Now that Amnesty International seems to be getting behind the movement to decriminalize sex work, the issue is finally getting some attention in the mainstream press. But as usual the media, or at least this article in the New York Times, has got some of its facts wrong. First of all, laws that criminalize buyers, such as the much-vaunted “Nordic model” first adopted in Sweden and now enacted in Canada and northern Ireland, are not “sheltering” sex workers. As I’ve blogged about before, research shows that such laws actually make life more dangerous for sex workers in those countries because it makes it harder for them to negotiate safe sex (i.e. sex with condoms).
The Times article trumpets the fact that street prostitution has declined as a result of the Swedish law, but the truth is that overall, sex work has not declined appreciably in Sweden or other Scandinavian countries since the law passed in 2000. Nor has trafficking, according to the Swedish government’s own reports. As I discovered in writing Getting Screwed, Sex Workers and the Law (Oct. 2015), all the law has done is made sex work more hazardous for the women and men who sell sex and made sex workers more likely to be discriminated against in court and child custody battles.
This is precisely why Amnesty International is considering a petition that calls for decriminalizing sex work. Unlike many in the mainstream media, they have done their homework and discovered that in countries that have decriminalized prostitution and regulate it to some degree, sex workers not only have much safer working conditions but are much less likely to develop HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Indeed, countries like New Zealand and the Netherlands, where sex work is legal, have the lowest HIV rates in the world.
And that brings me to my final point about Doreen Carvajal’s article in the Times today. She quotes a former sex worker as saying that there is more abuse of sex workers in countries that have decriminalized and legalized prostitution, when in fact the exact opposite is true. Studies in the Netherlands, Germany and New Zealand have found that violence against sex workers has declined since these countries decriminalized sex work, and working conditions have markedly improved. That’s because sex workers are no longer afraid to go to the police (as they are here) for fear of being arrested. According to researchers who study the sex industry, sex workers in the Netherlands and New Zealand now work with law enforcement to target violent predators and abusive pimps.
Similar to the case with legalizing marijuana, a lot of the violence associated with prostitution would disappear if the practice were decriminalized and regulated to some degree. Amnesty International is on the right side of history here and I just wish the mainstream media would get their facts straight before pontificating about this complex and important issue.