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Why prostitution must be abolished

November 5, 2017

Dr. Ingeborg Kraus recently made a great presentation on why prostitution must be abolished.


The biased scholarship behind calls to decriminalize prostitution

November 5, 2017

In the Lancet’s 2014 Series on HIV and sex workers, editors Pamela Das and Richard Horton (2014) attempt to shut down the debate over whether prostitution should be normalized or abolished by asserting that, for reducing the risk of HIV transmission among people who sell sex, “there is no alternative” to the complete decriminalization of prostitution.

Their faith that unfettered prostitution is the sole solution is unfounded. To see the inaccuracy of their assertion, one has to look no further than the article by Michele Decker et al. (2014) in the same series, which describes the existing alternatives. Among these is the Nordic model—also called the “sex buyer law” and the “abolitionist model”—which permits individuals to sell sex but prohibits pimping, brothel-running, and buying sex (Nordic Model Now! No date). The Nordic model also strengthens social services that protect people from having to sell sex for survival and that assist people who wish to exit prostitution. The Nordic model has been adopted in France, Sweden, Iceland, Norway, Ireland and Northern Ireland (Batha 2017). The objective of the Nordic model is to abolish prostitution by discouraging demand for commercial sex, prohibiting the exploitation of people who sell sex, and eliminating the pressures that push people into prostitution.

But Das and Horton are not alone in their belief that decriminalization will deliver good outcomes for people who sell sex. Amnesty International and other organizations claim that decriminalization will protect the human rights of people who sell sex (Amnesty International 2016; UNAIDS Reference Group on HIV and Human Rights 2016). Given the hazards and harms inherent to prostitution, decriminalization is certainly one of the most counterintuitive panaceas ever imagined.

Violence against people who sell sex is common (Decker et al. 2013; Shannon et al. 2009).  In interviews of 123 people who sell sex in four countries, 122 reported having experienced violence in the context of prostitution (Bhattacharjya et al. 2015). A study of violence against prostituted women in the US found that they were 17 times as likely to be murdered as women of similar age and race (Potterat et al. 2004). Interviews with 854 people currently or recently in prostitution in nine countries found that 71% were physically assaulted and 63% were raped in prostitution, and, of 826 respondents examined, 68% met criteria for diagnosis of PTSD (Farley et al. 2003).

Substance abuse is widespread among women who sell sex, because many use intoxication to cope with the abuse that they experience from clients and pimps (Decker et al. 2013). In interviews in Kenya, two thirds of prostituted women reported engaging in sex under the influence of alcohol or drugs (NASCOP 2010). Rae Story (2016), a prostitution survivor in New Zealand, calls substance abuse on the job, “necessary intoxication.”

Prostitution puts women at high risk of HIV infection. Women who sell sex in India are over 50 times more likely to acquire HIV over their lifetime than other women of reproductive age (Baral et al. 2012).

Proponents of decriminalization cite the predictions of a mathematical model that makes improbable assumptions.

The UNFPA (2015) supports its call to decriminalize prostitution by citing a mathematical model that estimated that decriminalization of prostitution in Bellary, India, would avert 46% of HIV infections among women who sell sex and their clients between 2014 and 2024 (Shannon et al. 2014a). But this prediction is doubtful, because the model is based on some highly unrealistic assumptions. The model assumes that after decriminalization the number of women who sell sex will increase only at the rate of population growth, or 2.03% per year, and the total client volume of all FSWs does not change (Shannon et al. 2014b).

It’s very unlikely that decriminalization—which would predictably trigger the conspicuous proliferation and marketing of brothels, a surge in the number of pimps, and aggressive recruitment and trafficking of women and girls to fill brothels—would not cause the numbers of prostituted women and girls to multiply. It is also unlikely that the number of sex buyers doesn’t multiply when decriminalization reduces the stigma associated with buying sex and stimulates sharp growth in sex tourism.

In a nation in which approximately 720 million people live on $3 or less per day (Basu 2017), the normalization of prostitution and the reduction of stigma around buying sex and pimping would intensify pressures on women and girls to enter the sex trade. 

The model’s prediction that 46% of HIV infections will be averted reflects the best-case scenario, which implicitly assume[s] “that exposure to structural risks (e.g., violence, policing, unsafe work spaces) or the excess in risk of non-condom use associated with violence ceases immediately and/or that the policy that increases access to safer work environments for female sex workers has immediate effect and/or that the associated safer sexual practices (e.g., client condom use) is adopted immediately. For these reasons, our estimates reflect the maximum potential impact of the structural changes (e.g., interventions) modeled (Shannon et al. 2014b).”

Instead of expecting the best case scenario, it is more realistic and prudent to expect that decriminalizing prostitution would increase, not decrease, the number of people at high risk of HIV transmission, because decriminalization would create circumstances and unleash forces that would draw and push many more women and girls into the sex trade and increase the number of men who buy sex. The model’s failure to forecast decriminalization’s impact on HIV transmission in a realistic scenario makes the model little other than fantasy.

Three years after prostitution was decriminalized in New Zealand, a review of decriminalization’s impact on the health and safety of prostituted women found that stigma and violence against them continued (Prostitution Law Review Committee 2008). The review found that, in the 12 months preceding the study, 12.6% of the respondents experienced refusal by a client to pay, 8.3% had money stolen by a client, 9.8% had been physically assaulted by a client, 15.9% had been threatened with physical violence, 4.7% had been held against their will, and 3% had been raped by a client (Abel, Fitzgerald, and Brunton 2007).

Fortunately, decriminalization is not the only alternative. Das and Horton (2014) argue, “The persistence and ubiquity of sex work suggests only that sex, and the human desire for sex, is a normal part of human societies.” Das and Horton fail to recognize that the persistence and ubiquity of prostitution suggests only that some members of society lack the fortitude to demand and work to create a society in which the most disadvantaged are not compelled to sell sex to survive.


Abel, G., Fitzgerald, L., and Brunton, C. 2007. The Impact of the Prostitution Reform Act on the Health and Safety Practices of Sex Workers: Report to the Prostitution Law Review Committee. Christchurch: Dept. of Public Health and General Practice, University of Otago.

Amnesty International 2016. Amnesty International Policy on State Obligations to Respect, Protect, and Fulfil the Human Rights of Sex Workers. POL 30/4062/2016. May 26.

Baral et al. 2012. Burden of HIV among female sex workers in low-income and middle-income countries: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet Infect Dis. Published online March 15. DOI:10.1016/S1473-3099(12)70066-X

Basu, M. 2017. Seeing the new India through the eyes of an invisible woman. CNN.

Batha, E. 2017. Ireland passes law making it a crime to buy sex. Reuters. 23 February.

Bhattacharjya, M. et al. 2015. The Right(s) Evidence – Sex Work, Violence and HIV in Asia: A MultiCountry Qualitative Study. Bangkok: UNFPA, UNDP and APNSW (CASAM).

Das, P. and Horton, R. 2014. Bringing sex workers to the centre of the HIV response. Lancet. Published online July 22.

Decker, M. R. et al. 2013. Violence against women in sex work and HIV risk implications differ qualitatively by perpetrator. BMC Public Health. 13:876.

Decker, M. R. et al. 2014. Human rights violations against sex workers: burden and effect on HIV. Lancet. Published online July 22.

DeRiviere, L. 2006. A human capital methodology for estimating the lifelong personal costs of young women leaving the sex trade. Feminist Economics 12(3): 367-402 DOI: 10.1080/13545700600670434

Farley, M. et al. 2003. Prostitution and trafficking in nine countries: An update on violence and posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Trauma Practice 2(3/4):33-74. DOI: 10.1300/J189v02n03_03

National AIDS and STI Control Programme (NASCOP) 2010. National Guidelines for HIV/STI Programs for Sex Workers. Nairobi: Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation.

Nordic Model Now! No date. What is Nordic Model?

Potterat J. J., et al. 2004. Mortality in a long-term open cohort of prostitute women. Am J Epidemiol 159: 778–85. DOI: 10.1093/aje/kwh110

Prostitution Law Review Committee 2008. Report of the Prostitution Law Review Committee on the Operation of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003. Wellington, NZ: Ministry of Justice.

Shannon, K. et al. 2009. Prevalence and structural correlates of gender based violence among a prospective cohort of female sex workers. BMJ 339:b2939.

Shannon, K. et al. 2014a. Global epidemiology of HIV among female sex workers: Influence of structural determinants. Lancet. Published online July 22.

Shannon, K. et al. 2014b. Supplement to: Shannon K, Strathdee SA, Goldenberg SM, et al. HIV and sex workers 1: Global epidemiology of HIV among female sex workers: influence of structural determinants. Lancet 2014; published online July 22.

Story, R. 2016. Working in a New Zealand brothel was anything but ‘a job like any other’. Feminist Current. 2 May.

UNAIDS Reference Group on HIV and Human Rights 2016. Letter to UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka regarding UN Women’s approach to sex work. 17 December.

UNFPA 2015. Sex Work, Violence and HIV in Asia—From Evidence to Safety. Policy Brief. June. UNFPA.



Six survivors speak out about New Zealand’s punishing “sex” industry

October 22, 2017

writing by renee

Below are six testimonies from women who have all been exploited within New Zealand’s sex trade, and who have exited to become vocally critical of the trade itself and wanting to see open debate on prostitution legislation in New Zealand.

Rae Story, excerpt from Working in a New Zealand brothel was anything but ‘a job like any other’, published on Feminist Current

The boss liked us to work most nights and so the constant interference from (often) rabid men left us bruised and sore. This one particular john had a thick penis, which he liked to jab in and out of me, as hard and fast as he could. Initially, I tried to breathe deeply and relax my muscles, but the pain was excruciating. I began to hold onto his hips to slow him down, push him away from me, but he got impatient and then angry, before flouncing off…

View original post 2,293 more words


October 5, 2017

Rebecca Mott

I cannot leave the shadows, the ghosts of being prostituted.

I am proud to build a real life, not the living inside sick world of whoredom – but all round me is reminders pulling out words of never being allowed to fully human.

I have written for years about the lack of humanity that is the existence of being that world.

But what is unforgivable is that lack of humanity is also the existence of too many who left the sex trade.

To be exited is not to be free, to be exited is know the grief that you constantly marked with reminders of whoredom.

To be fully human is in the gaze of others.

This gaze is one that says in many word and silence – once a whore, always a whore.

In that environment, full human rights and humanity is just a bitter dream for the vast majority…

View original post 1,003 more words

Rae Story challenges three common myths in the prostitution debate

October 4, 2017

The Abolition of Prostitution Is Part of the Societal Transformation We Must Demand and Work For

October 4, 2017

Should it be normalized or abolished? Prostitution is the subject of one of the fiercest debates of our time, because opinions about prostitution are shaped by people’s fundamental beliefs about what is right and what is possible.

Those on one side of the debate recommend normalizing prostitution by decriminalizing all aspects of the sex trade (i.e., pimping, brothel running, paying for sex, and selling sex), because they believe that doing so will reduce HIV vulnerability among people who sell sex[1] (UNAIDS 2012, WHO 2016) and will enable them to assert their human rights (UNAIDS Reference Group on HIV and Human Rights 2016; Amnesty International 2016). Advocates of decriminalization view prostitution as a consensual choice to sell sex (Global Commission on HIV and the Law 2012) and refer to prostitution by the euphemisms “sex work” and “commercial sex” (UNAIDS 2015).

Those on the other side call for the abolition of the sex trade, because prostitution is dangerous (Farley et al. 2003; Nixon et al. 2002; Potterat et al. 2004; Raphael and Shapiro 2004), harmful (Farley 2004), and incompatible with gender equality (Kraus 2015; Post 2013). Abolitionists view prostitution as a human rights violation (Barry 2013; Day 2008; Leidholdt 1993; Ruhama 2007), as violence against women (Kraus 2016; Raymond 1988), and as paid rape (Kinsella 2017; Moran 2015; Mott 2017). Arguments against decriminalization of the sex trade are plentiful on the internet (Demand Abolition. No date; MacKinnon 2011; and Raymond 2003), and are cogently presented in books such as Rachel Moran’s (2015)  Paid For; Janice Raymond’s (2013)  Not a Choice, Not a Job; Kat Banyard’s (2016)  Pimp State; and Julie Bindel’s (2017) The Pimping of Prostitution.

Many proponents of abolition advocate the Nordic model—also called the “sex buyer law” and the “abolitionist model”—which permits individuals to sell sex but prohibits pimping, brothel running, and buying sex (Equality Now. No date; Nordic Model Now! No date). The Nordic model also strengthens social services that protect people from having to sell sex for survival and that assist people who wish to exit prostitution. The Nordic model has been adopted in France, Sweden, Iceland, Norway, Ireland and Northern Ireland (Batha 2017). The objective of the Nordic model is to abolish prostitution by discouraging demand for commercial sex, prohibiting the exploitation of people who sell sex, and eliminating the pressures that push people into prostitution.

Two very different perceptions of prostitution exist because women sell sex in various circumstances and for various reasons. Although some women engage in prostitution as a matter of preference (Amnesty International 2016), many studies have found that the majority of women who sell sex are compelled to do so by dire circumstances.

Disagreement over the degree to which women choose prostitution is so central to the debate that it is worth repeating what studies report about the reasons that women sell sex:

“Most of the people who sell sex in Asia do so because they are compelled by economic and social inequality and by terribly restricted life chances. Especially in the poorer countries of the region, they have no other realistic option. . . . Most sex workers in the lower ranks of the industry are victims of many kinds of social and economic injustice, and it is inaccurate and patronising to exaggerate their degree of agency and their power to negotiate with clients and the management of the industry. Some sex workers profit well from their work, but the sex trade as a whole is exploitative of the women and men who work within it.” (WHO 2001)

“For many, the decision to engage in sex work is a reflection of limited livelihood options.” (Amnesty International 2016)

“The extent to which initiation of women and children into sex work involves individual choice may vary, but available data indicate that most women enter sex work as a result of poverty and consequences of rape, infertility, and/or divorce.” (Aral and Mann 1998)

“The failure of family support along with the lack of ability to provide for themselves due to poverty and illiteracy were key factors why the women in this study had adopted prostitution.”  (Chattopadhyay,  Bandyopadhyay, and Duttagupta 1994)

“The findings of the study indicate that poverty, marital abuse, sexual abuse and the death of a parent or husband were the main reasons for entry into prostitution. The majority of the respondents were sold into prostitution by family members or acquaintances. . . . As indicated throughout the literature on women in prostitution, poverty/impoverishment was the most common theme to emerge as the reason for entry into prostitution.”  (Karandikar, Gezinski, and Meshelemiah 2011 cite Mukherjee and Das 1996; Nair 2003; and UNDP 2002)

“For the most part, prostitution as actually practised in the world usually does satisfy the elements of trafficking. It is rare that one finds a case in which the path to prostitution and/or a person’s experiences within prostitution do not involve, at the very least, an abuse of power and/or an abuse of vulnerability. Power and vulnerability in this context must be understood to include power disparities based on gender, race, ethnicity and poverty. Put simply, the road to prostitution and life within ‘the life’ is rarely one marked by empowerment or adequate options.” (ECOSOC 2006)

“Many women who initiate sex work are not forced physically, but do so because of reasons over which they had little or no control. . . . Studies in India show that women either involve in sex work involuntarily, often due to economic reasons (Blanchard et al. 2005), or they are forced into sex work (Dandona et al. 2006; Silverman et al. 2007). . . . This study shows that many women who enter sex work are not forced physically but do so due to compelling reasons that are beyond their control.”  (Saggurti et al. 2011)

“Due to limited employment opportunities and omnipresence of workplace sexual harassment, sex work becomes a survival mechanism for vulnerable women with poor literacy skills and lack of family support (Gupta 2004; Lawyers Collective 2003). . . . For most of the women in my study, sex work was reported as their last resort.” (Sinha 2015)

”Sex workers’ narratives on their pathways to sex work were intertwined with themes of disempowerment that framed reasons for entering sex work in a context of constrained choices: economic insecurity and familial poverty, loss of a male breadwinner, limited alternative work opportunities that were often coercive, and occasionally also coercive or deceptive initiations into sex work.” (Swendeman 2014)

Such findings match the testimonies of dozens of women I have interviewed in my work documenting HIV prevention programmes in India.

The debate’s impact on public policy will significantly affect gender equity, public health, and human rights. Decriminalization would likely draw hundreds of thousands of girls and women into prostitution.  

Despite their concern about the rights and needs of women currently in the sex trade, proponents of decriminalization fail to acknowledge that, by expanding and normalizing the market for sex, decriminalization will affect many girls and women who are not currently in the sex trade.

Decriminalization will undermine efforts to promote girls’ education. Eliminating gender disparities in education is target 4.5 of Sustainable Development Goal 4, because increasing girls’ educational attainment is imperative for social progress (Lloyd 2009; Summers 1994). Keeping adolescent girls in school reduces their vulnerability to HIV infection, slows population growth, improves maternal and child health and survival, and raises women’s social standing. If prostitution is decriminalized, girls in low-income families will be more likely to be pushed into prostitution by parents who don’t value or who struggle to afford girls’ education.

Discontinuing their education and forcing them to sell sex would violate their right to liberty (Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 3), their right to freedom from degrading treatment (Article 5), their right to free choice of employment (Article 23), and their right to education (Article 26).

A normalized market for sex will also drive more women into prostitution, because a legal market for sex will increase the pressure on women in low-income households to sell sex, and will motivate human traffickers to meet buyers’ incessant demand for new women (Cho, Dreher, and Neumayer 2013; Huisman and Kleemans 2014; Jakobsson and Kotsadam 2013; Transcrime 2005).

The track record of legal prostitution is a cautionary tale (Diu 2013; Mallick. No date; Meyer 2013; Meyer et al. 2013). In the Netherlands and Germany, where prostitution is legal, authorities have been unable to stop traffickers and organized crime groups from supplying and exploiting women in the sex industry (Mathieson 2015; Meyer et al. 2013; Raymond 2013; Schulze 2014).

Women and girls who are likely to be pushed into prostitution by decriminalization must be supported to participate in the debate over prostitution, because decriminalization will affect their human rights and welfare.

Advocates of decriminalization rightly insist that people who sell sex must have meaningful participation in the development of policy that will affect them (UNAIDS Reference Group on HIV and Human Rights 2016). But such advocates disregard the views and interests of girls and women who are likely to be forced into prostitution by decriminalization.

Such girls and women must not be excluded from participating in the development of policy that may profoundly affect them. Governments should support and enable adolescent girls and women to engage in advocacy and decision making on legal and human rights issues that affect them (UNESCO 2013; United Nations 2014).

This debate isn’t just about prostitution’s impact on public health and human rights. It is about the social structure and gender relations we want.

Public health scholar and human rights advocate Jonathan Mann (1996) argued that

“Once we acknowledge that the goal of public health, beyond HIV/AIDS, is to ‘ensure the conditions in which people can be healthy,’ and recognize the enormous burden of evidence which tells us that societal factors are the dominant determinants of health status, we realize that, ultimately, to work for public health is to work for societal transformation.”

The societal transformation that we should work for is a reversal of the trend of growing inequality, because inequality compromises public health (Baum 2005; Daniels et al., 2000; Else 2012; Kennedy et al. 1998; Marmot 2002; Subramanian et al. 2002; Subramanian, Blakely, and Kawachi 2003; Szalavitz 2011; Wilkinson 1992; Wilkinson 1996; Wilkinson and Pickett 2006; Wilkinson and Pickett 2010) and threatens human rights (Balakrishnan and Heintz 2015).

Instead of normalising prostitution, public health professionals and human rights activists should work to make society more equitable by endorsing the Nordic model and advocating higher taxes on wealth, high incomes, and corporate earnings; a living minimum wage; and robust social services, which would reduce the pressure on people to prostitute themselves for survival.

Baum (2005) notes that the impact of inequality on public health has the following research and policy implications:

  • Analysis of the distribution and concentration of wealth and its impact on health would assist policy makers in devising taxation and other policy to redistribute wealth in such a way as to increase overall population health status.
  • Research funding bodies should fund public health research that examines the health costs and benefits of inequities in wealth between people within countries and between countries.
  • National governments should consider increasing taxes on wealthy people through means such as death duties and estate taxes and invest the money gained from these taxes into public goods such as public health services and public education.
  • International bodies such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the World Health Organization should consider means of redistributing wealth globally so that the current vast inequities between high and low and middle income countries are reduced. Measures already proposed are a Tobin-type tax on investment transaction, tax on air travel, increased taxes for transnational corporations.
  • Public health associations and other public health lobby groups should develop advocacy strategies in relation to excessive wealth in addition to those concerned with poverty reduction. Their lobbying and advocacy should report the extent of wealth inequity and describe what population health gains are likely to be gained if a proportion of wealth is redistributed.

A study by Bindel et al. (2012) found that assisting women who wish to exit prostitution was “an extremely cost-effective way of preventing further physical or emotional harm associated with their continued involvement in prostitution.”

The most logical way to protect women from the violence and hazards inherent to prostitution is to dramatically reduce the number of women in prostitution. This can happen if we 1) mitigate the pressures that compel women to enter prostitution, 2) assist women who wish to exit prostitution, and 3) reduce demand for commercial sex by prohibiting the purchase of sex.


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Subramanian, S. V., Delgado, I., Jadue, L., Vega, J., and Kawachi, I. 2002. Income inequality, income, and self-rated health: A multilevel analysis. American Journal of Epidemiology 155: S62.

Subramanian, S. V., Blakely, T., and Kawachi, I. 2003.  Income inequality as a public health concern: Where do we stand? Commentary on “Is exposure to income inequality a public health concern?” HSR: Health Services Research 38:1, Part I:153-167.

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[1] Although men, women, and transgender people sell sex, the debate over prostitution is primarily about women who sell sex, because most people who sell sex are female (Vandepitte et al. 2006). This essay is about the prostitution of women.

Progressive Podcasts

June 29, 2016

When I travel long distance, I love listening to podcasts to hear various perspectives on current events. My favorite podcast, Media Matters with Bob McChesney, ended production in October 2012, but you can still listen to Bob’s excellent interviews with guests such as Chris Hedges, Glenn Greenwald, and Greg Palast at the archive.

Here are links to the podcasts that I subscribe to. In the comments, please share podcasts that you recommend.

Bite, or in iTunes

Unauthorized Disclosure with Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola

Moment of Clarity – Backstage of Redacted Tonight with Lee Camp

Best of the Left, or in iTunes

Wake Up Call Podcast, or in iTunes

Ralph Nader Radio Hour, or in iTunes

KCRW’s Scheer Intelligence with Robert Sheer, or in iTunes

Real Time with Bill Maher, or in iTunes


Democracy Now!, or in iTunes