On January 14, 2019, The Philadelphia Inquirer published an op-ed entitled, “Sex workers don’t need aggressive prosecution to protect themselves.” In the article, author Aisha Mohammed, MFT, criticizes the approach taken by U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, William McSwain, to combat human trafficking, and praises the work done by elected Philadelphia District Attorney, Larry Krasner, to address the needs of prostituted persons. While all three of the perspectives shared by these professionals agree that criminalizing those who sell sex is typically ineffective and often inhumane, Mohammed argues that that full decriminalization of the commercial sex industry is the best policy to ensure the safety of this vulnerable population. However, this simplistic assertion ignores the complicated layers of violence, gender inequality, and systematic oppression that cannot be so easily separated from prostitution.
To begin, Mohammed claims that “prosecuting [sex] buyers means that the pool of safe clients gets far smaller, leaving mostly the violent and dangerous ones”. Not only does this unsupported declaration fail to acknowledge the role the demand for commercial sex plays in the harms inflicted on those who are prostituted, but it also ignores reality. Sociologically speaking, prostitution and sex trafficking are forms of gender-based violence born out of patriarchal ideals that objectify women and liberate men. Again and again prostituted persons are targets of violence at the hands of sex buyers and their pimps/traffickers, with women involved in the sex trade experiencing workplace homicide rates 51% times higher than the next most dangerous occupation for women. Mohammed downplays the horrific tactics pimps employ against the persons they sell for sex by referring to the traumatic relationship, as “complex” and analogous to that of a manager. Her admission that these “relationships can be exploitative at times” sanitizes the sadistic brutality that pimps, such as Kevino Graham who was sentenced to 100 years for torturing women inside a brothel disguised as a strip club in West Philadelphia, commonly employ.
Next, focusing on the truthful contention that not all prostituted persons are under the control of a pimp or trafficker, Mohammed maintains that that the trauma sustained by those engaging in commercial sex is not caused by its intrinsic atmosphere of gender-based violence, but by the experience of “poverty, racial and gender injustice, and interactions with law enforcement.” This is exemplified by the fact that women of color are disproportionally criminalized in the world of commercial sexual exploitation. Yet, legalizing the ability of those with privilege and income to purchase sex from those with less privilege further tips the imbalance of injustice, and continues to oppress the most vulnerable. Additionally, Mohammed’s mention of the commercial sex trade in India as a shining example of the benefits of decriminalization are sternly hampered by the fact that experts estimate millions of women and children are still subjected to sex trafficking in the country, and most prostituted persons are illiterate and hail from deep poverty. In fact, Gloria Steinem has repeatedly commented on the de-humanization she has witnessed while there.
Moreover, decriminalization would have done little to help Cyntoia Brown, as Mohammed suggested. Brown was sixteen-years-old when she was sold for sex by a pimp named “Cut Throat” and convicted for killing a man who purchased her for sex. Under federal law, a sixteen-year-old bought and sold for sex is a per se victim of sex trafficking. Further, she was convicted four years before Tennessee enacted its “Trafficking for Commercial Sex Act”, which likely would have identified her status as a child sex trafficking victim. Saying her conviction was a result of being “pushed into the shadows” caused by the criminalization of the sex industry is a severe mischaracterization of this case of child sex abuse and weakens Mohammed’s contention that the demand isn’t to blame.
Rather than decriminalization prostitution completely, the feminist abolitionist approach, also known as the Nordic Model, which decriminalizes the sale of sex, while continuing to criminalize the purchase of sex has had the highest success rate in alleviating the violence, gender inequality, and systematic oppression experienced by those in the commercial sex trade. This holistic approach holds the culpable accountable while providing resources and exit strategies to prostituted persons. Because the needs of those involved in the commercial sex trade, as well as survivors of it, need to be put front and center, not haphazardly bandaged with the throw-in-the-towel approach total decriminalization provides. Prostitution is not the “world’s oldest profession.” It is the world’s oldest oppression. Therefore, it is inappropriate, incorrect, and dangerous to normalize an institution based off the exploitation of marginalized individuals. No one should have to engage in a sex act to survive and stay alive – we must do better.
All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University.