On September 19, 2018, The Daily Pennsylvanian published an article entitled, “Risky business: the case for legalizing prostitution.” The article’s author, Isabella Simonetti, a student at The University of Pennsylvania, proposed legalizing prostitution in Pennsylvania. Simonetti characterized prostitution as a “lucrative side-gig” and claimed that prostituted persons would feel safer in a legalized industry. We write to express our disappointment that Simonetti used her platform as an Ivy League student to misrepresent the realities of prostitution – a form of commercial sexual exploitation that often leads to rape, drug-addiction, trauma, and even death.
Prostitution is not lucrative, nor is it glamorous — and for a majority of prostituted persons, it is not a choice. It’s not something that most women engage in on the weekends to get a free vacation or to pay for their college tuition. Here is the reality of prostitution: most prostituted persons are homeless, under-educated, and unemployed. They deal with daily violence and rape. They use drugs to cope with the traumatic abuse they experience daily. They are frequently victims of sex trafficking. They are often controlled by a pimp. They fear for their lives. They barely survive on the margins of society – and many don’t survive. From murders to drug overdoses, prostituted persons have fallen victim to this “industry” that Simonetti advocates to legalize. Jamilynne Cleary is one such example.
In 2011, Jamilynne had just celebrated her twenty-sixth birthday when the police pulled her body out of an abandoned house. Jamilynne was sold for sex by a pimp known as “Bishop” on the streets of the Kensington section of Philadelphia. And when she tragically overdosed on heroin, he wrapped her body in a sheet and threw her out with the trash. Following her death, Patricia Cleary, Jamilynne’s step-mother, heartbreakingly stated that her daughter was “planning her future and made the decision to help other girls […] she wanted to be an example for others, to inspire them and give them the hope and strength.” Indeed, Simonetti makes an excellent observation: “[p]rostitution isn’t the career that most parents want for their children.”
The case for legalizing prostitution in the United States is not a novel idea. Fox News, New York Post, and Business Insider are just a few of the media outlets that have made cases for legalizing prostitution within the last few years. The pro-legalization arguments are as predictable as they are implausible: prostituted persons would be safer, and law enforcement would be more willing to respond to their concerns such as rape. However, these arguments make a fundamental mistake: most prostituted persons are not in a position to make a meaningful choice. They can’t choose safety when they are in a cycle of drug-addiction. They can’t trust law enforcement when they have been repeatedly trained that they can only trust one person – their pimp/trafficker. Most prostituted persons are too busy simply trying to survive.
Legalized prostitution has been tried – in the Netherlands, Germany, parts of Australia, and rural counties in the U.S. State of Nevada– and has failed time and time again. Research has shown that in countries where prostitution is legal, sex trafficking increases. Further, Simonetti’s suggestion that there would be a decline in rape if prostitution was legalized is false. This suggestion is based on misleading claims that have been thoroughly debunked in an essay published in The Providence Journal, entitled, “Flawed Analysis of Prostitution in Rhode Island.” While this essay points out several flaws in the Rhode Island study upon which Simonetti relies, we wish to emphasize one vital point: it is incorrect to assume that all prostituted persons are acting of their own free will and are uncontrolled by traffickers. This assumption is dangerously harmful for those controlled by traffickers.
The CSE Institute agrees with Simonetti that there must be a change in the Commonwealth’s prostitution laws; however, we strongly disagree with her call for legalization. Instead, we advocate for the adoption of the Nordic Model. The Nordic Model is an innovative form of prostitution policy which directly targets the demand for prostitution by criminalizing the actions of sex buyers and traffickers, while decriminalizing the actions of prostituted persons. This approach is the only model that holds the true perpetrators accountable, and recognizes prostitution as a form of gender-based violence that impedes women’s equality with men. This approach provides prostituted persons with services and resources they need, rather than prosecuting them for their own exploitation. This approach also allows prostituted persons to seek the help of law enforcement, which they may be too fearful to seek under current prostitution laws.
There are too many articles founded in baseless claims, authored by uninformed individuals who advocate for the legalization of prostitution. In pointing to the few individuals who have the freedom to exercise a choice, these articles fail to account for countless women who aren’t so lucky. Let’s stop making excuses for those who want to buy sex from prostituted people, and start advocating for the rights of prostituted people who have no better options and thus no genuine choice.
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 Villanova University.