Sex & Relationships

Why Prostitution Should Be Decriminalized

The decriminalization of prostitution is one feminist strategy for helping women lead better lives.
In the mid-1990s, Asian feminists concerned about the sexual exploitation of children and women and the growing epidemic of HIV/AIDS urged Susan Thistlethwaite and me to write a book about the sex industry. We traveled to six Asian countries and to major cities in the U.S., interviewing sex workers, anti-prostitution activists, government officials, medical personnel, social workers, brothel owners, members of the military, religious leaders and even a few customers to write Casting Stones: Prostitution and Liberation in Asia and the United States.

We did not expect to advocate for decriminalization, but that is where our research led us.

Moral Judgments Interfere

Many find sex work morally repugnant, but similar assessments could be made of other forms of work, such as the nuclear arms industry. Moral arguments that frame prostitution as sexual immorality see it from the perspective of its customers, and this focus on sex tends to make the subject religiously radioactive. (Editor's Note: See "Casting Stones: The Theology of Prostitution" by Brock in the Summer 1997 On The Issues Magazine.)

Judgment is cast, not on the customers seeking sex, who are often respectable family men and community leaders, but on those who provide services to them. Sex workers, on the other hand, see what they do as business, and most seek to collect their fees with as little sexual performance as is necessary. They separate their work from their own private relationships, as many workers do. Seeing prostitution as sexual immorality, rather than as business, maintains the gaze of the privileged with power and marginalizes the most vulnerable and visible in the system.

Decriminalization Recognizes Consenting Adults

Decriminalization is no panacea for fixing the worst aspects of sex work, but it is a step in the right direction. In contrast to legalization, a system we call "the state as pimp," decriminalization prevents the state from prosecuting adults for consensual, nonviolent sexual activity, whether or not money is exchanged.

Laws already prohibit nonconsensual violent sex, as well as slavery, human trafficking, sex with a minor, rape, assault, extortion and robbery. Criminalization makes prosecuting major crimes against sex workers more difficult and the work more dangerous.

New Zealand, a country that has long had women at top levels of government leadership, passed the Prostitution Reform Act of 2003, or the PRA, which decriminalized sex work. Controversial at the time -- the PRA passed by one vote -- opponents have failed at repeal efforts.

A thorough 2008 study of the short-term impact of the PRA concluded:
(T)he sex industry has not increased in size, and many of the social evils predicted by some who opposed the decriminalisation of the sex industry have not been experienced. On the whole, the PRA has been effective in achieving its purpose, and the Committee is confident that the vast majority of people involved in the sex industry are better off under the PRA than they were previously.
The study identified areas that still needed work, such as the impact on neighborhoods of street solicitation and coercion of sex workers to take customers against their will.

Rejecting Benevolent Paternalism

In reaching our conclusions, Sue and I followed a basic feminist liberation principle: those most vulnerable and negatively impacted by an exploitive system must be respected and listened to carefully as experts with knowledge gained from experience. Benevolent paternalism, as well meaning as it may be, is still a way for those in power to deny it to those they seek to help and to impose their view of the world on others.

Sex workers should be in leadership in any movement intended to make their lives better. Their agency over their own lives must be enhanced, even when we disagree with their choices. We followed this principle in writing Casting Stones, and it led us to conclude that decriminalization is one feminist strategy for helping women lead better lives.
Rev. Rita Nakashima Brock, Ph.D., is Senior Editor in Religion at The New Press and co-author of Casting Stones: Prostitution and Liberation in Asia and the United States, which won the Associated Catholic Press Gender Studies Award in 1996. She is a board member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and a former director of the Radcliffe Fellowship Program at Harvard University.
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