Legitimizing ‘Sex Work’ Is Bad for the Republic

Jennifer Lopez surely knows how to command our attention. Her starring role with pop star Shakira at the Super Bowl halftime show on Sunday was bound to generate gigabytes worth of hot takes. Even before the big game ended, Twitter was lighting up.

Reactions were predictable: Either you were outraged at such overtly sexual posturing taking place during a prime-time sporting event known to be one that engages whole families, or else you enjoyed it as a tribute to “Latino Culture” (a characterization some Latino people find offensive, I’d add).

Some conservative pundits were quick to condemn the irony: The NFL had just launched an initiative to fight human trafficking. A strip-club themed show, complete with young girls in what appeared to be cages, initially seemed dumbfounding.

It was not.

When Lopez took the stage, she was in character as “Ramona”—the hardened stripper/prostitute she played in the 2019 movie, “Hustlers.” In “Hustlers,” Lopez led a gang of coworkers in drugging and robbing club patrons after seducing them. According to the movie’s plot, the “marks” deserved what they got because they were Wall Street heavyweights.

“You saw what they did to this country,” Ramona says in the film. “They stole from everybody, hardworking people lost everything . . . and not one of those douchebags went to jail. The game is rigged. It doesn’t reward people who play by the rules.”

Lopez’s performance won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for best actress. Although Ramona is eventually caught and a modicum of justice is served, the movie has been criticized not only for its class war theme but, perhaps even more importantly, for its subliminal celebration of sex work as a form of feminist expression.

That was the idea “Hustlers” was really selling—all wrapped up in glitter and lingerie.

The Hustle vs. Reality

Of course, the reality of most sex work is nothing like that. And pretending otherwise is truly dangerous to individual women, and deeply troubling in its cultural implications.

The NFL’s and the larger culture’s pledge to fight sex trafficking is disingenuous. The half-time show was an advertisement sponsored by Pepsi, but was it was also representative of the new take pretending strip shows are a glittering way to empower women.

Sexual slavery, like all slavery, has been a scourge—probably since long before history began to be recorded. In the current era, under the umbrella of human trafficking, it remains one. Advocates for exploited women like Julie Bindel, founder of Justice For Women, and other feminists often refer to prostitution as “The Oldest Oppression.” Whether it’s entered into under physical force or economic duress, it is a grim way of life for men, women, and children who seek sustenance, shelter, or both—and get caught up in what is obliquely called “the life.”

On Sunday, Super Bowl LIV was played in Miami. When sex is a product, and where there are many potential customers for it, purveyors will surely follow. According to the McCain Institute, the Super Bowl and other large-scale public events do not, strictly speaking, cause an uptick in prostitution, but they do fuel demand. One of their studies focused on sex ads, using local and federal law enforcement initiatives from which to draw raw data. The study ultimately concluded that an event-correlated increase in sex marketing—rather than the neutral fact of a major crowd-drawing event—is often highly correlated with an increase in prostitution activity.

The conclusion of this study is that the Super Bowl, or any other large event that provides a significant concentration in a relatively confined urban area, becomes a desirable location for a trafficker to bring their victims for the purposes of sexual exploitation…. The same can be said of virtually any other criminal offense–the propensity for a given offense to occur tends to increase with a similar increase in victim and suspect populations.

The good news is that according to Polaris, a victim’s advocacy group, awareness of trafficking is at an all-time high. Even the United Parcel Service (UPS) has initiated a program to teach drivers to identify potential sites for sexual exploitation, using the same spotting methods that commercial airlines do. This heightened awareness not only helps victims in the most immediate sense, it also contributes to a heightened cognition that this evil exists that has been lacking. While such evil is widespread, it can be fought, and it can be defeated.

In the face of increased global public awareness of the prevalence of sex trafficking, it is important to note that both Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have included the legalization of prostitution in their platforms. Moreover, in addition to their home states of Massachusetts and Vermont, the blue states of New York, California, and Colorado already have bills pending that would legalize prostitution.

From Prostitution to “Sex Work” 

Senators Warren and Sanders use the term “sex work” as opposed to prostitution. Some—like Warren—seek consensual, contractual sex-for-pay as a regulated and taxable transaction to fill state coffers. Their model is Nevada, which charges brothel patrons an eight percent sales tax. Like many progressives, they see this as win-win. Sex-work just another form of personal expression or choice that happens to be profitable for the state.

The arguments for legalization follow a standard script. Legalization will make these so-called transactions “safer” they claim. There are two premises. The first is that if sex work is legal, regulations such as mandatory health checks can be conducted. Secondly, they say, legalization promotes safer working conditions. Supposedly, sex workers, freed from the stigma surrounding the profession—and from potential prosecution—can more readily screen clients for disease or for signs that clue them into a potentially violent situation. These were the justifications behind legalization in countries like the Netherlands and Germany. It appeared to be a foregone conclusion that if commercial sex was readily available, there would be no need to procure it illegally; thus, trafficking flesh would no longer be necessary. This has not actually panned out as planned, but pro-legalization activist groups continue to profess that prostitution is a social benefit.

The major pro-decriminalization advocacy organization is The Open Society Foundation. George Soros’s well-known non-governmental organization (NGO) promotes decriminalization of sex work with a 10-point list detailing how the legalization of prostitution is a social good for the providers. To reach that conclusion, the NGO among other things downplays prostitution’s long historical association with trafficking, which the foundation defines as non-consensual or coerced subjugation and exploitation. Here are the talking points that Open Society relies upon:

Decriminalization respects human rights and dignity.  There are many reasons why adults do sex work, whether it is their main livelihood, a temporary means to survive, or an opportunity to supplement other income. We should not take it upon ourselves to judge that.

Decriminalization helps guard against violence and abuse. Sex work is not inherently violent. When it is criminalized, sex workers and clients feel a need to avoid arrest, which means that street-based sex workers must often move to more isolated areas less visible to both law enforcement and social services.

Decriminalization lessens opportunities for police abuse and violence. Where sex work is criminalized, police wield too much power over sex workers.

Decriminalization improves access to justice. Laws that criminalize sex work make sex workers feel unsafe reporting crimes, because they fear prosecution, surveillance, stigma, and discrimination.

Decriminalization lessens the unjust consequences of having a criminal record in many countries. Harsh application of criminal law ensures that a large proportion of sex workers will have criminal records. Such records are a source of stigma and can drastically limit the individual’s future. In some parts of the United States, for example, people convicted of sex work-related offenses are registered as sex offenders and must carry documents identifying themselves as such.

Decriminalization improves access to health services. It correlates with the best access by outreach workers to brothels, and the greatest financial support for sex worker health programs. Those changes, in turn, facilitate greater capacity to conduct health outreach in the evening, an important feature because evenings are the busiest times.

Decriminalization reduces risk of HIV and sexually transmitted infections. Decriminalization of sex work could avert up to 46 percent of new HIV infections among female sex workers over the next decade.

Decriminalization promotes safe working conditions by improving access to the creation of workplace health and safety regulations relevant to the sex industry.

Decriminalization allows for effective responses to trafficking, an egregious human rights violation involving coercion of individuals for sexual exploitation or forced labor. Sex workers can be natural allies in the fight against trafficking. When freed from the threat of criminal penalties, uncoerced sex workers can organize and collaborate with law enforcement.

Decriminalization of sex work recognizes the right of all people to privacy and freedom from undue state control over sex and sexual expression.

At least two major studies refute the Open Society Foundation’s claims. In 2012, the National Institute of Justice, a division of the Department of Justice, commissioned a major study to determine whether decriminalizing prostitution would lessen the demand for commercial sex. The study is massive, compiling detailed statistics on which programs failed, and which ones truly succeeded, in reducing demand—not only in the United States but globally.

It examined law enforcement and social initiatives spanning decades, from the 1970s to 2011. The result, “National Overview Of Prostitution and Sex Trafficking Demand-Reduction Efforts” concluded that legalizing prostitution increased demand for commercial sex, and that traditional law enforcement prosecutions could be enhanced by focusing prosecution on customers rather than the prostitutes themselves. This is sometimes called the Nordic Model, and it proved successful in its country of origin, Sweden, after an attempt at legalizing prostitution in the 1980s had failed to reduce demand or curtail trafficking.

The reason for such failure is that to meet demand, traffickers increase their activity by undercutting the regulated market to such a degree that it offsets any small gains made in protecting the health of sex workers. This is the critically important “scale effect,” an economic factor driven by basic supply and demand principles. The study noted that under a legalized system, demand for sexual services increased across the board, including those provided by minors.

A second major study published in 2013 in the scientific journal World Development corroborated the data of the National Institute of Justice study. This study “Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking?” further clarified that even when legal prostitution is available, the demand for it exceeds the available supply:

The scale effect of legalized prostitution leads to an expansion of the prostitution market, increasing human trafficking, while the substitution effect reduces demand for trafficked women as legal prostitutes are favored over trafficked ones. Our empirical analysis for a cross-section of up to 150 countries shows that the scale effect dominates the substitution effect. On average, countries where prostitution is legal experience larger reported human trafficking inflows.

The Failure of Legalization

If we now have strong evidence that legalization benefits only a relative few while increasing the overall number of the exploited, how can we continue to defend legalization? Murder and robbery will always be outlawed because those who engage in them deprive others of life or property. It would appear unthinkable to remove prohibitions on them. Legalizing prostitution, to the hypothetical benefit of these few and to the known detriment of so many, cannot be professed as a social good, let alone a “right,” if it causes a larger number of human beings to be oppressed.

The Open Society Foundation and like-minded activist groups seek to normalize what has been long established as a social evil. They achieve such normalization by professing and promoting as it as a personal choice and social good, the suppression of which represents a substantial threat to freedom. But in reality, legalization of prostitution equals legitimization of servitude. The “progressive” Left and the “libertarian” Right both need to be challenged on this proposed policy. When leading candidates for the presidency are supporting the legalization activists, we need to sit up and take notice.

Candidates for elected office who subscribe to this should be required, at a minimum, to confront the contradictions and the lack of support for their positions in the empirical evidence from respected researchers. Uncritical acceptance of an ideology so cleverly marketed as one aligned with democracy’s own values such as choice, freedom, and self-determination is a mortal danger to that very democracy.

About Elizabeth Fortunato

Elizabeth Fortunato is a wife and mother from New York. She has a background in liberal arts and philosophy.

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