A group of New York State lawmakers want to make prostitution legal in the Empire State. Not to be out done by her “progressive” sisters and brothers, California U.S. Senator Kamala Harris has made prostitution decriminalization a platform plank in her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. When it comes to protecting vulnerable girls and women, these Democrats fall short – gravely short.
The New York state senators are pushing complete decriminalization. As they recently explained, they hope to introduce a bill that will rewrite state laws on prostitution and erase a prostitute’s prior arrests from criminal records. Their aim is to legitimize what they call the “consensual sexual exchange between adults.” Harris, for her part, prefers a modified version of decriminalization known as the “Nordic Model” after Sweden’s 1999 sex-purchase ban. This approach decriminalizes the person prostituted, but still makes buying people for sex a crime. In the end, however, complete decriminalization and limited decriminalization make for a distinction without a difference. Both denigrate women and their contributions to the world of work.
The New York lawmakers have joined forces with DecrimNY – a coalition of progressive legal advocacy groups and handful of “current and former sex workers.” They claim that the primary beneficiaries of relaxing the criminal laws prohibiting prostitution are “sex workers.” Whether prostitutes are professionals or “sex workers” hardly matters, except perhaps as literary devices or public-relations euphemisms. Turning women into legalized “working girls” is terrible public policy. Is a woman’s sale of her body for sex really a job? Is it the mark of liberation and empowerment? Hardly.
The duress surrounding a woman’s prostituting herself looks more like slavery than an occupational choice. Although a number of pressures may contribute to a particular woman becoming a prostitute, “[p]overty is the primary driving force,” according to the Borgan project, which fights global poverty. Prostitution adds insult to the injury of a woman's extreme poverty. Legalizing a symptom of her poverty does not solve the problem.
It should surprise no one that women in the sex trade do not consider it a panacea. Studies report that more than 80 percent of current prostitutes say they want to get out of prostitution. It’s doubtful the worst “professions” or work occupations put up similar numbers. In a talk to young people last year, Pope Francis remarked that women engaged in prostitution had a “defensive schizophrenia.” “[T]hey isolate their heart,” he lamented. “They just say, ‘this is my job.’”
Despite a woman’s professed willingness in being prostituted, her prostitution remains abusive. The dehumanization and objectification intrinsic to prostitution is best summed up in what is the only plausible line in the movie “Pretty Woman.” Richard Gere, playing the part of a client, asks Julia Roberts, playing a call girl, what her name is, and she replies, “Anything you want it to be.”
Life as a prostitute is full of risks. It is not a glamorous Hollywood fairytale. “Symptoms of emotional distress in all forms of prostitution are off the charts: depression, suicidality, posttraumatic stress disorder, dissociation, and substance abuse,” summarizes a recent review of research. Beyond the health-related “occupational hazards” of their trade like a higher incidence of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS, “working girls” experience serious public safety risks unseen in any other lines. They are especially likely to be the victims of rape and other forms of violence, as well as homicide. Most people would not want to assume these risks. Our laws should not encourage them to do so.
Finally, prostitution and child sex-trafficking go hand-in-hand. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in seven of the more than 23,500 reported runaways in 2018 were likely victims of child sex-trafficking. In fact, about 40 percent of female prostitutes are former child prostitutes who were teenage runaways or forced into the trade through human trafficking. While not all women in the commercial sex industry were previously victims of child sex trafficking, many child sex-trafficking victims end up prostituting as adults. Relaxing the criminal law’s prohibition on prostitution offers a legal façade for those engaged in human sex trafficking.
Is this the best these New York state senators and Kamala Harris can do for poor, vulnerable American women? Legalize their brute objectification at the hands of men? Turn mothers and daughters, sisters and friends into commodities – pieces of flesh – to be exploited in the marketplace? What kind of feminism, what kind of empowerment, what kind of “choice” is this?
Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is Legal Advisor for The Catholic Association Foundation.