DOES LEGALIZED PROSTITUTION INCREASE HUMAN TRAFFICKING?
Human trafficking leaves no land untouched. In 2013 the U.S. State Department estimated that there are 27 million victims worldwide trafficked for forced labor or commercial sex exploitation. A 2011 report from the Department of Justice found that of more than 2,500 federal trafficking cases from 2008 to 2010, 82% concerned sex trafficking and nearly half of those involved victims under the age of 18. Scholars note that the phenomenon represents a serious health issue for women and girls worldwide. Beyond the human cost, trafficking may also compromise international security, weaken the rule of law and undermine health systems.
Since the United Nations adopted the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children in 2000, global efforts have been made by the international community to address the growing problem. Challenges remain significant, however, in particular because of its profitability: According to the International Labor Organization, human trafficking is a $32 billion industry, second in organized crime only to illicit drugs. A 2011 paper in Human Rights Review found that sex slaves cost on average $1,895 each while generating $29,210 annually, leading to “stark predictions about the likely growth in commercial sex slavery in the future.”
A 2012 study published in the World Development, “Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking?” investigates the effect of legalized prostitution on human trafficking inflows into high-income countries. The researchers — Seo-Yeong Cho of the German Institute for Economic Research, Axel Dreher of the University of Heidelberg and Eric Neumayer of the London School of Economics and Political Science — analyzed cross-sectional data of 116 countries to determine the effect of legalized prostitution on human trafficking inflows. In addition, they reviewed case studies of Denmark, Germany and Switzerland to examine the longitudinal effects of legalizing or criminalizing prostitution.
The study’s findings include:
While trafficking inflows may be lower where prostitution is criminalized, there may be severe repercussions for those working in the industry. For example, criminalizing prostitution penalizes sex workers rather than the people who earn most of the profits (pimps and traffickers).
“The likely negative consequences of legalised prostitution on a country’s inflows of human trafficking might be seen to support those who argue in favour of banning prostitution, thereby reducing the flows of trafficking,” the researchers state. “However, such a line of argumentation overlooks potential benefits that the legalisation of prostitution might have on those employed in the industry. Working conditions could be substantially improved for prostitutes — at least those legally employed — if prostitution is legalised. Prohibiting prostitution also raises tricky ‘freedom of choice’ issues concerning both the potential suppliers and clients of prostitution services.”
Related research: A December 2013 paper, “Human Trafficking and Regulating Prostitution,” from the New York University Law and Economics program, takes a theoretical approach to supply and demand issues, and the dynamics of markets. Leaving aside the implications for trafficking, there is a vast body of research on the legalization of prostitution and the effects on societies around the globe. A 2013 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research finds some positive effects of legalization in the U.S. context. Qualitative survey research with sex workers themselves also continues to provide insights.