Does Putting Prostitutes in Jail Really Stop Prostitution?

Have we learnt nothing from the racist, ineffective laws that form the basis of America's longest war: the War on Drugs?


The War on Drugs has been around since the 1970s and is so embedded in our culture, there’s even a band named after the government slogan. The United States spends an astonishing $51 billion a year to "fight" drugs, which is roughly what Donald Rumsfeld estimated the Iraq War would cost in total (he was off-base by about $750 billion). You could even say that the war on narcotics is the longest war in United States history.

But that all could change with the new War on sex trafficking. While the U.S. government’s success at fighting drug proliferation, use, and profiteering has largely been lambasted as ineffective and, even worse, racially motivated, a so-called war on sex trafficking seems a little more cut-and-dry. No one approves of sex trafficking, right?

[N]o matter who is involved or how they involve themselves, the punishments are severe and modeled after drug laws that have not worked over the past 40 years.

Sure, except it may not be a war on sex trafficking, per se. As Elizabeth Nolan Brown notes in her extensive report for Reason, the statistics about sex trafficking in the United States are unreliable at best and, varying from state to state, the punishable offenses related to sex trafficking are often conflated with prostitution. Basically, since the Bush era, conservatives and what she calls “radical feminist activists” have pushed for stricter punishments for prostitution, while at the same time, sex trafficking has fallen more and more under that umbrella.

While there is reason to caution against conflicting and harsh laws that do not deter the problem, some areas of the United States are real hubs for trafficking. Atlanta, for example, does nearly $300 million a year in illegal sex work. But back to Brown’s point about the problem of conflation — how much of that is trafficking and how much of it is consensual prostitution?

Brown is not saying that sex trafficking shouldn’t be a punishable offense; she’s saying that current sex trafficking laws are feeding the prison industrial complex. A 17-year-old runaway sex worker may be punished differently than if she were kidnapped by a pimp. A pimp may or may not be a trafficker. But no matter who is involved or how they involve themselves, the punishments are severe and modeled after drug laws that have not worked over the past 40 years. Punishment should be the answer for some, but not all. Nevertheless, the question of how to enervate the sex-for-money slave trade without feeding the prison system remains.

John Mackey explains that libertarians come in many colors but that ultimately, it's all about freedom.


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A protester holds a placard whilst marching through Soho after a candle-lit vigil to mark the international day to end violence against sex workers, organised by the English Collective of Prostitutes, in London on December 17, 2014. AFP PHOTO / JUSTIN TALLIS (Photo credit should read JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Daphne Muller is a New York City-based writer who has written for Salon, Ms. Magazine, The Huffington Post, and reviewed books for ELLE and Publishers Weekly. Most recently, she completed a novel and screenplay. You can follow her on Instagram @daphonay and on Twitter @DaphneEMuller.

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