A study of the impact of legalized prostitution has found that countries where prostitution is legal experience larger reported human trafficking inflows than countries in which prostitution is prohibited.
Professor Eric Neumayer of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and a team of researchers analyzed data on human trafficking from a global sample of 116 countries in order to determine what effect a country’s domestic policy on prostitution has on trafficking, whether as a country of origin, transit or destination for victims.
The authors described international human trafficking as “one of the dark sides of globalization,” where the victims, the vast majority of whom are women and girls, end up being sexually exploited through prostitution.
Domestic policy on prostitution in countries of destination, the researchers found, has “a marked effect.”
“Most victims of international human trafficking are women and girls coerced into the sex industry abroad,” said Professor Neumayer. “We wanted to find out if legalized prostitution increases or reduces demand for trafficked women.”
The researchers considered two opposing economic theories that could come into play to support their findings: the “scale effect” where legalized prostitution leads to an expansion of the prostitution market, thus increasing human trafficking, and the “substitution effect” that reduces demand for trafficked women as legal prostitutes are favored over trafficked ones.
“One theory is that legalized prostitution reduces demand because legally residing prostitutes are favoured over trafficked ones after legalization,” Professor Neumayer wrote.
“However, our research suggests that in countries where prostitution is legalized, there is such a significant expansion of the prostitution market that the end result is larger reported inflows of human trafficking. While legalizing prostitution can have positive effects on the working conditions of those legally employed in the industry, it also appears to boost the market for this fast-growing global criminal industry.”
The research team identified the contrasting domestic policies on prostitution of Sweden, Germany and Denmark as significant examples that were representative of their conclusions.
In 1999 Sweden passed legislation that criminalized the buying of sex, and decriminalized the selling of sex. The principle behind this legislation is clearly stated in the government’s literature on the law: “In Sweden prostitution is regarded as an aspect of male violence against women and children. It is officially acknowledged as a form of exploitation of women and children and constitutes a significant social problem… gender equality will remain unattainable so long as men buy, sell and exploit women and children by prostituting them.”
The legislation virtually wiped out prostitution and sex trafficking in Sweden. The Swedish government estimates that since 1999 only 200 to 400 women and girls have been annually trafficked into Sweden for prostitution, while in neighboring Finland the number is reported to be 15,000 to 17,000.
Germany legalized prostitution in 2002. The researchers found that “Germany showed a sharp increase in reports of human trafficking upon fully legalizing prostitution in 2002.”
Moreover, reports from German authorities have shown that legalization has not had the expected “workplace” benefits for prostitutes, nor has it improved the situation for German women at large.
The LSE researchers’ examination of Denmark, where “self-employed prostitution” was decriminalized in 1999, revealed that the number of human trafficking victims was more than four times that of Sweden, although the population size of Sweden is about 40 percent larger than Denmark.
The LSE study corroborates a 2003 study by the Scottish government on the consequences of prostitution policies in several countries. That study found that countries that had legalized and/or regulated prostitution had a dramatic increase in all facets of the sex industry, saw an increase in the involvement of organized crime in the sex industry, and found a dismaying increase in child prostitution, trafficking of women and girls and violence against women.