- - Monday, March 13, 2017

Last week’s International Women’s Day started me thinking about the world of women’s work, including the women’s work we seldom talk about: prostitution.

No one can deny the victimization of women who have been coerced and/or trafficked into a life of prostitution, nor the violence they experience. Because the sex trade takes place in society’s shadows, statistics are partly guesswork.  Nevertheless, the numbers we have paint a vivid, horrifying picture of prostitution as a deadly trap for women.

Here is what law.com reports:

* About 40 percent of prostitutes are former child prostitutes who were illegally forced into the profession through human trafficking or once were teenage runaways.

* Sixty percent of children reported missing as a result of running away become prostitutes for some period of time to survive.

* The average female prostitute enters her job when she is only 16 or 17 years of age. Female prostitutes leave prostitution less frequently than their male counterparts because they work for pimps. Females typically have shorter lives because they are subject toe abuse from both clients and pimps.

* Fifty-eight percent of American prostitutes reported violent assault at the hands of clients.

Even when women do manage to get out of the industry, their expected lifespan is shortened by the experience. In 2004, a long-term mortality study published by Potterat, et al, found that prostitutes and former prostitutes faced an increased rate of death that was 200 times the rate of death for women of the same race and age range.

What can be done to help these women?

There is a growing list of countries around the world working to reduce the demand for prostitutes by making it a crime to buy, rather than sell, sex.

Sweden passed the first of these laws back in 1999, and found that it reduced prostitution and human trafficking, with its misery and violence.  Norway, Iceland and Canada have since passed their own versions of the law.  The “Nordic Model” has also been endorsed by a non-binding European Parliament resolution.  Israel, too, is about to join the ranks of countries that focus on the clients of the sex trade.  If the proposed bill passes, johns will pay a fine and money from the fines will help fund rehabilitation programs for former prostitutes.

Many jurisdictions in the U.S. have followed suit, as well, enacting bills to combat human trafficking, and limiting the degree to which the women and girls can be prosecuted – treating them as victims, rather than criminals.

Chicago’s Cook County Sheriff’s office, headed by Tom Dart, is a leader in the movement for buyer-focused law enforcement in the sex trade.  Encouraged by Dart, some cities, like Seattle, have developed their own versions of this strategy. Others, like Phoenix, Cincinnati and Houston, followed Dart’s lead on demand suppression. More than 70 agencies have participated in at least one of Dart’s operations, with more than 2,900 buyers arrested across all jurisdictions since 2011.

There are sex workers who don’t fit this profile of victimization; grown men and women who voluntarily choose prostitution as a livelihood.  They believe that sex workers should be treated like all other workers, with no social or criminal penalty to them or their clients.  Alternatively, there are those who argue that criminalizing the clients will only drive prostitution further underground, making a vulnerable group’s situation even worse.

If the rhetoric of International Women’s Day meant anything at all, the complex issues of prostitution and sex trafficking should be high on the public agenda.  With the proper legislation behind them, law enforcement can send a message to johns – “Buyer Beware!”

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