A mural in Lindavista, Distrito Federal, Mexico, depicting a prostitute and a priest (Tinou Bao, Flickr Commons) The cover article for the August 9th issue of The Economist argues that prostitution’s shift from the streets to the Internet illustrates the migration of the sex industry to the formal economy, and touted this trend as a basis for legalization. As the U.S. State Department’s former Ambassador-at-Large for Combating Trafficking in Persons, I am discouraged that such a reputable publication would endorse the legalization of an industry that not only disproportionally robs underprivileged populations of dignity but also exacerbates the horrors of sex trafficking that the world is fighting to eradicate. Prostitution is not the oldest profession; it is the oldest form of oppression.

Among other arguments, the authors justify their position by noting that "sex arranged online and sold from an apartment or hotel room is less bothersome for third parties than are brothels or red-light districts." Being less bothersome for third parties, however, does nothing to address the fact that prostitution is a manifestation of desperation. As noted by University of Michigan law professor Catherine MacKinnon, the financial transaction of prostitution is exploitative by nature. Melissa Farley, a prostitution researcher and educator, demonstrates in her piece “Bad for the Body, Bad for the Heart” that decriminalization does nothing to lessen the physical, emotional, or social harms inflicted by prostitution. In fact, Farley found no difference in the rate of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among street prostitutes versus rates among those conducting more “professional” operations indoors.

Contrary to calls to legally combat the demand for commercial sex (known as the “Swedish Model” after that nation's policy of prosecuting sex work’s clients rather than its purveyors), The Economist’s writers contended that “criminali[z]ation of clients perpetuates the idea of all prostitutes forced into the trade.” But, as mentioned above, it is widely known that the vast majority of individuals prostituted today are destitute; indeed, MacKinnon cites data noting that individuals’ primary reason for entering the industry is financial desperation. Ironically, this data also demonstrates that prostitution, rather than helping prostituted peoples to escape the cycle of poverty, instead permanently entraps them. This financial struggle—paired with the emotional trauma and high rate of racial and social disadvantage they exhibit—makes prostituted individuals incredibly vulnerable to further exploitation by sex traffickers. In a country like India, where the caste system largely dictates the professional and social trajectories of its people, women of lower caste are often targeted for prostitution for the benefit of men of higher caste. From as early as six years old, these women are molded to believe they have little earthly purpose other than to give pleasure to men. Even legalizing the industry would not alter this subservient relationship.

Finally, the authors claim that “...the unrealistic goal of ending the sex trade distracts the authorities from the genuine horrors of modern-day slavery...Governments should focus on deterring and punishing such crimes—and leave consenting adults who wish to buy and sell sex to do so safely and privately online.” However, as Farley demonstrates, organizations that simultaneously oppose human trafficking and endorse what they call “sex work” as acceptable employment for impoverished women dangerously blur the already fine line between prostitution and modern day slavery. Moreover, doing so significantly undermines efforts to effectively combat the latter. Legal prostitution both drives up demand for victims of human trafficking and provides a veil behind which traffickers can hide their operations.

The evidence is in, and the link between prostitution and human trafficking is clear. Because of this, the United States has, since 2002, taken a strong policy stance against legalizing prostitution. My hope in bringing this evidence to the forefront of public dialogue is that The Economist will take a second look at the undeniable link between the sex trade and modern day slavery—and, after doing so, rethink its position on this incredibly important legal, societal, and human rights issue.


A version of this article originally appeared on Enterprise Unshackled, the blog of the Global Business Alliance Against Human Trafficking, under the title “Prostitution: Why The Economist has it Wrong on Legalization.”