Decriminalizing the Sex Trade Isn't the Answer—The Equality Model Is

Legalizing prostitution legalizes pimping and sex buying, too. There is a better way.

In the past year, bills to fully decriminalize the sex trade were introduced in both the Washington, D.C., and New York State legislatures. The bills were accompanied by aggressive media campaigns pushing a “sex work is work” ideology. But is it really a job like any other?

This question divides many people when discussing the sex trade, which includes stripping, brothel- , street- , gang- , internet- , and hotel-based prostitution, as well as pornography. The term “sex work”—often used to describe the system of prostitution—was actually coined by those with a financial interest in the sex industry, including pimps, to normalize and mainstream its harms.

Every day, at Sanctuary for Families, we work with victims and survivors of prostitution, commercial sexual exploitation (CSE), and sex trafficking. We witness the devastating impact the sex trade has on our clients, physically and mentally. The sex trade is a predatory industry that exploits the most vulnerable among us for the profit of others. It is a market where people—usually individuals with the least amount of social power—are bought by men with disposable income and an urge to engage in non-mutual sexual acts. Sex trafficking and prostitution are inextricably linked; without a market for prostitution, there would be no sex trafficking.

The realities of the sex trade for the overwhelming majority of people do not include fancy dinners, exciting sex, empowerment, good money, or wielding a leather whip. Instead, it is an industry characterized by extraordinarily high mortality rates. For the privilege of payment, sex buyers are able to inflict broken bonestraumatic brain injuries, and anogenital lacerations on those they purchase. As one youth survivor said, during a Washington, D.C. Council session about decriminalizing the sex trade, “[Sex buyers] need to be held accountable & arrested. They're violent, they hurt us, they steal from us, they rape us.”

Another New York City survivor succinctly sums up the agonizing reality of prostitution: “My body can’t take it. My body can’t take so many men.” Regardless of how one enters the sex trade, or how one identifies—whether as a prostituted person or survivor, a victim or a sex worker—the consequences of being bought and sold for sex are the same: life-long, severe psychological and physical trauma. The list of harms starts with malnourishment, dental trauma, STIs, post-traumatic stress disordersuicidal ideation, substance abuse, dissociation, addiction, anxiety, and depression. (Sadly, that list is not exhaustive.) These are the results of being chronically bought, penetrated, terrorized, and assaulted by strangers. In the sex trade everyone is reduced to a commodity and treated with the same dehumanizing disregard.

At a time when we are talking about criminal justice reform and equality for all, how should society deal with the sex trade? Some argue that full decriminalization or legalization is the answer to the injustices of the status quo, which currently punishes all actors, including the person in prostitution. We disagree. We support a third legal framework, known as the Equality Model. While we agree with proponents of decriminalization that no one who has been bought and sold in the sex trade should be arrested or incarcerated, we know that the sex buyers, pimps, and other exploiters must be held accountable.

When the state decriminalizes the entire sex market, it decriminalizes sex buyers, pimps, and other exploiters. Full decriminalization of the sex trade is an indelibly dangerous path. The sex trade, a multi-billion dollar industry, works like any other market, following economic principles of supply and demand, and a keen incentive for profit-making. Legalization normalizes sex buying, thereby creating greater demand. Pimps and traffickers meet the increasing demand by increasing the “supply.” Inevitably, the most marginalized in our society are targeted as “supply.” Pimps push more women and children into this harmful industry to meet the sex buyers’ demand for a greater “variety” of human beings to satisfy their ever-changing, racist sexual fantasies. By decriminalizing the sex trade, the state declares that buying sex is a normal male recreational activity, and as with any other recreational activity, the state will profit from the tourism and tax revenue generated by this lucrative market.

Numerous countries have legalized or decriminalized prostitution in the last two decades, and extensive research documents that, regardless of the various measures introduced to keep people in prostitution safe (panic buttons, training in hostage negotiations, bodyguards who pose as pimps), the sex trade in these places is as dangerous and deadly as it’s ever been.

Prostitution survivor Sabrina Valisce initially advocated for full decriminalization in New Zealand, where she spent years in brothels. After the implementation of decriminalization, Sabrina changed her position, stating, “I was looking for some support, perhaps to exit prostitution, but all I was offered was condoms.” In New Zealand, under decriminalization, Maori and Pacific Islander girls are sold to adult men, and their traffickers go unprosecuted. In 2004, New Zealand was identified as a destination country for human trafficking. It was determined that the country “face[s] a large problem of children internally trafficked.”

In the Netherlands, where prostitution was legalized in 2000, a 2008 National Police Service report revealed that between 50 and 90 percent of women in legal Dutch brothels are trafficked. The investigation found that, despite brothel inspections, pimps used extreme violence against women in legal, licensed brothels. Victims were beaten with baseball bats, forced to obtain abortions and breast enlargements, and were tattooed with the name of their pimp. And in nearby Germany, where prostitution was officially legalized in 2003, Jürgen Rudloff, owner of a major brothel chain, turned to traffickers and pimps when he couldn’t fill his expanding brothels with enough women legally. He was convicted this year of abetting criminal gangs.

When we focus on the choices made by the person being bought, we ignore the choices made by the pimp or sex buyer. The pimp chooses who will eat McDonald’s that night or go hungry, whether to brand a woman, or make her hide her menstrual flow with a sponge. The buyer decides whether or not he will use a condom, pay for the services rendered, or rape or murder the person he bought. In one Chicago study, 43 percent of buyers stated that if a man pays for sex, the woman bought should do anything he asks. When sex buyers were compared to non-sex buyers, they scored higher on measures of hostility and had less empathy for women in prostitution.

“As a survivor of sex trafficking, I am against fully decriminalizing prostitution. Traffickers or pimps made a lot of money from my body and were very abusive. But sex buyers abused me most: verbally, mentally, physically, and sexually, treating my body like a rag doll. It was rape, every 45 minutes,” Shandra Woworuntu, survivor and founder of Mentari, Human Trafficking Survivor Empowerment Program told us“We should hold every single one of them accountable. They are criminals.”

Today, November 25, we are launching New Yorkers for the Equality Model, a New York-based alliance of sex trade survivors, cross-sector organizations, and community members who advocate this approach. We are drafting legislation that embodies our main tenets of decriminalizing those that directly sell sex, while keeping legal prohibitions against sex buying, pimping, and brothel owning, and funding and implementing comprehensive services, including housing, trauma-informed medical and mental health services, education and job training for people in prostitution.

The Equality Model, pioneered in Sweden in 1999 and since enacted in seven additional countries, recognizes prostitution as gender-based violence and discrimination. Instead of handcuffs, survivors are offered comprehensive services, including counseling, medical care, legal aid, economic empowerment, and financial assistance. It also prioritizes intensive public education campaigns to shift social norms that stigmatize people who are bought and sold and to raise awareness about the harms sex buying causes. Research has shown that the Equality Model reduces the size of the sex trade and its accompanying violence, abuse, and sex trafficking.

Which world do we envision for ourselves? One in which we celebrate inequality by condemning our most vulnerable to the sex trade? Where people must endure unwanted bodily invasion to meet their basic needs? Or is it a world in which we invest in helping each woman, girl, and LBGTQ person to reach their full potential in the security of their own bodies? We must fight to ensure it is the latter.

Ane Mathieson is lead program specialist with the Justice and Empowerment for Teens Initiative, a clinical program for survivors of commercial sexual exploitation at Sanctuary for Families. Alexi Ashe Meyers is an attorney at Sanctuary for Families and co-chair of the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition.