Free entrepreneurs, victims of the patriarchy, sex-positive role models or cautionary tales of sexual exploitation? The meaning and ethics of sex work remain up for debate. But legalizing the practice will create more problems than it solves.

From country to country, attitudes toward the legalization of prostitution vary greatly. Some governments see legalizing sex work as a way to protect sex workers. For others, the same policy proposal stokes fears of spurring human trafficking. But it’s not just the profession that prompts controversy. Even the terminology remains contentious; words are far from neutral. To say “sex worker” or “prostitute” is to position oneself within the debate. Most advocates of the legalization of prostitution will prefer the term “sex work” and “sex workers” as a way to express the belief that the profession  is a choice like any other, that women should not be told what to do with their bodies, and that being paid for sex is just another form of work.  Terms like “prostitution” and “prostitute” instead reflect a view that the profession is hardly ever a choice. Rather, it is a manifestation of the patriarchal system, which disempowers women, reducing them to objects for male pleasure.

Within Europe, where the thrust of the regional project has been to harmonize laws, legal frameworks surrounding prostitution are diverse. The patchwork of colors in the map below reveals the myriad approaches the continent has taken on the issue. These are nuances that the public generally ignores due to their oversimplification in the media.

Legality of prostitution in Europe: prostitution is illegal (in red); prostitution is illegal but only the client is prosecuted (in yellow); prostitution is legal but unregulated (in blue); prostitution is legal and regulated (in green). [Wikimedia Commons]

In my native Portugal, the government has worked to decriminalize sex work since the 1980s. But in doing so, it has complicated the issue, in particular by creating a legal limbo in which prostitutes earn money through technically non-legal employment.

In more recent years, a lobby for legalization of sex work has emerged, but it too has generated more questions than answers about the nature of sex work.

Defenders of legalization argue that sex work should gain equal footing with other forms of employment and acquire the same rights and benefits as other workers. To treat sex work as taboo, they contend, implies that people who engage in it should be ashamed and should look for alternative employment, thereby silencing the sex workers themselves. 

“We have asked [opponents of prostitution] on several occasions to stop speaking over our heads. It’s patronizing,” British sex worker and activist Laura Lee told The Guardian last year. “It’s ‘shh, shh, we know what’s best for you, we’re going to get you out of this industry because you’re harming yourself and you don’t even know it.’ I think I’d know if I was being harmed.”

The stigma interferes with a woman’s right to do what she wishes with her own body. It can prevent her from accessing health care and protection from labor exploitation. This, despite the words of Amnesty International: sex workers’ rights are human rights.

It seems then that the legalization of sex work is in complete accordance with prevailing progressive thought. But the path from legalization to greater freedom when it comes to sex work is not so clear. In many countries, legalization actually leads to more government interference in how and where sex workers choose to work. In Switzerland, for example, street prostitution is forbidden, and in many countries, regular health checkups are obligatory for sex workers. This is not a question of accessing health care, but instead being forced to undergo an examination whether its wanted or not.

In Hungary, although prostitution is legal, sex workers must operate far from schools and churches and cannot rent apartments for the practice. And in the Netherlands, famous for its liberal take on sexual issues, the involvement of organized crime in the sex trade has caused problems for law enforcement authorities. In recent years, the trend has been to reduce the number of so-called red light districts in the country.

In fact, legalization can render some counter-intuitive outcomes. Higher demand for sex workers following legalization often compels brothel owners and criminal networks involved in the practice to look for workers elsewhere, mainly from poor countries. A study of 150 countries published in World Development in 2012 found that trafficking flows tend to increase when sex work is legalized. And the extent to which sex work syndicates are actually composed of sex professionals themselves is also a matter of concern, journalist and activist Julie Bindel explained in The Guardian last month.

“I discovered that [the International Union of Sex Workers’] modest membership appeared mainly to consist of academics studying the sex trade, men who buy sex, and the odd person running specialist services,” she said. This is “hardly representative of Britain’s sex trade.”

Advocates of legalization on the basis of women’s freedom might applaud the decision to become a sex worker, but the idea that a third party could benefit from it is far more sinister. Leftists face a particular dilemma: legalizing prostitution might actually advance capitalist exploitation. To separate the two is, in fact, very difficult to achieve.

Why? Because the only way that legalized prostitution could work without exploitation would be to turn prostitutes into independent workers — in other words, freelancers. There could be no sex work companies, no brothels, no “call girl” businesses, no recruitment practices. And, in order for sex workers to pay taxes, they would need to issue receipts to their clients containing a description of the work that they had done. Only then would they be entitled to the same rights and benefits afforded to independent workers.

Of course, few sex workers — and even fewer clients — would prefer to have their sexual practices documented in this way.

The ideal would be for “freelancing sex workers” to have contracts which are clear and respectful of basic rights and sexual autonomy. But this hardly exists anywhere in the job market. If low-skilled work and even entry-level jobs for educated young people are becoming increasingly precarious, why would sex work be the exception?

And, even if protected, sexual autonomy could contravene other constitutional rights. For example, if a sex worker employed in a brothel rejected a client based on his racial, ethnic, or religious identity, could the snubbed client claim discrimination? What about a lesbian customer who was refused services by a heterosexual, female sex worker?

In practice, legalizing prostitution offers more dilemmas than solutions. Because the practice involves not only the workers themselves but also the clients, pimps, and authorities, it goes beyond a mere question of individual choice. It is puzzling that some liberal feminists can take issue with sexist advertisements (considering the model is also there by her own choice) but not with women selling themselves sometimes as mere  products, as is the case in Amsterdam’s infamous red light district, applauding the latter as progressive and the former as exploitative.

There is still much debate about whether or not sex work is harmful to women. But avoiding extreme positions is the best way to give sex workers a voice — both those still involved in the practice and those who have abandoned it. Legalization is being hailed in some corners as the next progressive step, but it is important to remember that it is not the only option besides criminalization. This issue is too complex to be reduced to a simple question of “yes” or “no.” For now, Portugal  — and many other places around the world — will stick to decriminalization before taking a blind step forward (or backwards). ♦

Margarida Teixeira is a graduate student of Human Rights and Humanitarian Action at Sciences Po. She has previously worked with the Red Cross and the European Network For Migrant Women.