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Today, a growing consensus around the world claims the sex trade perpetuates male violence against women, and so customers should be held as criminals. This modern debate has roots in Victorian England, which branded prostitutes as wicked, depraved and a public nuisance.
Yet a shift in social thought throughout the era introduced the prostitute as a victim, often lured or forced into sexual slavery by immoral men. The Swedish model also adopted by Iceland and Norway and under consideration in France, Canada and the UK may seem like a step in the right direction—a progressive step, a feminist step.
Conceptually, the system strips women of agency and autonomy. From a practical standpoint, criminalizing clients is just the flip side of the same old coin. It still focuses law enforcement efforts and siphons tax dollars toward fighting the sex trade. It still means arresting, fining and jailing people over consensual sex. If we really want to try something new—and something that has a real chance at decreasing violence against women—we should decriminalize prostitution altogether.
How would this work, exactly? Decriminalization means the removal of all statutory penalties for prostitution and things related to its facilitation, such as advertising. It does not mean there are no municipal codes about how a sex-work business can be run or that general codes about public behavior do not apply, explains Mistress Matisse, a dominatrix, writer and prominent sex-worker rights advocate.
Under both schemes, forcing someone into prostitution aka sex trafficking and being involved in the sale or purchase of sex from a minor would obviously remain a crime. But other crimes supposedly associated with the sex trade could be reduced if prostitution were decriminalized. Research has shown incidences of rape to decrease with the availability of prostitution.