Prostitution Decriminalization Harms Those in Need of Help

The global debate is intensifying about how to address prostitution, from legalization to decriminalization to maintaining the status quo of criminalization. Unfortunately, growing national and state efforts to fully decriminalize or even legalize prostitution propagates harmful myths–to the benefit of those who profit from exploiting and selling others. 

Full decriminalization would mean that sex buyers, pimps, and owners of all commercial sexual establishments, not just those engaged in prostitution, would be immune from criminal charges. Unlike reforms such as the Buyer Beware Act, which shift prosecution from those selling sex to those purchasing it, this incentivizes both prostitution and sex trafficking.

It is important to first understand that prostitution is usually as result of force or underlying vulnerabilities and disparities.

Systemic inequalities such as poverty, homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, abuse, and mental health concerns frequently lead individuals into prostitution as a matter of survival, not career preference. This aligns with the fact that vulnerable communities–women, people of color, LGBTQ+, the homeless, children in foster care, and immigrants and refugees–are disproportionately represented in prostitution.

Research on the effects of prostitution and full decriminalization and legalization provide a warning:

  • Prostitution is inherently harmful and violent, inflicting severe physical, emotional, and psychological injuries that compound existing trauma.

  • Women in prostitution have the highest murder rate among any group of women and high mortality rates, mainly due to violence and drug use. The majority have endured traumatic brain injuries.

  • Germany has one of the largest legalized prostitution markets, yet conditions have deteriorated and more women are being brought in from other countries for lower wages to remain “competitive.”

  • An empirical analysis of 150 countries found that “on average, countries where prostitution is legal experience larger reported human trafficking inflows.”

  • Nevada, the only U.S. jurisdiction with legal brothels, has the highest per capita rate of an illegal sex trade—63% higher than the next highest state.

Full decriminalization increases the demand, meaning more people are selling their bodies in an unavoidably dangerous, damaging process. And as demand increases, so does trafficking and exploitation of inequalities. Regulating prostitution to “make it safer” will not reduce that harm compared to the increased number of victims.

Pennsylvania and the United States should not be in the business of exacerbating violence against women and the vulnerable. A majority of voters agree, in line with countless advocacy groups who amplify the voices of survivors whose lived experiences and unparalleled insight into the issue of commercial sexual exploitation must drive the debate.

Our next post will explore a better way toward protecting the vulnerable and decreasing the buying and selling of people.