I have been reading current news articles about the controversial proposal released by the UN last month. In their momentous report, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law more than urges the rest of the world to legalize prostitution, for the sake of safety and regulations that could reduce the transmission of HIV/AIDS. The Commission is comprised of 15 members considered to be leaders in their field and in public life who were called upon to provide leadership on HIV related issues and the law. After 18 months of research and meetings, this proposal is their conclusion and public recommendation issued to the world.
In the closing paragraph of his preface, Commission Chair Fernando Henrique Cardoso writes that “this report presents persuasive evidence and recommendations that can save lives, save money and help end the AIDS epidemic. The recommendations appeal to what is common to all our cultures and communities—the innate humanity of recognising and respecting the inherent worth and dignity of all individuals.” The UN Commission “forcefully calls for governments, civil societies, and international bodies” to embrace twelve conclusions. Among them is the decriminalization of private and adult consensual sexual behaviors. including voluntary sex work.
There are so many layers, within this issue. I have an immediate emotional response to the idea of the legalization of prostitution. And while there is ultimately a symmetry between this reaction and my rational consideration of the issue, I need to recognize this is not a foregone conclusion for many who care about it just as much as I do. I have friends and respected colleagues in the humanitarian field working specifically in the area of human trafficking who find this question of prostitution legalization to be complicated rather than the obvious many want it to be.
In the global discussion on the ramifications of legalization, the city of Amsterdam is an obvious example to draw from as one who famously opened its doors to sex work in the year 2000. It was said to be a vote for women’s rights, where women could freely engage in a legitimized profession with an empowering safety net of regulation. One can’t help but note that for any country with legalized prostitution, this particular decision in the name of women’s rights also has the added benefit of significant financial gain for any supporting government. Once a recognized profession, prostitution provides the certainty of millions of additional dollars each year in income tax revenue from an industry that historically thrives whether the economy is thriving or crashing.
The city of Amsterdam has been intentional about regulating it, implementing a healthcare program that provides quality care and treatment to sex workers and conducts regular testing to reduce STD and HIV/AIDS transmission. They have a police task force presence in the district to reduce acts of violence against sex workers. And they have funded annual monitoring and reporting for coercion, human trafficking, and illegal activity. Research disclosed frightening revelations over the years and to their credit, the city council publicly acknowledged this.
In 2008 , the BBC reported that Amsterdam was aggressively cracking down on the district to eliminate known sources of human trafficking and organized crime. Thirty percent of brothels were initially closed down for illegal activities. To aid in combatting the “decay” of the city center activities, the city council’s declared goal was to ultimately close down 50% percent of the brothels. “Money laundering, extortion and human trafficking are things you do not see on the surface but they are hurting people and the city. We want to fight this,” said Deputy Mayor Lodewijk Asscher. “We can still have sex and drugs but in a way that shows the city is in control,” he concluded. In 2012, a new law was passed that will be implemented in 2013 and raise the age requirement of a sex worker from 18 to 21 as well as require a fluency in the Dutch language. It has been controversial with their citizens, but the city council is moving forward with this effort aimed at reducing trafficking as younger girls and those unable to speak the local language are more vulnerable to abuse.
However, with all of its problems, the red light district of Amsterdam does report a low HIV/AIDS prevalence credited to the health care monitoring and government regulation of the industry. The UN Commission now making headlines was charged with the goal of identifying ways to reduce HIV/AIDS. While people against legalized prostitution will site Amsterdam and its increase in trafficking and organized crime to defend their stance, advocates for legalization will likely also site Amsterdam and its low HIV/AIDS prevalence to support their opposing position.
While I do not agree with the UN’s conclusion, if one were to look at it purely on the basis of a response to HIV/AIDS, it would have to be acknowledged that legalization that leads to regulation could arguably help reduce the rate of transmission. You have countries with legalized prostitution (though legendary for its decision, Amsterdam is certainly not alone), countries with illegal prostitution and regulation, others with illegal prostitution and no regulation, and then those in a complicated category that allows for certain activities but not others. A comparison could be drawn between Amsterdam’s reportedly low prevalence to reported estimates of up to 80% HIV/AIDS prevalence in Asia’s largest red light district in Mumbai where prostitution is illegal.
Some respected friends and colleagues tell me that while they may morally be against prostitution, they aren’t sure it is the government’s role to make it illegal. The sex trade is an outworking of the human heart, they say, and will exist whether it is legal or not. They are also on the ground in the throes of a very complicated and dark world. They know individual stories and try to advocate within systems for those who are trapped. As I’ve listened to their experiences, rather than the guarantee that a system where it is legal presents the clearest danger one of the most vulnerable environments for a woman seems to be where prostitution is illegal, but unregulated. Here, a victim has no place to turn- there is no police task force patroling and accessible programs are limited and often struggling for financial support. Aid workers see this. They also struggle to work in an arena like Amsterdam where so much they morally oppose is permissible and glorified, but with legality came government programs and intervention and regulation they can, in theory, appeal to when needed.
In a world where there is much black and white and right and wrong, they do explain a kind of gray that explains their uncertainty. To recognize this does not change my personal belief and the conclusion I have thoughtfully come to, but it heightens an awareness of a complicated world that continues to deeply sadden me as a human being and specifically as a woman.
Will prostitution continue to exist if it is illegal? Absolutely. But the abuse of a law does not adequately justify its absence. If it were so, we shouldn’t have any laws at all. One of the critical functions of good government is to create an environment that protects the intrinsic rights of its people- fundamental rights that affirm and respect the essence of a human being.
History tells of revolutions for freedom won for future generations. Movies like Braveheart powerfully remind us of both the grave cost and awesome privilege of liberty. Yet freedom itself is a kind of paradox. To truly protect freedom for the people, a government must also limit it. Any law effectively protects the freedom of one and simultaneously limits the freedom of another. American law protects the individual right of one to live and in doing so limits the liberty of a murderer. It protects the freedom of a consumer to obtain the truth and limits the freedom of a business to commit fraud and intentionally deceive. Upholding freedom is inextricably linked to the very limitation of it in another capacity. It is neither theoretically nor practically possible to create a world of absolute freedom. And so, our choice is to determine which freedoms we will choose to uphold.
With its singular objective, this UN Commission has responded to one global problem in part by compromising its very premise of human rights. They are advocating for a perceived solution at the cost of a different set of problems. And in doing so, they invite- they forcefully invite- the world to participate in a different kind of human rights violation.
At its essence, prostitution is always a form of objectification and exploitation. This makes it not only morally wrong but worthy of legal intervention from a government that seeks to affirm the intrinsic rights of every individual. It is exploitation even if a sex worker is a willing participant, for someone’s willingness to subject herself to something has never been what defines exploitation. There are numerous laws on our book in which a consensual act remains accountable to law enforcement; a willing worker does not redeem the exploitative behavior of a sweatshop owner.
Furthermore, the UN has written a prescription that is also practically impossible. They forcefully call for the legalization of prostitution while also calling for efforts to reduce human trafficking. But one breeds the other. It’s like calling for the chicken and outlawing the egg. If prostitution is allowed to flourish it is inevitable that human trafficking will likewise increase in an environment that heightens demand and shelters illegal activity.
What is so tragic in our time is not only the existence of prostitution and pornography but also the creative ways we have found to justify them. When men and women alike defend these industries as progressive steps toward freedom- sexual freedom and liberation for women specifically- it’s hard to miss the irony.
In the movie Crazy Stupid Love, Ryan Gosling’s character Cal sums it up with an interesting observation. While he isn’t speaking about prostitution, his commentary poignantly reveals how we have managed not only to normalize the objectification of women, we have made it trendy.
“The war between the sexes is over,” he declares. “We won the second women started doing pole dancing for exercise.”