Sex sells, literally.
Our generation has been one of political and social change – one where women and men are increasingly viewed as equals, where gender norms are constantly challenged, and where it is accepted to express one’s sexuality.
But still, we view prostitution as an evil to society, as an institution which puts the individual at risk, which should not be accepted because it normalizes the exchange of sex for money, and which shouldn’t have any interference with politics.
This is where modern society fails.
In a world where liberty and freedom is constantly being emphasized and where we criticize governments that do not give basic freedoms to their people, we unknowingly allow the same in our very own societies. Arguably the most important right, the ability to make our own decisions about our health, body, and sexuality, is being violated. Whether one engages in sexual intercourse for pure recreation or in exchange for money is up to the individual to decide.
The reality is that prostitution is an inevitable part of our world and the demand for it will never cease. Rather than allowing prostitution to operate in a black market rooted in violence, drug use, and exploitation, sex work should be regulated and allowed to operate in a market which provides protection for the individual.
The Red Light: A Model for Employee Rights?
A prime example of the benefits of the legalization of prostitution is the Netherlands. Although a bill was put forward in 1983 to reform the practice, it became fully legal in 2000. The bill legalizes brothels, and by “regulating the commercial operation of prostitution in the same way as other business, it is hoped that the stigma of sex work can also be addressed and gradually removed.” The law aims to legalize voluntary prostitution and further criminalize involuntary prostitution, which is the practice of sex work through violence and force.
Sex work is regulated by local authorities, whom assure that the brothels abide by size and geographical restrictions, as well as health and safety regulations, such as “minimum dimensions of the working area, running hot and cold water, presence of condoms, fire escapes…, protection of their physical and mental integrity, no under-age workers and none without a valid residence permit.”
The legalization of sex work in Amsterdam means that abuses can be prosecuted, which is arguably the greatest benefit that the legalization process can render. In situations where women are abused or oppressed, legalization means protection. This means that brothels who employ sex workers illegally or those who deny work based on unfair grounds are legally obliged by the state to be shut down or reformed.
Challenges to Legalization and Dutch Reform
The aim of the Dutch in legalizing prostitution was to “create a “clean” sex industry, where independent sex workers could earn money unhindered by pimps.” However, that wasn’t achieved in practice. The estimated annual number of victims claimed by human trafficking in the Netherlands is 6,250.
In an attempt to combat this issue, many windows along the red light district were closed in 2007. However, the negative effects of this effort were enormous, with rent for windows increasing and landlords taking advantage of employees by forcing women to pay when on holiday or when sick.
Even though sex work is widely normalized as part of décor in the Netherlands, this does not mean that the practice has been completely accepted. Stigmatization concerning this profession often deters employees to truly take advantage of the protections granted by the Dutch government. Some sex workers may thus choose the illegal path to prostituting because registering to the government as an employee can mean a loss of privacy. Sex workers also face financial stigmatization from banks who did not want to issue credit cards in their name for professional uses because it was considered a risky job.
Although the legalization of this profession does not mean full resolution of the problems associated with it, it does allow for a certain amount of control over the industry. The environment in which the prostitutes work in are well protected, and security measures include cameras at every window and police constantly patrolling the Red Light District. Each room also has an alarm system in the form of a button, which can be pressed in any instant that a sex worker feels unsafe.
The Dutch government is not exempt from reforms as far as sex work is concerned. Initiatives to educate, regulate high rents of rooms utilized by workers, and increase income for sex workers are all important reforms which must be instituted. An increase in government oversight could further influence the public perception of this profession and in turn may normalize and decrease stigmatization.
Such reforms were instituted in May 2017. The mayor of Amsterdam, Eberhard van der Laan, instituted the My Red Light project in response to the stigmatization of sex workers and their lack of management possibilities within the industry. Rather than being controlled by a third party, the “municipal brothel” is run by prostitutes themselves.
Justine le Clercq, spokeswoman for the project, emphasized that “it will take time, but we hope that the project, which is unprecedented in the world, will serve to emancipate and empower women [also transsexuals and men] who work voluntarily.” The project allows, for the first time, the full leadership of sex workers, with only oversight by the government. My Red Light also allows for prostitutes to decorate the interior of the rooms to their taste, allowing for a comfortable and safe environment.
Legalization of Sex Work: democratic at heart?
Fourteen is the average starting age for a sex worker in the United States. 85% of these girls will be sexually abused and exploited. Sadly enough, the lack of legal protection for sex workers means that the blackmail, rape, and battery that they are subjected to cannot be justified in a court of law. Institutions which criminalize prostitution are thus created in a way that causes oppressed and exploited women to be unrightfully silenced.
Is the goal of a democratic system not to allow for the fair representation and protection of oppression for its citizens?
By legalizing sex work, those enslaved by silence would be allowed to persecute their oppressors. What is more feminist and democratic than that?
Reforms in the legalization of prostitution are crucial because they in turn dissolve the flourishing black market, which exploits workers and makes profits and revenue invisible to the government.
Legalization means that the protection of the individual will be prioritized, and the well-being of sex workers will be valued. Most importantly, the normalization of sex work will destigmatize part of the sex industry through employment rights and self-determination.
Lastly, it is crucial that efforts be made for sex trafficking and sex work to be distinguished. Although some cases are synonymous, not all sex workers are victims. A system must be enforced in which prostitution is regulated, and where workers in situations of oppression can speak up and be defended by a reliable governmental system which prioritizes safety and employee rights.
Pauline Crepy is in the second year of a Political Science and Latin American Studies degree at McGill University, who aims to relay her passion for development and global cooperation. Pauline can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.