Decriminalising Sex Work Is Better for Everyone

Amnesty International and The Economist are very different organisations, but they have reached similar conclusions on policies regarding sex markets. Last August, the International Council of Amnesty International decided to back the complete decriminalisation of prostitution.  Decriminalising prostitution, they reasoned, would better protect the human rights of sex workers, and be better for the health and safety of all involved. The Amnesty’s International Council took care to declare opposition to criminalising sex work for both clients and for sex workers. Criminalisation both on the demand side (clients) and the supply side (sex workers) implies pushing this ‘market’ into the hidden economy, increasing the risks that sex workers face.


Perhaps less predictably, The Economist, in a report on paid sex in 2014, also argued for a complete liberalisation of the market and against criminalisation policies. Robert Skidelsky, a prominent Keynesian economist and member of the House of Lords, recently joined the cause. In the interest of protecting the health and safety of sex workers, he advocated against criminalisation and in favour of regulation of the market.  

At the same time, a number of prominent actors and organisations continue to advocate the so-called ‘Swedish approach’. Since its adoption in Norway and Iceland, this is more accurately called the ‘Nordic approach’, and is enshrined in the Kvinnofrid (violence against women) act of 1999, which condemns the industry as a locus of female oppression, and aims to combat the oppression of sex workers by criminalising  sex workers’ clients. The Swedish government has promoted the approach domestically and abroad, through public education and conferences, fact sheets and intense lobbying at the EU and the UN.

As economists, we believe that public policy ought to be based on relative welfare considerations.  In other words, under which arrangements are the actors, and the public, better off? Throughout our research on the economics of sex work, we have asked ourselves a set of basic questions around the welfare of those involved. What do we know about the agents, the prostitutes, the pimps, the clients and others? What types of people are they in terms of their sociodemographic characteristics, behaviours and motivations? Surveys and studies provided the data. How do they compare with the population as a whole? Importantly, as economists, we were particularly interested in the various institutional arrangements – streets, brothels, parlours, apartments – in which different actors might act, and how these respond to different regulatory arrangements. Regulation, after all, is not one thing, but rather exists on a wide spectrum, with different modes and degrees of criminalisation, decriminalisation and legalisation.

We have spent 15 years researching these questions using data from US and UK clients and an international sample of sex workers from eastern European and former Soviet Union countries, as well as from Africa, Latin America, China and South East Asian countries. We have worked with many collaborators and subjected our work to extensive peer review and professional criticism in papers, conferences and books. Here’s what we can tell you. 

Sex workers, or prostitutes, are not just women. They are also men and transgender people. They face risks to their health, risks of violent assault, and risk of fraud (not getting paid for their services). In every case, these risks are higher where prostitution is criminalised, partly because criminalisation makes collaboration with both medical personnel and law enforcement more difficult. Criminalisation of sex work also makes the detection of under-age or trafficked people more difficult.

Perhaps surprisingly, our research on sexually exploited trafficked women shows that women who work in the streets are in some ways better off than sex workers in parlours, clubs or hotels. Street workers enjoy more freedom of movement, suffer less physical and sexual abuse, and are more likely to have access to health services than women who work in parlours, clubs or hotels. These market dynamics of sex work apply to women trafficked into sex work, too. For both clients and for sex workers, demand-side and supply-side, criminalisation pushes the market into secluded and, for the workers, isolating places. Flats, clubs and massage parlours are more separate from the rest of society. The welfare of sexually trafficked women decreases in these dangerous environments.

Sex workers’ clients are mostly men, but not exclusively. They are, for the most part, average guys. When we matched client data in both the US and the UK with the rest of the male population, we found no difference between the two groups on most measures. Still, clients care about the effects of buying sex on their reputations, and they face more risk when prostitution is criminalised. But by and large, clients of sex workers tend to be risk-takers. There is a high correlation between paying for sex and engaging in other risky behaviours. To many men, criminalised prostitution is actually more attractive than decriminalised or legal sex work. So pushing prostitution into the shadows not only makes sex work more dangerous, it actually increases demand.  

Maria Laura Di Tommaso & Marina Della Giusta

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This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.