Decriminalizing Prostitution: It’s not an Option

By: Laura Poff & Hillary DeJarnett

Hillary DeJarnett, territorial services coordinator against human and sex trafficking, attended the UN Commission on the Status of Women in conjunction with The Salvation Army’s International Social Justice Commission. While there, she sat in on lectures and presentations focused on human trafficking. One meeting asked attendees to consider whether full decriminalization of the sex industry would lead to women’s empowerment.


Q: Where did the push to decriminalize prostitution originate and what is the reasoning behind it?

A: In 2015, Amnesty International adopted policy calling for the full decriminalization of prostitution worldwide, in line with similar stances put out by the UN and the International Labor Organization. They claim to advocate for human rights, but this policy does nothing to keep women and men who are being exploited through prostitution safe. This policy was adopted on the fiction that legalizing the sex trade protects vulnerable people. Those in favor of this decriminalization/legalization stance argue that it will give opportunity to regulate the industry and promotes harm reduction. But it does not.

Q: What are some of the potential dangers of full decriminalization?

A: Legalizing prostitution gives way to more abuse, violence and exploitation. Women in prostitution, who went from Germany (where it is decriminalized) to Sweden, shared that there is much more violence in legal brothels because the buyers are given free reign since they are the “client.” It makes rape and sexual assault a matter of an employee grievance and the women no longer feel they can go to law enforcement.

Normalizing prostitution also leads to more rape and fosters violence against women by condoning the commodification of women on a societal level. In Nevada, where they have legalized brothels and have glorified traffickers to be considered business owners, they see the highest rate of rape in the United States. In a study of men, 54 percent of buyers identified they had aggressive sexual behavior towards their partners. The connection between prostitution, both legal and illegal, and sex trafficking is exceedingly well-established.

Q: Are there any other reasons that you oppose it?

A: Legalization affects all women (not just those in the sex industry) because it condones the buying and selling of women – making us commodities.

Decriminalization of the sex industry turns pimps and traffickers into legitimate business owners. It turns brothels, massage parlors and other areas of commercial sexual exploitation into legitimate and profitable businesses. Some would argue that decriminalization gives dignity and professionalizes the women in prostitution, but this could not be further from the truth. It merely dignifies the sex industry.

Q: Is there an alternative approach that you support?

A: The model in opposition to complete decriminalization is the Nordic/Swedish model and is one that most in the abolitionist camp embrace. This model criminalizes the purchase of sex but does not criminalize those in prostitution. It deems prostitution “a serious harm both to individuals and to society” and works to arrest and prosecute the traffickers and buyers.

This law began as part of a larger Violence Against Women Bill in Sweden and was based on the foundation that the system of prostitution is a violation of gender equality. After 10 years, a study found that in Sweden there had been a 50 percent reduction in street prostitution. Many are advocating that this model is the best way to change laws and advocate for those being exploited.

Q: Does the Salvation Army have an official stance on this issue?

A: The Salvation Army’s International Position Statement on human trafficking states:

“The Salvation Army recognizes that there is a great deal of sex trafficking, and that the majority of those trafficked for sex are women and girls. It rejects this commodification of women in any circumstance – including pornography, prostitution and sex tourism – and works both to eliminate human trafficking for this purpose and to create alternatives for women who would otherwise be forced into prostitution.”

I would think this position statement is in line with being against full decriminalization.

Q: What can our readers do to help men and women who are being exploited?

A: The Salvation Army is serving survivors of prostitution and trafficking internationally, and we must continue to advocate for the laws that will promote justice and empower those affected by exploitation and trafficking. Full decriminalization is not empowering the women, children and men impacted by prostitution and sex trafficking and it is my hope that we will continue to advocate for just laws that will empower the most vulnerable.