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Fining the clients means
punishing prostitutes

Red light district in Amsterdam

Pointing the finger at those who buy sex doesn’t improve sex workers condition. Although it doesn’t exist just one juridic model to regulate prostitution, several studies underline the benefits of sex market’s regulation, instead of criminalizing clients. Here an analysis of the arguments in favour of legalization.

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The French legislature is on the verge of passing a new law that will criminalize the clients of prostitutes. Clients will be subject to fines of €1,500 to €3,750 and will be required to attend lectures about prostitution. This approach replicates Sweden’s system.

The proposal has stoked a firestorm of opposition in France from individuals and organizations that see it as an attack not just on customers but also on sex workers themselves.

Criminalization of clients is a policy that also indirectly criminalizes sex workers. Both policies put sex workers at risk. While the French Assembly was debating the bill, sex workers organized street protests against it. If the bill is supposed to help sex workers, why are they so opposed to it? As the French sex workers’ rights organization, Syndicat du Travail Sexuel, complained, “It is a law against prostitutes” because it will destabilize their working conditions and increase their vulnerability. If clients are criminalized, both they and the prostitutes will be forced to operate underground, in potentially more risky and dangerous conditions. The state cannot simply criminalize one party in these transactions without also jeopardizing the other party’s work and income. Imagine a policy that criminalized only cannabis buyers and allowed those who produce and sell the drug to operate freely. This would create a law enforcement mess, and explains why many police agencies are opposed to the Swedish policy targeting only one type of participant.

Despite the way the Swedish system has been packaged, as a “success,” the evidence does not support the idea that it has helped to reduce prostitution. One must be careful to disentangle what advocates and the Swedish government say about their system from reality. In fact, has disrupted sex workers working conditions, driving them further underground and increasing both stigma and occupational risks.

Why did Sweden adopt this approach? It is based, fundamentally, on a very distorted view of prostitution. In Sweden’s view, prostitution is associated with myriad harms, which are assumed to be intrinsic and immutable. It is assumed that sexual commerce always involves gender inequality, that all sex workers are victims, that no one would choose this kind of work, that they engage in it only under duress (such as coercion or lack of job opportunities), and that the whole institution of prostitution is a threat to social order. Gender bias is obvious in Swedish prostitution policy. Focusing exclusively on women, the Swedes totally ignore men who sell sex (to women or to other men) and women who sell sex to women. Are these participants also involved in relations of domination, oppression, and exploitation?  I should note that these are not fringe markets: a large number of men provide sexual services to customers.

The Swedish system also makes crude assumptions about the customers: they are viewed as prone to abuse, as callous “users” of women, as abnormal. The Swedish law targets them because it is assumed that they are easily deterrable and that by doing so it will eventually lead to prostitution’s demise. 

None of these monolithic assumptions is correct. Prostitution is multi-faceted, and the individuals who provide sexual services differ tremendously. Prostitution ranges over a broad continuum—a diversity of pathways into prostitution, working conditions, relations with employers, experiences with customers, and job satisfaction. On each of these dimensions, individuals’ experiences vary tremendously—from very negative to very positive to everything in between (i.e., mixed experiences). We also need to remember that there are different types of prostitution: street, escorts, brothels, massage parlors, and window prostitution. Research shows that the type of setting in which an individual works makes a great difference in how he or she experiences their work. People who sell sex on the streets are much more vulnerable than people who work in brothels or massage parlors, for example. It is wrong, therefore, to make grandiose generalizations about what prostitution is or its effects, since it is not a monolithic enterprise.

Many nations reject Sweden’s policy. Instead, they have decriminalized and regulate prostitution, because they see this as superior to criminalization. Legal prostitution systems can be found, for example, in several Australian states, the Netherlands, Germany, New Zealand, Mexico, and in one U.S. state (Nevada). Each regime differs in terms of what is permitted and what is prohibited, so there is no single “legal prostitution” model.

The key question is how these systems operate in practice? Have they helped, in greater or lesser degree, to reduce harms and ensure sex workers have legal rights? The answer is that some of these systems have indeed produced positive results:

  • Since 1971, the U.S. state of Nevada has had a highly regulated legal prostitution system. It is too restrictive for some sex workers because it allows only brothels in rural areas and imposes a lot of regulations on brothel owners and workers. But for those individuals who decide to work in these legal venues, a major research study found that “Nevada’s legal brothels offer the safest environment available for women to sell consensual sex.” Another study described these workers as “self-aware professionals there of their own free will.”
  • In Queensland, Australia, an evaluation by the government’s Crime and Misconduct Commission concluded that, “Legal brothels now operating in Queensland provide a sustainable model for a healthy, crime-free, and safe legal licensed brothel industry” and are a “state of the art model for the sex industry in Australia.” And one survey of Queensland sex workers found that 70% of legal brothel workers and independent escorts said they would “definitely choose” such work if they had it to do over again, and half of each group felt that their work was a “major source of satisfaction” in their lives.
  • New Zealand decriminalized prostitution in 2003. Unlike some other nations, the push for reform was driven by a well-organized sex worker’s rights organization: the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective. Since 2003, that organization has continued to play a role in oversight of commercial sex, with seats on the government’s Prostitution Law Review Committee, which conducts research and reviews the impact of the law. A major assessment by the Committee in 2008 concluded that legalization had achieved many of its objectives and that the majority of those involved in the sex industry were better off now than under the prior system.

 These examples may surprise some readers. I am not claiming that such legal systems are perfect, but research indicates that they are superior to a policy of criminalization.

If we recognize that prostitution cannot be eliminated and that criminalization does not serve any constructive purpose, then the next step is to create policies that help to bring prostitution out of the shadows and make it as safe and healthy as possible. We also need to pay just as much attention to improving the working conditions for male and transgender prostitutes as for women who sell sexual services. Draconian punishments, like the French legislation, for consenting adults who exchange sex for money compel them to operate underground, exposing all parties to risk of victimization and exploitation.

Ronald Weitzer is Professor of Sociology at George Washington University. He is the author of a recent book, Legalizing Prostitution: From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business, published by New York University Press.