NYT Op-Ed: Buying Sex Should Not Be Legal

Another way of stating that is “buying women should not be legal”. [ref]This of course applies to men and children as well.[/ref] The latter statement seems more clear, or at least I assume it is, given Amnesty International’s potential call to end laws against sex work for all involved, for the sake of “human rights”.  Because nothing says human rights of women like legalizing the roles of pimps and johns, whatever they do to “their” women.

Amnesty International is about to vote on their stance on sex work. This will potentially harm women and girls across the world.

The NYT has posted a great op-ed discussing the (lack of) merits of such a legal move.  I’ve yet to read a convincing argument on how decriminalizing pimps and johns actually protects women, but in this op-ed we get a real solution to the abuse, force, and trafficking that often goes hand-in-hand with sex work.  The author, Rachel Moran, was once a sex worker herself, beginning at the age of 15 (does that look like human rights to you?).  She suggests making the sale of sex legal, but keeping the purchasing of sex illegal, and she has data to back this stance up.

In countries that have decriminalized the sex trade, legal has attracted illegal…. In New Zealand, where prostitution was decriminalized in 2003, young women in brothels have told me that men now demand more than ever for less than ever. And because the trade is socially sanctioned, there is no incentive for the government to provide exit strategies for those who want to get out of it. These women are trapped.

There is an alternative: an approach, which originated in Sweden, that has now been adopted by other countries such as Norway, Iceland and Canada and is sometimes called the “Nordic model.”

The concept is simple: Make selling sex legal but buying it illegal — so that women can get help without being arrested, harassed or worse, and the criminal law is used to deter the buyers, because they fuel the market. There are numerous techniques, including hotel sting operations, placing fake ads to inhibit johns, and mailing court summonses to home addresses, where accused men’s spouses can see them.

I’m not sure if the “Nordic Model” leaves room to criminalize the roles of pimps, but overall seems like a much better solution, one that really protects the human rights of women and girls (girls! people, girls).  Moran even has great suggestions on what to do with the fines collected from prosecuting johns, read the whole article to find out (hint: it involves helping women).

11 thoughts on “NYT Op-Ed: Buying Sex Should Not Be Legal”

  1. I agree completely. The Nordic model appears to be the best approach yet tried, especially in support of women (mostly, but also men and children).

    The Nordic model suffers from three objections:
    1. It isn’t perfect. It’s good but not perfect. (I suspect that this objection is raised primarily by people with another agenda. Perhaps 2 or 3 below.)
    2. It’s politically difficult because it tends to support women and attack men. (I think that’s a virtue, but the political reality–even though nobody will admit to being party to it–is that men dominate and will tend to make decisions in favor of their tribe when put to a hard decision.)
    3. Making the sale of sex legal (really, not illegal) is tainted by the “permissive” taunt. A certain segment of the population insists on criminalizing and (trying to) punish everything deemed undesirable, even when laws fail or are demonstrably counter-productive.

  2. When I say “not perfect,” an example is that a likely response is for some portion of the sex trade to go farther underground. That may be even more brutal and punishing for the participants than their present situation. And it confuses statistics, putting an asterisk to any reported numbers about results or consequences. (File under “unintended consequences”.)

  3. It’s not perfect, and it’s a middle of the road approach, so most people, politicians, and organizations are not going to go for it, I imagine.

  4. There’s another angle, too, Chris. The supply side of sex work is generally much lower-class than the demand side. That is why there’s a tendency to penalize the workers and not the johns. The johns have connections. The workers, by and large, do not.

  5. Nathaniel: Agreed. And/but/however, I would chuckle if this weren’t such serious business when it strikes me that the correlation(s) between women/men and worker/john and no connections/connections are likely high enough to make them functionally synonymous for purposes of analysis.

  6. The NYT article is one Giant Non-Sequitur.

    Rachael Moran: “At age 14, I was placed in the care of the state after my father committed suicide and because my mother suffered from mental illness. Within a year, I was on the streets with no home, education or job skills. All I had was my body. At 15, I met a young man who thought it would be a good idea for me to prostitute myself. As “fresh meat,” I was a commodity in high demand.”

    This situation has nothing to do with legal prostitution. Sexual activity with an underaged girl would be illegal under any regime, Nordic or otherwise. To try to leverage this woman’s experience as an exploited teenager into an argument concerning transactions between consenting adults makes little sense. The johns are committing statutory rape, the pimps are accessories, and the girls are victims. We don’t need to change anything – we just need to enforce the law and put the johns & pimps in jail.

    As for legalizing adult prostitution, I agree that it would a mistake. We know that prostitution, legal or illegal, is a social, if not moral, evil. We can tell by the way it attracts related criminal activity, as was the experience in Amsterdam, and the damage it does to many (but not all) prostitutes.

    But the Nordic model is no solution. It just empowers pimps and madams, and those prostitutes inclined to blackmailing the johns. Frankly, I doubt that a Nordic model law would be constitutional. Here we have an economic and physical act requiring the consensual participation of two adults – how in the world can one of the participants be a criminal and the other not, particularly when the non-criminal gains an economic benefit? A willing participant is not a victim. Without a victim, where is the crime? There is only a crime if the prostitute is coerced – and it is a mistake to assume that all prostitutes are coerced. When they are, we have rape laws that should be enforced.

    What we need is to make participation in an act of prostitution a civil offense punishable by fines. Procurers – pimps & madams – can still be subject to criminal laws. A civil offense regimen would not eliminate prostitution, but it would probably reduce it to some kind of ineradicable minimum. And note – under a civil, rather than a criminal, setup, it would be easy to have different fines for different classes of violators, including differentiation between the person who pays and the person who is paid. If coercion is involved, prosecute the pimp – and if the john is aware of the coercion, then you can prosecute him as well, as an accessory.

  7. Considering that under-age prostitution is illegal and still happened to this woman, and no one was ever prosecuted, I don’t find her set-up to be a non sequitur. Add to the fact that she has data from many countries that show the Nordic model is a huge improvement, and it feels like this complicated civil/criminal/”only prosecute the johns if they *know* something” is just shooting from the hip.

    Also note, I’m in favor of prosecuting pimps and madams, just not the women, so they can get help. A Nordic model with illegal 3rd party participation seems like justice for everyone except “consenting johns who thought they were with a consenting adult and truly were with a consenting adult” (under the civil/criminal suggestion), and I just don’t find that a necessary distinction. Except under child prostitution, johns always assume they’re with someone who is consenting, they paid for it, right?

    “I know there are some advocates who argue that women in prostitution sell sex as consenting adults. But those who do are a relatively privileged minority — primarily white, middle-class, Western women in escort agencies — not remotely representative of the global majority.”

    Mostly though this civil/criminal model follows closely to the model suggested by Ms. Moran, it’s just a lot more complicated. Having lots of classes of violations could just lead to high powered people getting lower violations and low powered people getting higher violations.

  8. “Mostly though this civil/criminal model follows closely to the model suggested by Ms. Moran, it’s just a lot more complicated. Having lots of classes of violations could just lead to high powered people getting lower violations and low powered people getting higher violations.”

    It may seem more complicated, but from the perspective of a lawyer (which I am, albeit retired) the Nordic model presents more problems and is the more complicated one.

    The first hurdle is whether the Nordic model would even survive Constitutional scrutiny. I’ve no settled opinion on that, but I recognize it as a difficulty that will have to be addressed, and might prove fatal to the Nordic model in this country.

    Putting that aside, getting criminal convictions against the johns is a lot harder than hitting them with a civil violation. That’s why you don’t see very many criminal cases – it’s not a question of influence, so much as a question of the relative power of the johns to resist prosecution. The cops aren’t going to arrest men when they don’t think they’ll get it past the prosecutor’s office. It’s a decision involving use of resources, quality of the evidence, and likelihood of conviction. In an era of relatively unfettered sexual access to women, exactly how does a prosecutor argue to a jury that a man who pays a woman for something other women hand out for free should be convicted of a crime?

    Plus the johns are more likely to fight criminal charges, which entangles the women in the legal system for a long time, and subjects them to what can be some vicious cross-examination.

    As for the high powered/low powered dichotomy, I think we need to remember that the main deterrent for johns is publicity. The size of the fine won’t matter as much as the fact of it, and you will nail far more johns with civil penalties than with criminal arrests, regardless of the fines (or the convictions, for that matter.) It’s the charge that matters, really. Focusing on the distribution of the penalties is an instance of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

    We’ll just have to agree to disagree on the non-sequitur. But consider this – if the legal system can’t or won’t prosecute men for raping underage prostitutes, why should we believe it will start prosecuting them for visiting prostitutes of legal age?

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