The human rights organization Amnesty International voted this month to develop a policy that supports full decriminalization of prostitution — both selling and buying sex. Anti-trafficking organizations and women’s rights activists in the U.S. criticized the move, but others have embraced it, including Washington Councilman David Grosso. He is now considering introducing legislation that would decriminalize prostitution in the nation’s capital.
Grosso is right when he says that America needs new prostitution laws that “respect the fact that sex workers are human beings too.” But critics are also correct that blanket decriminalization is a terrible idea that could risk increasing human trafficking. There is a middle way: decriminalize the selling of sex, but criminalize the buying of sex.
In 1999, Sweden pioneered this approach, which meets two essential objectives: It helps protect the human rights of people in prostitution while reducing the demand for paid sex, making commercial sexual exploitation less profitable.
Some allege that decriminalizing the buying of sex would make prostitution safer and turn it into a profession like any other, both of which would aid the combat against human trafficking. But the evidence suggests otherwise.
New Zealand decriminalized the buying of sex in 2003. Five years later, its Prostitution Law Review Committee reported that the law did little to curb violence in the sex trade. Germany made it legal in 2001, but the industry has certainly not become like other professions. A federal government survey released in 2007 found that very few sex workers had a “contract of employment,” and it concluded that legalization had not resulted in any “measurable improvements to prostitutes’ social protection.” In the Netherlands, where brothels are licensed by local governments, monitoring the sex industry has severely drained public resources, and research has found that fighting sex trafficking therefore “may even be harder in the legalized prostitution sector.”
Notably, several studies of prostitution laws have reported that in countries where buying sex has been decriminalized, sex trafficking typically is more prevalent. This is not surprising. When it is easier to purchase, demand for commercial sex goes up and more money can be made from exploiting victims.
For traffickers, no buyers equals no business. The better policy alternative for the United States is to follow Sweden’s approach and remove criminal sanctions for selling sexual services without making it permissible to buy.
Although the Swedish model is by no means perfect, it is the best option. Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Canada have adopted it. And the data suggest that it is working. In Sweden, a 2014 report estimated that the proportion of Swedish men who have paid for sex dropped from 13% in 1996 — before the law was enacted — to 8% in 2008. By contrast, surveys have found that sex-buying rates in the U.S. have not changed much since the 1990s. Up to 14% of American men have purchased sex at some point.
It is disgraceful that the United States, as reported by the Human Rights Project for Girls, jails victims of sex trafficking as offenders. By some counts, more than 90% of those who are arrested for prostitution in the United States are those who sell sex; fewer than 10% are buyers.
Yet many people in prostitution are victims of exploitation, whereas buyers are often among the privileged. A 2013 survey of American men who frequently bought sex found that almost half had an annual income of $120,000 or more, and close to 80% had graduated from college.
Ultimately, decriminalizing sellers and criminalizing buyers is only part of the solution. Sex workers must have better access to housing, healthcare, education and opportunities to leave the sex industry. There is more to be done not only in the U.S. but also in Sweden to address the widespread stigma, abuse and health risks in prostitution.
Simon Hedlin is a former political advisor at the Swedish prime minister’s office. Twitter: @simonhedlin
Birgitta Ohlsson is a former minister of the Swedish Cabinet, a current member of parliament and the foreign policy spokeswoman for the Swedish Liberal Party. Twitter: @birgittaohlsson