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Would Legalizing Prostitution Protect Women?

Debunking common claims about the full legalization model

Allison Bliss
Allison Bliss

A push on the left to fully legalize prostitution, the buying and selling of sex, has been steadily on the rise in recent years. Advocates for full legalization, which includes both the buying and the selling of sex, make many claims about the benefits that would supposedly come from this model. Most of these claims revolve around increasing the safety of both women involved in prostitution and in the wider public.

Those pushing for legalization are right that something needs to change in regards to how prostitution is approached by government bodies and law enforcement. Prostitution is a massive safety risk for everyone involved, and for the community. However, despite many claims to the contrary, full legalization doesn’t benefit those being prostituted—only those buying and selling others for sex (often called “Johns” or “punters”, and “pimps”).

The Nordic Model of prostitution, on the other hand, makes it illegal to buy sex or to pimp out others for sex, but legalizes the sale of one’s own body in order to protect those in prostitution from criminalization. In Sweden, the number of individuals in street prostitution had halved by 2018 since its adoption of this system. Meanwhile, there was a significant increase in prostitution in neighboring countries over that time period, with three times as many people in street prostitution in Denmark and Norway. There was no indication of an increase in indoor prostitution in Sweden either.

The Nordic Model continues to be misrepresented, whether purposely or by well-intentioned individuals and organizations, with people stating that the implementation of the Nordic Model would endanger those in prostitution by driving the “practice” further underground. But data shows this is not true. If advocates, policy makers, and organizations truly care about helping women in prostitution, we must critically examine the claims made by those who wish to allow men to freely purchase and trade women.

The Claims

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Claim 1: Prostitution will exist regardless of legality, so we should legalize it for the sake of regulation

Prostitution is harmful to those being purchased, and advocates on most sides of this debate agree that the ultimate goal would be eradication. However, full legalization brings us further from this goal, not closer. Prostitution increases when it’s legalized, because legalization increases demand. A survey of 8,201 adult males conducted by Demand Abolition found that a perceived threat of arrest decreases the likelihood that a man considering paying for sex will go through with it, yet only six percent of men who buy sex reported having been arrested for it. Increasing the threat of arrest to punters would decrease demand. The opposite is also true—decreasing threat of arrest increases demand, which means more women will need to be driven into prostitution to meet that demand.

The study also indicates that active, frequent buyers of sex in America account for 75 percent of sex trade transactions in the United States, meaning legalization would create a legal market to cater to a few who hurt many. The surveyors concluded the sex trade is driven primarily by the normalization of the beliefs that women enjoy being paid for sex, that prostitution is victimless, and that men purchasing women for sex are simply fulfilling their needs. Legalization would majorly compound the normalization of such ideas. Surveyors found the most common reason former buyers ceased their sex buying is that they realized the behavior contradicted their moral beliefs, and they noted that the percentage of men who buy sex varies from culture to culture and has varied throughout history, implying that prostitution exists largely due to normalization and culture ideals.

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Claim 2: “Sex work” should be treated like all other jobs, as legalized prostitution would provide worker protections

The vast majority of women “working” as prostitutes are doing so either because they are living in poverty and have no other choice or because they have been forced into it. Applying a capitalist transactional theory to this “work” does little to actually protect women in prostitution, and in many ways could actually make things worse for women looking to escape.

With protections for employees come protections for employers and clients, making it possible for women “working” as prostitutes to be “held accountable” for not going through with sex after someone has paid for it. In some places where prostitution has been fully legalized, this is already a risk as feminist campaigner Julie Bindel pointed out in 2019:

“A bill was passed in the Australia’s Northern Territories which decriminalises every aspect of the sex trade. The bill also gives pimps and punters the right to take women to court for damages if they don't "complete service" or if they withdraw consent.”

Under a full legalization model, women in prostitution may not be arrested for engaging in prostitution. However, they could be sued for declining to have sex with someone for any number of reasons including feeling unsafe, uncomfortable, degraded, or simply deciding they don't want to be sexually intimate with a person. Under full legalization models, this would be a breach of contract. In any other scenario, we’d define this as rape.

“Workplace protections in legal brothels are essentially non-existent.”


Workplace protections in legal brothels are essentially non-existent. Jacqueline Gwynne, a former receptionist at a legal brothel in Australia, points out the inherent contradictions of workplace protections in the sex industry:

“If you’re groped, sworn at, or sexually harassed in an office job, you can make a complaint and, if all else fails, you can take legal action. But this is what you get paid for in prostitution. You are paid for men to sexually access your body. And because they’ve paid, men expect to be able to do whatever they please.”

95% of those in prostitution experienced sexual harassment, which in the United States is legally actionable in any other job setting. How would equal protections apply to these women? Gwynne continues to explain how women at the brothel where she worked were not treated legally as employees, but rather independent contractors with no benefits:

“They didn’t get any pension contributions or maternity or sick leave or pay. And they couldn’t take out insurance for income protection like you can in a conventional job. They’d have to take time off for their period, or unwanted pregnancies or tears to their anus or vagina, or because they just needed a break from the abuse and trauma. What insurance company would cover a women for this? It is too much of a risk.”

Women wishing to leave legal “employment” as a prostitute may find trouble getting work elsewhere because of their background. However, in the United States, employees are not eligible for unemployment benefits if they leave a job voluntarily or turn down a “suitable” job offer. For women trying to leave prostution, this means they may have no other options.

Proponents of legalization may also refer to statistics revealing that street prostitution is consistently the lowest paying “form” (type of venue) of prostitution, arguing that legalization would place women in brothels or enable them to work from home. This is not necessarily true and neglects to acknowledge the fact that an overwhelming number of prostituted women do not have a home or are forced to live under the reign of those who are prostituting them. Regardless, no amount of money can make up for the abuse and degradation caused by prostitution.

A study which took place across nine different countries found that 64 percent of prostituted women had been threatened with a weapon, 73 percent were physically assaulted, and 57 percent had been raped (which, in this context, means unwanted sex for which they were not paid).

Leftists may argue that prositution is not different from other jobs because every job has its downsides. That may be true. But the job of a barista or custodian itself isn’t going to traumatize you or cause PTSD. Yes, it’s always possible in life that a situation could arise that will be traumatic. But prostitution itself is traumatic. Prostitution is traumatic even if women don’t experience abuse or further sexual assault while “working” as a prostitute. (Though almost all do.)

“Sixty-four percent of prostituted women had been threatened with a weapon, 73 percent were physically assaulted, and 57 percent had been raped.”


Among Canadian women studied, 76 percent reported receiving physical injuries from violence in prostitution. For comparison, the legal industry with the highest injury rate, according to Forbes, is Animal Agriculture - with an injury rate at just 6.6 percent. Prostitution is simply not comparable to other jobs on nearly any front.

It is also important to remember that the sex that occurs during prostitution is inherently unwanted. If it was wanted, the punter would not need to pay for it. Treating “sex work” like any other jobs means enshrining into our governing systems that being raped can be a job.

We’ve Known for Two Decades the Harms of Prostitution
So why are liberal feminists still supporting it?
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Claim 3: Sex trafficking victims don’t come forward for fear of criminal charges

Proponents of legalization have argued the only reason victims of human trafficking don’t come forward is they are afraid of being criminalized. This argument neglects to acknowledge the fact that total legalization and total criminalization are not the only options. The Nordic Model criminalizes those selling people for sex and those paying for sex; it does not, in any way, criminalize those being prostituted, regardless of their circumstances.

Additionally, it’s naive to think victims will come forward simply because they don’t have to worry about legal retaliation. Victims of domestic abuse, rape victims, etc. don’t come forward the majority of the time. This usually isn’t because they’re concerned they will face legal repercussions, but because they’re afraid they will not be believed, will not be supported by local law enforcement or others, will face stigma, or will be retraumatized by the process (all reasonable fears).

“The Nordic Model... does not, in any way, criminalize those being prostituted, regardless of their circumstances.”


Many victims of sex trafficking are literally unable to escape their trafficker’s control. They are often unable to leave the trafficker’s supervision or the building in which they are being held. Other victims live in poverty and have few, if any, family or friends they can trust, which is how they ended up in prostitution. Prostitution is often quite similar to, and sometimes is, domestic abuse, as a woman’s pimp often is her abusive boyfriend. Stockholm syndrome can also affect a victim’s decision to come forward, which is discussed later on.

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Claim 4: When prostitution is legalized, rates of sexual assault fall

Any increase to prostitution naturally increases instances of sexual assault, even if those assaults are not legally considered such. This is because prostitution is paid rape. Apart from matters of consent and coercion for women living in poverty or forced in to prostitution, the mental and emotional trauma that results from prostitution is remarkably similar to sexual assault. One study of prostituted women found that even as reports of assault and rape while “working” as a prostitute and childhood physical and sexual abuse were absent, PTSD remained present in study participants—leading researchers to conclude prostitution itself is a cause of PTSD.

Legalizing prostitution serves to protect those selling “the service” (the pimps) and those buying “the service” (the punters/johns). Those “working” as prostitutes could have a hard time convincing authorities they were assaulted when they were legally paid to perform a “service.” And what happens when the prostituted person tries to draw the line between what they will do with the john and what they won’t, but the john crosses that line anyway? How does a woman report that type of assault? We know women often are not believed when they come forward with sexual assault allegations. What happens when a woman was legally paid for sex prior to the assault?

“Prostitution itself is a cause of PTSD.”


Appallingly, people have also argued that the legalization of prostitution would enable men to fulfill their sexual desires by hiring someone to have sex with them, therefore reducing the likelihood that these men will rape a different woman. This logic is extremely flawed and, frankly, cruel. It’s far from true that the only reason men rape is because they can’t get sex. Men often rape because they like to rape, not because they like consensual sex. This argument shows a blatant disregard for those “working” as prostitutes. The implication is that we should be fine with allowing those being prostituted to be sexually engaged with rapists or “would-be-rapists.” That is a dangerous situation, and it’s highly likely these men will rape or otherwise violate the women they paid to have sex with (beyond the paid rape itself). This claim literally suggests we sacrifice prostituted women to rapists. That is not about protecting those in prostitution.

This may be exactly what is occurring in popularly-cited legalization studies such a 2014 study from UCLA which showed that when indoor prostitution was inadvertently decriminalized in Rhode Island from 2003 to 2009, there was a decrease in reports of rape in the general population. This is somehow cited as a win for legalization, when the only inference that can be logically drawn is that rapists have turned their energy to prostituted women. The same study cites a previous finding that only 34 percent of prostitutes who were victims of violence incited by those paying for sex reported it.

The study found that during decriminalization, the number of prostituted women increased and the amount of money paid for sex decreased. The authors made the point that the sex trade is, inherently, sexual violence, stating, “Decriminalization will increase violence if violence is an increasing function of the number of women employed in the sex market, since we expect decriminalization to increase the size of the market.”

“This claim literally suggests we sacrifice prostituted women to rapists. That is not about protecting those in prostitution.”


The study admits they found a positive correlation between rape victimization and a history of prostitution, meaning women who have been in prostitution are more likely to have been raped. They also found that men who admitted to rape were more likely to have paid for sex. They go on to admit they believe it likely that men who rape view prostitution as a substitution for rape, and they say there might be a reduction in rapes among prostitutes as a result of legalization, but that it is likely a small effect. In essence, they flat out admit legalization doesn’t protect prostitutes. If rape victimization is more prevalent among prostituted women than the general population of women, how would legalizing prostitution (thus increasing the number of women in prostitution) lower rates of rape?

We need cultural change and law enforcement that focuses on curbing demand (men who pay for sex), not supply (prostituted women). The study from UCLA briefly mentions demand and says there was only a small increase in demand if any at all but never presents any numbers on demand and seems to have completely neglected to study it, a common flaw in research on prostitution.

Additionally, the study never mentions that the number of rapes per 100,000 did not increase (data listed in Table 5 under Violent Crime) significantly after it was criminalized again until 2013, when the definition of rape was revised so as to stop excluding many cases of rape due to the original, narrow definition. This could be evidence that criminalization did not increase the rate of rape, but perhaps sexual assaults decreased over the preceding years as a result of larger cultural shifts.

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Claim 5: Legalizing prostitution will decrease the spread of STIs/STDs

Concern over spread of STIs as a reason to legalize prostitution only shows concern for the men who pay for sex contracting an STI, not the women who are being prostituted.

The 2014 UCLA study cited in Claim 4 demonstrated that new cases of gonorrhea did drop during the period of decriminalization. The authors argue this may be because, “Post–decriminalization we observe significant entry of White and Asian workers, and these races have the lowest gonorrhea prevalence. Therefore, post–decriminalization men are more likely to match with a safe (i.e. gonorrhea free) sex worker which could result in overall reductions in gonorrhea incidence.”

“If low risk individuals increase their activity by a larger proportion than high risk individuals,” the authors argue, the overall rate of gonorrhea will drop. Essentially, the argument is that since more women will be prostituted, and the new women will be less likely to have an STI, men will have “safer” choices in a paid-sex partner, therefore reducing the impact on the larger community when men continue to have sex with thier wives, girlfriends, and “consensual” sex partners outside of paid scenarios. It may be true, but to be clear, this is a total prioritization of the safety of men and non-prostituted women over those still most at risk of STIs in the first place: women involved in street prostitution.

“This is a total prioritization of the safety of men and non-prostituted women over those still most at risk of STIs in the first place: women involved in street prostitution.”


The claim that legalization would keep “sex workers” healthier by preventing/reducing the spread of infectious disease also doesn’t take into account their mental health. It wouldn’t help mental health or change the other ways it affects their bodies. Moreover, contracting an STI is not the worst thing that happens to women who are being prostituted. One study found 63 percent of interviewed prostitutes had been raped while in prostitution, 71 percent were physically abused while in prostitution, and 68 percent had PTSD. People claim that by making prostitution legal, we could require that condoms be worn and require prostitutes to undergo mandatory STI screenings. But the sex that takes place would still occur behind closed doors, where no one can guarantee condoms are being worn or that further abuse is not taking place.

Screening prostitutes for STIs means we can protect those who buy prostitutes from contracting an STI from said prostitute, but it doesn’t keep her from getting it in the first place—how exactly does that protect her? Punters receiving a medical examination before they pay for sex doesn’t make up for the lack of STI screenings of punters only those being prostituted are getting.

Nevada law deems those being prostituted responsible for requiring punters to wear condoms. Getting a sexual encounter to wear a condom is often difficult enough for women during consensual, for-pleasure sex; it could prove increasingly difficult when a man is said to have paid for access to a woman’s body for sex. Also, the law requires the owners of brothels (pimps) to report any found or suspected cases of STIs to the health authority within their local jurisdiction. This includes the name and contact information of the prostituted woman who is infected, or suspected to be, meaning private, uncomfortable information must be passed on about these individuals to the state—a major privacy concern. That certainly doesn’t protect her privacy or seek to ensure her protection from STIs; she would already have an STI.

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Claim 6: Sex trafficking rates go down when prostitution is legalized

Sex trafficking rates indisputably rise when prostitution is legalized. According to research conducted at Creighton University, the rate of sex trafficking in Nevada, the only place in the United States with legal prostitution, is 63 percent higher than that of New York, the state with the second highest rate of sex trafficking in the country, and almost twice that of Florida. The report goes on to reason that these high numbers in Nevada can’t be chalked up to the fact that it’s a large tourist destination, as the rate of sex trafficking in California is less than half that of Nevada, while tourism is higher in California than in Nevada. Additionally, consider tourism rates in both Florida and New York, both of which have sex trafficking rates well below that of Nevada.

Proponents of full legalization argue that the policy would also decrease rates of child sexual exploitation. They claim that those buying sex may often only pay to rape children because they don’t have access to adult prostitutes. This is completely unfounded, and there is no evidence that pedophiles and child abusers would direct their energy to prostution were it legal. Even if it was true, prostituted women are once again offered up by society as sacrificial lambs to all manner of evil men.

Additionally, there is no evidence that child traffickers would focus on adult women if that trade became legalized. Child traffickers are willing to risk going to prison to sell children at present. Why would they suddenly stop?

“Countries with legalized prostitution are associated with higher human trafficking inflows than countries where prostitution is prohibited.”


One study on the sale of women for sex in Nevada predicts that 19 percent of women being advertised have a moderate or high likelihood of being either minors or young women based on use of keywords and advertised age. Pimps use these keywords although they know it’s a red flag for law enforcement, presumably because those advertised this way go for more money, indicating, as the same study notes, the demand for youth from those who buy sex (johns/punters). Those selling these women and girls are clearly willing to take the risk, selling minors though the prostitution of adults is legal. Traffickers are incentivized to sell children. The study also predicted that 72 percent of the women being advertised on Backpage in Nevada could have been trafficked, were likely young, and were possibly underage when the study was published in 2016.

A 2012 study investigated the flow of human trafficking in high-income countries relative to legalizing prostitution. Harvard Law and International Development Society summarizes their results:

“Countries with legalized prostitution are associated with higher human trafficking inflows than countries where prostitution is prohibited. The scale effect of legalizing prostitution, i.e. expansion of the market, outweighs the substitution effect, where legal sex workers are favored over illegal workers. On average, countries with legalized prostitution report a greater incidence of human trafficking inflows.”

The inverse was also true:

“Criminalization of prostitution in Sweden resulted in the shrinking of the prostitution market and the decline of human trafficking inflows. Cross-country comparisons of Sweden with Denmark (where prostitution is decriminalized) and Germany (expanded legalization of prostitution) are consistent with the quantitative analysis, showing that trafficking inflows decreased with criminalization and increased with legalization.”

This finding has been replicated time and time again. The increase in trafficking due to legalized prostitution was larger in high-income countries and democracies, such as the United States.

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Claim 7: Legalization would change the stigmatization of  “sex workers”

Women should not be stigmatized for “working” as a prostitute. This needs to change. But legalizing prostitution is not going to change the sexist ideology that encourages people to call women and girls sluts and whores for having sex, wearing revealing or “suggestive” clothing, being “too flirty,” etc. When men pay for access to a woman’s body, they feel entitled to her, to her body. This means they’re not viewing her as a full human being, which means they could never not view her through a prejudiced or stigmatized lens. And it goes far beyond stigmatization.

Payment for a human being means she is seen as a commodity. Realizing this means realizing that making prostitution legal is not going to change the respect that people have for women who are being prostituted. The way people view women who are being prostituted is connected to the way people view women and girls in general and how they (“they” being men and women) view women and girls for having sex. Legalization won’t change the way we view women who are being prostituted; it’ll only change, in limited ways, the way we talk about them, and that doesn’t necessarily mean for the better.

“Legalization encourages society to think of all women as sexual commodities, as objects that can be bought and sold.”


Beyond the horrendous fact that prostitution allows those being prostituted to be reduced to sexual commodities and to be abused, legalization encourages society to think of all women as sexual commodities, as objects that can be bought and sold. Almost all people being purchased for sex are women and children, and almost all people purchasing them are men.

Legalization only destigmatizes those who sell and buy those being prostituted, not those being prostituted themselves. It would mean men who buy women for sex are no longer criminals, and its move out of the dark and into the main stream would, as previously stated, drive up demand, meaning more men buying sex. Obviously, this would normalize this behavior—the renting of women for sex. And it would legitimize pimps, the people who generally force or coerce women and girls into prostitution to begin with.

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Claim 8: "Sex workers" say prostitution is empowering and enjoyable

People talk about listening to what “sex workers” want. But the vast majority of those in “sex work” are living in poverty and/or are being prostituted entirely against their will. That means the vast majority of people in this group do not get to speak for themselves. Only outliers get to speak for the group.

The actual reality is tragically simple: 92 percent prostituted individuals want to leave prostitution.

If prostitutes are in a position where they’re reaching out to news sources or speaking on television, they are outliers. And these women may change their stance after they’ve been in prostitution for a while, or, as stated previously, they may internalize the idea that sex is their worth.

“Ninety-two percent prostituted individuals want to leave prostitution.”


Take this interview with a young woman referred to as a sex worker. She mentions how “sex work” is stigmatized, so she doesn’t tell many people she’s a “sex worker” yet proceeds to tell readers about her life as a part-time escort and how “most of what [she] does isn’t sex work at all.” Most of what prostituted women do most certainly is sex. She also said she doesn’t like it when clients ask her to dress sexy; this is something women in all forms of “sex work” are expected to do regularly, whether “working” in prostitution, pornography, strip clubs, etc., so it’s difficult to understand how one can feel this way about this particular experience, then go on to paint “sex work” as good for women. Further, she emphasizes the fact that the company she works for, one where sex is not the biggest part of the job, prioritizes hiring “girls that are educated and intelligent,” which makes clear this is either catering to middle to upper class people who can afford to go to college or people who were required to prostitute themselves in order to afford college. Many women in sex work will say they enjoy what they do while in the thick of it but talk about the fear and misery they felt afterward.

There is no doubt that some women claim to find “empowerment” from sex work or other forms of sexual objectifiation. This does not, however, mean that on the whole women are empowered by the sex trade or sexual objectification. Dee Graham proposed a theory of “Societal Stockholm Syndrome” to explain how many women adopt the point of view of their oppressors, men, as survival or coping mechanism. This phenomenon, also known as trauma bonding, is documented among victims of human trafficking and is thought to be more likely among people without access to basic necessities and/or without close loved ones, two factors that often push girls and women into prostitution. If a woman finds some form of power through “sex work” that she did not feel was otherwise accessible to her, she may feel she has gained something through this “choice.” However, “empowerment,” or the granting of political, social, or economic power to an individual or group has not occured. She is still considered nothing but a sex object—she has not gained “power,” but rather found a way to survive with her lack of it.

“When a woman is poor and hungry, the humane thing to do is to put food in her mouth, not your dick.”


The argument that criminalization makes it impossible for women in poverty to make money is both classist and cruel. Feminist author Rachel Moran is credited with saying, “When a woman is poor and hungry, the humane thing to do is to put food in her mouth, not your dick.” Rather than focusing organizing efforts on legalizing the sex trade, why not address poverty through solutions which hit at the root, such as universal basic income? The fact remains that if poverty was abolished tomorrow, the sex trade would essentially collapse. The sex trade requires poverty to coerce women into participating. Without poverty, prostitution cannot flourish. It is not in the interest of the sex trade to propose solutions which would actually help lift women out of poverty.

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Claim 9: Legalizing prostitution means reduced costs and increased tax revenue

Like with the legalization of certain drugs, advocates for decriminalization argue that the government could increase bottom-line revenue by reducing the costs associated with enforcement and charging tax for services sold. If we know how harmful prostitution is, though, how can we possibly justify allowing it to take place because it will save money? The government exists to serve the people, not vice versa. Completely cutting welfare programs would also save the government money; that doesn’t mean we should do it. The government also makes a lot of money in war time through capital gains tax under increased industry profit; that doesn’t mean it should.

Maybe the full legalization of prostitution has the possibility to create economic gains, but it’s incredibly selfish and immoral to allow this to happen to people. At its core, the proposal is that we unnecessarily sacrifice millions of women to stimulate the economy. Slavery stimulated the US economy for nearly a century; that didn’t make it any less repugnant or horrific.

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Takeaway

Arguments in favor of legalizing “sex work” talk about how it would improve the lives of “sex workers.” But the lives of “sex workers” are inherently filled with mental and physical turmoil. Prostitution is modern day slavery, with those being prostituted usually living in poverty with no other choice. (This is often the case even for women who don’t have a pimp, as they often use prostitution as a way to gain food and shelter rather than money).

When it comes down to it, the potential benefits that could come from legalizing prostitution are theoretically guaranteed pay, reduced risk of receiving STIs, and reduced risk of rape and abuse. (Rape and abuse in addition to the paid rape already expected, as prostitution itself should be considered paid rape; you cannot buy consent.) However, if prostitution were decriminalized for those being prostituted, and remained a crime for those pimping out prostitutes and those buying or renting them, we stay on the side of women and girls, of everyone who has and who could wind up in prostitution. No risk of STIs should be the goal. No risk of rape or abuse should be the goal.

Full legalization of prostitution would benefit those who sell women and those who buy/rent them rather than protect women in prostitution. The push to fully legalize exaggerates very minimal improvements, ignores ways in which the sex trade would be made worse, and completely avoids any conversation about how the Nordic Model would surpass extremely minimal benefits of legalization (which nearly only serve punters and pimps) without making the sex trade worse. Continuing the criminalization of buying sex and selling others for sex but legalizing the sale of one’s own body for sex provides a barrier to demand while allowing women in prostitution to safely escape by keeping them from criminalization and giving them easier access to exit services.

If you want to legalize prostitution because you are worried about the safety and well-being of those in prostitution, consider the facts. Complete legalization would be a major misstep, even if well-intentioned. We have a duty to create policy focused on curbing demand and reducing the number of women and children exposed to the sex trade. We need social services, as well as a society, that stands to help prostituted and at risk women escape. We need the Nordic Model now.

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Allison Bliss

Allison Bliss is a writer based in Florida, studying journalism and political science.