Legality Leads to More Trafficking by
Rachel Lloyd is executive director of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services in New York City. She is the author of the recent memoir “Girls Like Us.”
April 19, 2012
As a teenager, I worked in Germany’s legal sex industry. I was, like many girls in the club, underage; most of us were immigrants, nearly all of us had histories of trauma and abuse prior to our entry into commercial sex. Several of us had pimps despite working in a legal establishment; all of us used copious amounts of drugs and alcohol to get through each night.
Violence is inherent in the sex industry. Numerous studies show that between 70 percent and 90 percent of children and women who end up in commercial sex were sexually abused prior to entry. No other industry is dependent upon a regular supply of victims of trauma and abuse.
Legalization has spurred traffickers to recruit children and marginalized women to meet demand.
The presence of an adult sex industry increases both the rates of child sexual exploitation and trafficking. It may be true that some women in commercial sex exercised some level of informed choice, had other options to entering and have no histories of familial trauma, neglect or sexual abuse. But, these women are the minority and don’t represent the overwhelming majority of women, girls, boys and transgender youth, for whom the sex industry isn’t about choice but lack of choice.
The argument that legalizing prostitution makes it safer for women just hasn’t been borne out in countries implementing full legalization. In fact, legalization has spurred traffickers to recruit children and marginalized women to meet demand. Amsterdam, long touted as the model, recently started recognizing rates of trafficking into the country have increased and is beginning to address the enormous hub of trafficking and exploitation that it’s created.
Criminalizing women and girls in commercial sex — who are overwhelmingly victims of violence — is not the solution, but neither is legalization. Focusing criminal justice resources on traffickers and buyers is a promising step, as is providing services, support and authentic options to women being bought and ensuring children and youth are treated as victims, a step taken by New York’s groundbreaking Safe Harbor Act in 2008.
To truly address trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, it’s critical to address the systemic factors making girls and women so vulnerable — poverty, gender inequity, racism, classism, child sexual abuse, lack of educational and employment opportunities for women and girls globally. Sanctioning an industry that preys upon some of the most marginalized and disenfranchised individuals in our society isn’t the answer.
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