if rough, and managed the business. Not all pimps are abusive, and not infrequently were relatives. One woman I know is now married to her pimp. However pimps are becoming a thing of the past, I am only aware of one pimp relationship in our community, and it is her partner. However as has been demonstrated the term has become a form of abuse, as Kate Gleeson points out:

    Yes there are lots of feminist prostitutes, who actually see their profession as empowering, and they write prolifically. A number of them become academics. They feel very bad about the attitude that radical feminists have towards them.

    Don’t feel bad, once you start to work with sex workers they teach you an awful lot about life.

  12. The Gleeson study you cite above offers a unique perspective on why the current British and Australian laws “favor” the prostitute and despise the pimp.

    She points out that laws are based on tradition and, I think, she is implying that sometimes we lose site of why a particular law was enacted in the first place– it remains the same even after periods of scientific enlightenment.

    Also, I found very intriguing her discussion of the stereotypes of prostitutes and pimps– specifically that the premise of the law was that it was the “nature” of women to be prostitutes. Further, that the pimp was despised for many reasons, among them that he was controlling and violent in most people’s minds.

    Very good link.

  13. I would like to add a different perspective to this discussion. Although Michael is pointing to studies that are saying that the majority of sex workers are there by choice and are not exploited, there is a huge section of literature to the contrary. While I do not disagree that there are women who choose sex work, find validation in it, and have control over their lives and their bodies– I would not say that they are in the majority (using the same argument used earlier; it all depends on who you talk to and interview for your studies).

    May I recommend the book Prostitution, Trafficking, and Traumatic stress by Melissa Farley. You can find an early version of one of the chapters (each chapter is a different study on the topic) here:

    One of the key things that I think was interesting in this study is the level of PTSD. The study interviewed around 475 people working in prostitution in 5 countries. Besides simply asking the women what they thought about their situation (and violence they experienced), they also did some psychological exams. 67 percent met criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD. To me, this psychological suffering is telling. Not to mention, the interviews were done with women still working in prostitution and not ones that were in centers trying to escape.

    Another article talks about the effects of prostitution on both mind and body:

    This article about stuff going on in Cambodia is alarmist in its tone; unfortunately it was very true with what I saw: In fact, some of the article is fairly tame. Children that I worked with, who were trafficked by their families into brothels to pay off a family debt (some went willing because the family needed their help— this is still considered trafficking being that they were underage and coerced by economic means) were taught to say that they were virgins and willing. They were given tiny plastic bags froze with their blood or the blood of someone/ something else inside. They placed it before their “virginity” was sold. As it broke, they were shown to not being lying. Therefore, not only could a child have their virginity sold, but also the bags cut them as they were pulled out further increasing their risk for STIs.

    I wanted to put out these few examples and articles to balance the conversation. I understand that there are women who choose prostitution. However, I also know from working with them the damages that can happen to people who are trafficked into brothels and sex work.

  14. Clare,

    You make an excellent point that “it depends on who you interview.”

    Although not in the research field (my interest is in cultures outside the mainstream) I have learned that it is important to know the defined population for the study.

    For example, in the Teela Sanders’ study that Michael cites, “It’s Just Acting– Sex Workers’ Strategies for Capitalizing on Sexuality,” Sanders’ population is limited to studying prostitutes in the UK in “indoor markets,” e.g., licensed saunas, escort agencies, those working out of their homes. Further, her criteria is that the prostitution is “voluntary,” only concerned with those over 18, and not involving prostitutes in the “street market” which she admits is largely characterized by drug use, coercion and violence.

    So, my point is that her conclusions about “manufactured identity” as a coping mechanism for the stress associated with prostitution needs to be considered in light of her defined population. If the study she did was, rather, on the “street markets,” she might have found a different outcome, e.g., PTSD, and different ways of dealing with that.

    Also, the point you make about the children in Cambodia being forced to lie about their virginity is chilling. I applaud you for your courage in facing situations that most would find very much outside their “comfort zone.”

  15. The link you cite on “Prostitution in Five Countries” is informative.

    One distinctive point is that the study didn’t find a difference between “brothel” (escort services, saunas, etc.) and “street.” This would somewhat debunk the Sanders’ study.

    Another telling point is that legislation worsened their lives. This is what Michael was saying, that most “sex workers” didn’t want legislation= regulation.

    From a psychological standpoint, it would appear the study concluded that “prolonged and repeated trama precedes entry into prostitution.”

    It appears that no matter what kind of prostitute you are, street walker or in-house, you will be subject to mental stress due to society’s retribution and the inherent risks of the profession, i.e., beatings and violence and coercion.

    It is also telling that this article cites the relation of childhood abuse to prostitution– “from 50 to 90% of those in prostitution report a childhood sexual abuse history.”

  16. By now, Donna, you will have realised just how difficult this subject is, particularly to someone not involved in the field. The average person gets their impressions from the media that repeatedly state opinions that cannot be substantiated. I saw yet another urban legend appear on the internet today – that in Germany you will lose your social benefits if you refuse to work as a prostitute, where nobody bothered to check the sources! It is simply not true.

    In your response on Gleeson you recognise how loaded discussions are with myth and stereotype that are very difficult to eradicate, particularly when fuelled by the bitter debate on the nature of prostitution that exists in the literature.

    Since Clare raises the work of Melissa Farley as illustrative, I think this needs some perspective. Farley belongs to a group known as the CATW the most active force advocating eradication of prostitution. It is not just a matter of who you talk to as we agree earlier but also of the validity of the research methods. To illustrate this, see Weitzer’s critique of Farley’s research:

    Consequently I have not included this in my list of recommended reading on migration and trafficking:

    For another criticism in the trafficking literature, see:

    The point you make about populations studied is of course critical in research, and one should never generalise outside of the chosen population unless their is confirmatory evidence from other populations.

    I think we know the sex worker population in our community fairly well and do not find evidence of coercion, if we did we would intervene. With respect to the question of the ‘majority’ lets keep in mind that the relatively over-studied street market constitutes 10-20% of the total.

    Violence is unacceptable and so is coercion, whether it be prostitution or factory work, so the distinction between voluntary and coerced prostitution is critical. That at least is one area that both sides agree on, the divide is more along the lines of what is typical, which again means carefully defining the populations.

    You cannot say that someone’s work is ‘bebunked’ if it is empirical evidence, so Sanders’ work stands and is confirmed by others like Tamara O’Doherty.

    For a further extension of Sanders’ work, go to:

    and open ‘Designing out vulnerability’, which also refers to Farley’s arguments.

    With respect to the differences between outdoors and indoors, it is distressing that governments force women off the street, but give them nowhere else to go, so the law actually increases vulnerability.

    Anyway that is probably enough to go on with for now!

  17. In Ronald Weitzer’s criticism of Farley and others, “Flawed Theory and Method in Studies of Prostitution,” he says the following, which I find to be the most important statement he makes,

    “Again, prostitution varies significantly by type, and it is disingenuous to generalize from one type to prostitution as a whole.”

    In his criticism, he tags Farley et al as “radical feminists.” Is this his judgment, or do they label themselves as such?

    Well, I’m not going to get into taking sides here, but I will say his criticism appears well-founded. On the other hand, I think it is the nature of the activist to debate using the extreme point of view. It is often not “scientific” from the purists’ viewpoint, but it serves to raise awareness of the issue.

    Of course, I also understand the criticism from scholars that come at this from more of an academic perspective, whose agenda is not to “raise awareness” on a particular issue, but advance science.

    The Hughes article, “Welcome to the Rape Camp,” cited by Clare, was very compelling. Perhaps it is not perfectly couched in terms of the scientific method, but it does draw attention to the plight of many women who are coerced into prostitution in Cambodia.

    When I read a study, I generally note the credentials of the author, the population and any limitations they put on the study. Not being in research, my goal is only to expand my knowledge. Just because a study is flawed from a scientific perspective, does not necessarily mean it is useless to me. On the other hand, I don’t swallow everything as the gospel truth, either.

  18. Donna,

    thanks again. I usually teach that all studies are flawed, the important thing is to recognise the direction and magnitude of the bias and to estimate to what extent it may influence findings.

    There is nothing wrong with being a radical feminist per se, in fact I can think of a lot of things that might make me a radical feminist. The term tends to get used in this context in contrast to liberal feminists to distinguish positions on pornography and prostitution.

    My concern is where people’s ideology leads them to distort evidence to achieve their aims. Donna Hughes is an activist with CATW and her work raises concerns in many circles that might be considered more main stream academia.

    I am not an expert on Cambodia, but I do read materials from aid and service agencies there.

    You might be interested in this piece just published by some colleagues, this time go to:

    and download Regulating Prostitution by Jane Scoular (Law) and Maggie O’Neill (Sociology).

    Are you involved in libraries by any chance?

    Michael Goodyear

  19. I am not involved in libraries, just someone who wants to better understand the cultural phenomenon of prostitution and the impact it has on women.

    I never meant to imply anything was “wrong” with radical feminists, just that I don’t like labels.

    An agreed upon point– studies must be scrutinized for their limitations and taken in light of such.

  20. Whenever people talk about legalizing prostitution, the theory is usually to legalize pimping (brothels, agencies, etc.), which is mainly the realm of men making money off working women, while keeping it illegal for independent women to control their own prostitution experience (like keeping all of the money they make instead of forking over half or more to their boss). If anybody here is interested in an independent working girl’s blog you can check out mine.

  21. I just finished a film on Asian massage parlors in Rhode Island where prostitution is decriminalized. I made the film because I didn’t know how I felt about prostitution as a woman and a feminist. The problem with the laws are that majority of the tome only the women get arrested, and that is the reason that they changed the law in RI back in 1982. I think every sew workers of every other state should do a class action suit like they did in RI to change the laws.

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