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Column: Prostitution Laws Should Protect Victims

This story was written by Rosaleen O'Sullivan, Daily Trojan

When it comes to prostitution, U.S. federal laws are very clear: Anyone who gives or takes money for sex, transports those who take money for sex or tricks others into taking money for sex is a criminal and will face legal prosecution for engaging in such activities. In California, prostitutes and their customers face equal misdemeanor charges, while pimps and brothel owners are considered felons.In Great Britain, the question of prostitution is reopening for debate as a new scheme to deal with the issue emerges. This plan comes after the release of several disturbing reports showing that the occurrence of brothels in London is on the rise. The average age of women in the industry is 21, and many are foreigners who report having been sold into brothels by traffickers who claimed they would have a better life in England.The initiative, which is based on current laws in Sweden, aims to reduce demand and increase the safety of sex workers. It makes ownership of brothels, solicitation and trafficking illegal, while retaining the legality of prostitution.The new laws have been met with criticism from several groups, including the International Prostitutes Collective, whose site boasts such phrases as No Bad Women, No Bad Children, Just Bad Laws and No one screws more prostitutes than the government. One of the primary criticisms is that by criminalizing those who frequent brothels, the law is forcing prostitutes further underground, making them more vulnerable to violence. Studies in Sweden show that their laws do not reduce occurrences of sex trafficking but increase occurrences of violence toward women.Others suggest that the British government should follow New Zealands system of legalizing brothels and focus funding on issues of poverty, homelessness and debt, all of which are believed to push women into prostitution.These arguments disregard the fact that most people believe prostitution is immoral and those who act on either end of the sex trade should be ostracized by the rest of society. Introducing more laws that criminalize the industry reinforces this view.It is true there are some individuals who willingly engage in prostitution of their own free will. But it would be greatly remiss to focus lawmaking on these few, who seem to deserve damnation by a moral society when the rest are victims of poverty and manipulation. The act of selling sex might be the same, but the reasons behind it are not and cannot be judged on the same basis.This logic does not apply to people who frequent brothels. Those who have enough money to solicit sex workers are clearly not suffering devastating economic hardships, and it is difficult to believe that anyone coerced them into their part of the transaction. It applies a double standard, allowing victimization of prostitutes while criminalizing brothel-goers which is exactly what new British laws and existing Swedish laws aim to do.The deciding factor in so many moral questions played out in the social sphere is economics.Despite the fuchsia font and feminist slogans streaming across the International Prostitutes Collectives homepage, if we look closer we find articles on Young Mother Criminalized for Trying to Make Ends Meet and Victims Criminalised and Imprisoned. Even those empowered women who choose to take sex for money recognize that for many, it is not a choice.Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzers philandering with an expensive call girl reaffirmed the common American assumption that prostitutes are bought and paid for on their own terms. On the opposite end of the scale are British laws, which now assume that all prostitutes are victims.Neither assumption is correct, but one thing remains very clear: Sex trafficking exists, and many prostitutes enter into their occupation because of a lack of alternatives. Whether or not we condemn willing prostitutes and their callers, the fact that any person should reort to selling his or her own body for economic reasons is unacceptable in a progressive society.As average people continue to tackle the moral question of prostitution, the real-world fact of economic inequality must be the lawmakers focus. Our judgment of prostitutes can happen on an individual basis; our public reaction to the sex trade should focus on the failure of current immigration standards and the welfare system. Society must use charity and non-governmental organizations to help these victims, allowing our punitive forces to focus on the criminals who traffic them.
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