Prostitution Cannot Be Squared with Human Rights or the Equality of Women

Prostitution exists because inequality exists.   At the same time, prostitution embeds into society the very inequality it feeds on; thus perpetuating the subordination of women. 

For prostitution to exist as a monetary exchange, women must be commodified as products in the stream of commerce.  In commercial terms, I have a problem with both supply (too many women live in poverty) and demand (too many men believe they have a right to sexual access).  Both facts require that women be subordinate.  That is why the radical feminist position on prostitution is abolition.  Abolition is the only way to address the root cause of prostitution i.e. personal and structural inequality.  We must both improve the lives of women around the world so that they can truly exercise choice and independence and teach men to understand that sexual access is not a right. 

In an ideal world, where everyone has equal power to negotiate, people could work out their desires and needs themselves.  But no such world exists.  No country in the world has ensured equality for all its citizens, especially women and minorities.  Therefore, it remains the task of societal and governmental institutions to put into place structures that ameliorate and ultimately prevent that imbalance in power.

Almost half of the world’s population lives in conditions of extreme poverty or on less than $1 per day. Of these individuals, seventy percent are women. Many women are forced into prostitution for economic, and indeed sheer survival, reasons; this does not constitute “consent.” The practice of prostitution brands all women as something that can be bought and sold; and therefore, just like slaves, less than full humans who deserve the complete panoply of human rights. 

The answer to the poverty of women cannot be prostitution but must be the fair distribution of power and resources.  Maintaining prostitution as the last refuge for poverty stricken women is exploitation and cannot lead to gender equality. So long as prostitution remains an “option” for poor women, there is no incentive to develop educational opportunities, job programs, or economic policies that could uplift the poor. Prostitution is also often the gateway for entry into sex trafficking.

Human rights or liberties never exist in a vacuum.  One person’s right to swing their arm ends where another person’s nose begins. We do not live on an island; no right is absolute.  Men do not have a “right” to sexual access because that act involves another person who also has rights that are just as important and must be balanced. 

Women have encountered this “rights” argument before and feminists have had to name it time and time again.  Husbands no longer have the “right” to beat their wives; husbands no longer have the “right” to have sex with their wives over objection (in most states); parents no longer have the “right” to beat their children, employers have no “right” to ask sexual favors from their employees, and men have no “right” to have sex with their date regardless of the price of dinner.  Just like the movements that named domestic abuse, marital rape, child abuse, sexual harassment and date rape for what they are – violence against women – we must likewise name prostitution as violence. 

The radical feminist stance against prostitution is based on the lived realities of women, something often missing in the pro-prostitution narrative.  To find out what those lives really are, you must ask the women.  Much evidence shows that the vast majority (89%) of prostituted women want out if they had an exit path.   The evidence also shows that women in prostitution have the highest rates of rape and homicide (50%) of any group of women ever studied, and that they will suffer injury equivalent to victims of state-sponsored torture.[1]

The average age of death for prostituted persons is thirty-four; the practice has a “workplace” homicide rate nearly seven times higher than that of the next most vulnerable group – male taxi drivers.  Research indicates that pimps typically take all or most of the money and, far from protecting or managing their “stable” of girls, they force women and children to earn nightly monetary quotas to avoid beatings. Pimps even “brand” those under their control with tattoos of their names or symbols such as bar codes to demonstrate “ownership” of the girls they control.

In the United States, nearly eighty percent of prostituted women report a history of child abuse, and twelve to fourteen is the average age at which children are first used in commercial sex.  At that age, a child cannot legally quit school, marry, sign a contract, or drive a car. Nor can she give “consent” to enter prostitution.[2]

Legalizing prostitution has a harmful impact on every indicator of violence against women.  A thriving sex industry increases child prostitution and other sex crimes[3] and has a negative effect on how women are regarded by men.[4] The men who engage in it have more discriminatory attitudes toward women and are more accepting of prostitution and rape myths as well as being more violent themselves.[5] Violence against women and children increases when prostitution increases because acceptance or normalization of prostitution sets up the image of women as suitable targets of violence.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Trafficking pointed out in her 2005 report that under the UN Trafficking Protocol[6] consent is logically impossible. “Power and vulnerability in this context must be understood to include power disparities based on gender, race, ethnicity and poverty.  Put simply, the road to prostitution and life within ‘the life’ is rarely one marked by empowerment or adequate options.”

Consent is more than the absence of force[7]  but also requires the presence of sexual autonomy.  Sexual autonomy is violated whenever the person has not freely agreed or is otherwise not a voluntary participant.[8]  The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia concluded that the definition of rape meant more than just body parts but also includes intimidation, degradation, humiliation, discrimination, punishment, control or destruction of a person.[9] 

Allegedly, legalization and decriminalization will help women by making the environment safer.  But experiments in legalization have failed.[10] Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen said, “Almost five years after the lifting of the brothel ban, we have to acknowledge that the aims of the law have not been reached. Lately we’ve received more and more signals that abuse still continues.” According to the Amsterdam police, “We are in the midst of modern slavery.”

The New Zealand decriminalization also failed.  A July 2005 report by Manukau city council said the nuisance factor escalated and street workers quadrupled despite bylaws regulating the location of brothels.  “It was widely expected that the outcome of legalizing prostitution would be that sex trade workers would generally operate from safe, regulated and legal brothels. In Manukau, that has not been the case.”   New Zealand police, meanwhile, say organized crime groups are involved in many aspects of prostitution.[11]  

In the Netherlands, the sex industry increased by twenty-five percent after legalization. In Victoria, Australia, the number of legal brothels doubled, and illegal brothels increased by 300%. A 200% to 400% increase in street prostitution has been reported in Auckland, New Zealand since prostitution was decriminalized.[12]

Further, wherever prostitution is legalized, sex trafficking in the region increases. A 2012 study by Cho, Dreher, and Newmayer, corroborated by comparing figures in Sweden, Denmark, and Germany, concluded that “Legalizing prostitution will therefore almost invariably increase demand for prostitution” and “on average countries where prostitution is legal, experience larger reported human trafficking inflows.”[13]

By contrast, in Sweden when the buyers were criminalized, rather than the prostituted women, trafficking significantly decreased. In its 2004 report, the National Criminal Investigation Department estimated that roughly 400 to 600 women are trafficked into Sweden each year, compared with the 10,000 to 15,000 women trafficked into Finland. Norway adopted the Nordic Model in 2009 and has seen a 20% decrease in street prostitution, a 16% decrease in indoor prostitution, and a 60% decrease in advertisements for sexual activities.

The Nordic Model of targeting demand has proven thus far to be the only successful tool to decrease prostitution and sex trafficking. The effect of the Swedish law has been dramatic. With a population of nine million, Sweden has only one-tenth the number of street prostitutes than that of neighboring Denmark, which has half the population. Of Denmark’s street prostitutes, 50% are estimated to be trafficked.

Prostitution has extremely negative legal and practical consequences for women and women’s rights. A society where full gender equality exists cannot at the same time support the idea that women are commodities that can be bought, sold, and sexually exploited. Prostitution is not only discrimination, exploitation and abuse by an individual man or men, but also a structure reflecting and maintaining inequality between men and women, north and south, white and non-white. Prostitution is the sexualization of power based on gender, class, and ethnicity and negatively impacts society’s view of women. Abolition is the only solution.






[7] International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia,   Prosecutor v. Dragoljub Kunarac,  Radomire Kovac and Zoran Vukovich (2001) ICTY 2 (22 February 2001)

[8] International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Prosecutor v. Dragoljub, supra … paragraph 456.

[9] European Court of Human Rights, Reports of Judgments and Decisions, Eur. Ct. of H.R. September 1997, Aydin v. Turkey, 23178/94 (1997) ECHR 75 (25 September 1997); Fernando and Raquel Mejia v. Peru (Decision of 1 March 12996 ( Report No. 5/96, case no 10,970, in Annual Report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights 1995 OEA/Ser.L/V/II.91, pp. 182-188.  

[10] Sullivan , M.L.  (2007) Making Sex Work: A Failed Experiment with Legalized Prostitution. Spinifex: North Melbourne.

[11] By Jo McKenzie-McClean, 18 April 2006, Prostitution law change ‘a disaster,’

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Sex work is ubiquitous. Where a substantial demand exists, some people will inevitably try to meet that demand for a price. Retired call girl and madam Maggie McNeill reviews the various legal regimes that have been set up to regulate and/or prohibit sex work. She concludes that many approaches, particularly the most restrictive ones, increase the likelihood of harm to all participants. They tend to infantalize women and invest law enforcement with arbitrary and dangerous powers. She argues that the best approach is a regime of simple legalization, without licensing or heavy restrictions.

Response Essays

  • Prof. Ronald Weitzer argues that prostitution should be treated as a legal commercial transaction. He finds that much of the conventional wisdom on the sex trade is the result of generalizing from experience under legal regimes where it is criminalized. He argues that in a legally tolerant regime, many of the problems we observe today would vanish. He argues for a set of “best practices” that would entail some government regulation of sex work, including subjecting business owners to background checks and licensing, zoning regulations, and restrictions on advertising. These measures would make decriminalization politically palatable and protect against a possible backlash. He also finds, contrary to McNeill’s claim, that no country has fully deregulated sex work.

  • Dianne Post argues that prostitution is a form of exploitation, and that the only proper response is to abolish it. Prostitution, she argues, only exists because of material inequalities. Worse, it tends strongly to produce further inequalities – material, social, and political in nature. Prostitution traps women in economic dependency on men, and it encourages men to view women merely as commodities. Following this strong normative case against prostitution, Post looks at the empirical evidence, where she concludes that experiments with legalization have all been failures. She praises the “Nordic Model” approach to sex work, in which in which sex workers’ clients are prosecuted, rather than the women involved in prostitution.

  • Steven Wagner argues that the large majority of prostitutes are not workers at all, because they are not acting voluntarily: they are enslaved. The personal experiences of Ms. McNeill notwithstanding, many others have suffered horribly in prostitution, and even left-leaning governments like that of France under the socialists have justifiably outlawed the sex trade. Wagner likewise prefers the Swedish approach, in which prostitutes are not treated as criminals, but those who attempt to buy sex are.