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Legalizing Prostitution Will Not Stop the Harm, Donna M. Hughes









Prostitution is consuming thousands of girls and women and reaping enormous profits for organized crime in post-communist countries. In addition, each year, several hundred thousand women are trafficked from Eastern European countries for prostitution in sex industry centers all over the world. The practices are extremely oppressive and incompatible with universal standards of human rights. The sex trade is a form of contemporary slavery and all indications predict its growth and expansion into the 21st century.

Approximately three-fourths of the women who are recruited and trafficked are unaware that they are destined for strip clubs, brothels, or the street, where they are sold to eager male buyers. Most of the women are seeking to escape poverty, violence and lack of opportunities, but once they are under control of pimps or traffickers, they are "seasoned" into prostitution by physical and sexual violence and economic coercion. With no recourse, the women submit in the hope of eventually earning enough money to buy their way out of debt bondage or finding a way to escape. Women's compliance to multiple unwanted sexual acts results in trauma to the mind and body. Survivors of prostitution often report that each act of prostitution felt like a rape. In order to endure the multiple invasions of the body women use drugs and alcohol to numb the assaults to their dignity and bodily integrity. Eventually, the woman's physical and emotional health is destroyed.

Above all, state bodies and non-governmental organizations should understand that prostitution is a demand market created by men who buy and sell women's sexuality for their own profit and pleasure. Legal reforms should therefore create remedies that assist victims and prosecute perpetrators.

Most existing laws concerning prostitution were formulated on the assumption that prostitution is immoral activity, with women being the most immoral participants. Therefore, laws that ban prostitution usually criminalize the women. By listening to women's experiences of prostitution and moving beyond moralistic analyses, women's rights groups have defined prostitution to be sexual exploitation and a form of violence against women. All legal reforms should be based on this understanding. Therefore, states should decriminalize prostitution for women-that is, stop punishing women for being prostituted. Considering the documented harm to women who are trafficked and prostituted, it is only logical that women should not be criminalized for being the victim of those abuses. Decriminalization also means that women will not fear arrest if they seek assistance and may be more likely to testify against pimps and traffickers.

But there absolutely should be no decriminalization for pimps, traffickers, brothel owners, or the men who buy women in prostitution. All legal reforms should aim to stop these perpetrators and profiteers.

Prostitution should not be legalized. Legalization means that the state imposes regulations under which women can be prostituted. In effect, regulation means that under certain conditions it is permissible to exploit and abuse women. In several Eastern European states "tolerance zones" are being considered; in other states there are proposals for legalization. Most arguments in favor of legalization are based on trying to distinguish between "free" and "forced" prostitution and trafficking. Considering the extreme conditions of exploitation in the sex industry, those distinctions are nothing but abstractions that make for good academic debates. They are, however, meaningless to women under the control of pimps or traffickers. Certainly, the sex industry doesn't differentiate between "free" and "forced," and my research reveals that men who buy women and children in prostitution don't differentiate either. Legalization and regulation aim to redefine prostitution as a form of work, indicated by the use of the term "sex work." The renaming may clean up the image of prostitution, but it doesn't end the violence and exploitation. It only allows criminals and members of organized crime rings to become legitimate businessmen and work hand-in-hand with the state in marketing women's bodies. In the Netherlands, where two-thirds of the women in prostitution are immigrants and one-half of them are trafficked illegal immigrants, legalization has, in fact, increased prostitution and trafficking.

Prostitution is an extreme form of gender discrimination. Legalization of this violence to women restricts women's freedom and citizenship rights. If women are allowed to become a legitimate commodity, they are consigned to a second-class citizenship. Democracy is subverted.

Women's bodies and emotions must belong to them alone. They must not be traded or sold. The sex industry targets and consumes young women, usually under age 25, often girls in their teens. If a state permits prostitution to flourish, a certain portion of each generation of young women will be lost. Prostitution causes extreme harm to the body and the mind. Women who survive the beatings, rapes, sexually transmitted diseases, drugs, alcohol, and emotional abuse, emerge from prostitution ill, traumatized, and often, as poor as when they entered.

The enormity of the sex trade throughout the world is overwhelming, but the only way to proceed is to acknowledge the violence and exploitation for what it is and create remedies accordingly. Legalization will only benefit traffickers and pimps and compromise individual women and the status of women in the long run. In the words of one survivor of prostitution: "Legalization will not end abuse; it will make abuse legal."


Donna M. Hughes has been an activist in the feminist anti-sexual violence and exploitation movement since the early-1980s. She holds the Eleanor M. and Oscar M. Carlson Endowed Chair in Women's Studies, and is the Director of Women's Studies at the University of Rhode Island, USA.







Published by
The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, February 1999
Donna M. Hughes and Claire M. Roche, Editors
Donna M. Hughes, dhughes@uri.edu