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Why Do We Throw Prostitutes in Prison?

An unlikely coalition of liberals and conservatives is shifting the way we view – and treat – people who sell sex.

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It’s slowly becoming the consensus that prostitution arrests are a revolving door rather than a deterrent. A 2007 study conducted by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority found that women who were released from the Illinois Department of Corrections with sex offenses, the vast majority of them with prostitution charges, were the likeliest to be arrested again.

There is no felony upgrade for men who are arrested for soliciting sex. Illinois does have a felony patronizing prostitution charge on the books, but convictions under it in the two years it’s existed numbered in the double digits. At the same time, 127 people were admitted to the Illinois Department of Corrections in 2012 on felony prostitution convictions, and hundreds more were in local custody on lesser charges.

End Demand campaigns take their inspiration from Sweden, which in 1999 banned the purchase of sexual services, but not their sale, arguing that prostitution was essentially violence against women. In other words, arrest men who buy sex, not whoever they’re buying it from. But unlike in the United States, prostitution was never criminalized in Sweden and the handful of other Nordic countries that followed its example, and those countries have a robust suite of social services to offer people leaving prostitution. Eliminating the felony penalty for prostitution in one state doesn’t exactly make a Swedish model, but it’s that much closer.

Irin Carmon is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @irincarmon or email her at

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