Legalisation of Prostitution: the end of trafficking for the purposes of Sexual Exploitation?

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The Cases of Sweden and the Netherlands

At the end of the 1990s two very different reforms of the sex industry were carried out in Sweden and Holland, both could be justified as in terms of measures to combat trafficking.  In Sweden the demand for sexual services was attacked by criminalising the buyers.  In Holland prostitutes were given full labour rights, bringing this aspect of the sex industry in line with any other form of employment. 

Whilst in Sweden the result was a tenfold decrese in on-street prostitution, it was noted that the numbers of clients attending support groups remained constant.  The assumption is that either prostitution went 'underground in Sweden', or clients bought sexual services elsewhere.  In Holland bringing the prostitution industry in line with all forms of labour has made prostitutes subject to labour laws which ban the employment of aliens without the correct visas/immigrations status.  The common result in both countries is that illegal (and therefore also trafficked) migrants now work in environments further removed from the rest of society, are harder to access for health providers, have fewer choices and less protection and guarantees from the law.


The need for a legitimate method of entry

If the example of the Netherlands is taken, it may be assumed that legalising the sex industry is not an effective remedy for trafficking.  I propose that where it fails is in the way it addresses the economy of demand and supply.  Accepting that, as was the case in Sweden, criminalising buyers does not reduce the demand for sexual services, it is safe to assume that demand will remain constant, as will the supply, provided by traffickers and voluntary sex workers alike.  In order to defeat traffickers, the barriers to this economy must be taken down.

Governments can control the supply of migrants legally crossing their borders - by ensuring that there is sufficient supply of voluntary sex workers to fulfill the demand for sexual services, they could substantially reduce the proportion of the demand which is currently being fulfilled by trafficked migrants. Where the Dutch system fails is in not providing a legal route of entry for 'sexual migrants', a route by which the supply can meet the demand without having to be channeled by unscrupulous traffickers and smugglers.  In essence, states can defeat traffickers by competing with them.

In theory this solution sounds plausibly effective, however in practice it will be difficult if not impossible to measure.  The unquantifyable benefits, coupled with strong public opposition to promoting the sex industry may prove sufficient to keep prostitutes and prostitution marginalised and subject to negative stigma.  Ultimately the only solution to the stigma is providing a legal platform from which to fight it, however it is the very stigma which fuels public opposition and thus prevents that platform from becoming more than a pipe dream.





The figure to the left represents the current situation, with domestic and legally immigrated prostitutes satisfying around 50% of the demand.

In the right-hand example, the Demand remains constant, but is satisfied by sex workers who immigrate legally, not being forced to circumvent the obstacles to immigration by using traffickers and smugglers



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