Throughout the United States, anti-sex-trafficking groups are working to hold back a growing wave of support for decriminalizing prostitution. During a 14-hour hearing in October about whether to legalize the sex trade in Washington, D.C., Helen Taylor held up a pair of metallic platform heels that a prostitute had given her after exiting the sex industry, calling them her “former shackles.”
Taylor, director of outreach and intervention at the nonprofit group Exodus Cry, and others convinced the Council of the District of Columbia to shelve the bill. But the wave continues. This week, lawmakers in Vermont and New York introduced similar statewide proposals for decriminalizing prostitution.
Proponents say decriminalization would remove the stigma that prevents sex workers from seeking police protection and healthcare.
“The underlying question is do we need to criminalize consensual sex between adults on any terms?” said Vermont Rep. Selene Colburn, a member of the Vermont Progressive Party and lead sponsor of the bill.
But human-trafficking survivors and groups that advocate on their behalf say decriminalization would only enable abusers, increase the demand for prostitution, and encourage sex tourism. They argue that engaging in sex for money is far from consensual.
“The [sex industry] chews up and spits out women,” Taylor said. “The very existence of money proves that coercion is present.”
Decriminalization measures have made little headway so far in states and cities such as New York, Maine, Massachusetts, and San Francisco. In New York, groups like DecrimNY are pushing lawmakers to reform prostitution laws, including repealing penalties for loitering with the intent to engage in prostitution, which they argue leads to people being harassed based on their appearance. Que English, the founder of the New York nonprofit group Not on My Watch, said decriminalization would “open the floodgates for sex establishments who want to set up shop in New York.”
In the United States, legal prostitution occurs in only eight counties in Nevada, where it’s permitted in about 20 licensed brothels. Nevada has the nation’s highest rate of illegal sex trade—63 percent more than New York’s and double that of Florida, according to a 2018 study by the Human Trafficking Initiative.
“Once you normalize the sex trade, it explodes,” said Eleanor Gaetan, director of government relations at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. “To satisfy demand, the sex trade has to lure in vulnerable people, because there are never enough women willing to be exploited and degraded in prostitution.”
A 2013 academic study of 150 countries by the London School of Economics showed a link between legalizing prostitution and increased rates of human trafficking. Some advocates in the Netherlands are pushing to end legalized prostitution, which the country has allowed since 2000.
The liberal National Organization of Women opposes full decriminalization and instead advocates for lighter penalties for those who are prostituted and stronger punishment for people who purchase sex or benefit financially from the trade. The World Health Organization supports decriminalization.
Gaetan said decriminalization advocates ignore the trauma inherent in prostitution. One nine-country study found that 68 percent of prostitutes experience post-traumatic stress disorder at the same severity level as combat veterans and victims of state torture.
“The normalization of the sex industry will only harm people and target the most vulnerable,” Gaetan said. “It can’t be made safe or less violent. That’s why we fight it hard.”