With a decisive 64-12 vote in parliament this month, France asserted its determination to put an end to the exploitation of women and girls through prostitution. The United States and the rest of the world should follow suit.
France’s new law codifies what is known as the Nordic Model for combating sexual exploitation. It recognizes prostitution as a form of violence, makes the purchase of sex acts illegal, regards prostituted persons as victims rather than criminals, and provides victims with help to get out of the business.
In Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Northern Ireland, this approach has been effective in reducing the demand for paid sexual services. And this in turn threatens the profits of those who traffic in human beings for personal gain.
In contrast, a competing European approach clearly does not work, and may even have made things worse. The legalizing or decriminalizing of prostitution in The Netherlands and Spain has backfired, proving a disaster for exploited persons and creating new victims. Sex tourists have flocked to The Netherlands, turning brothels there into a powerful industry that faces minimal regulation.
According to the U.S. State Department’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons report, The Netherlands is a “source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor.” The same report from 2010 claimed there were between 200,000 and 400,000 women engaged in prostitution in Spain, with more than 3,000 entertainment establishments dedicated to prostitution. And government officials report that approximately 90% of those engaged in prostitution in Spain are forced into it and controlled by organized networks operating throughout the country.
The laissez-faire approach has failed to benefit small entrepreneurs, as large, deep-pocketed criminal organizations dominate the industry. Those operators drag in more and more women and girls (many from other countries, often by deception) to meet the unfettered demand for commercial sex.
The Nordic Model — so called because it originated in Norway and then was adopted in Sweden in 1999 — works in exactly the opposite way. It stops the age-old mistake of prosecuting victims — prostituted persons — and puts the criminal onus on the victimizers. Prosecution of clients (or even just publication of the names of those arrested) causes the exploitation business model to collapse for lack of demand.
Some believe people enter and remain in the sex trade by choice. This may be true for a very small minority. But keeping legal sex-trade opportunities open to those few must not come at the price of the enslavement, abuse and exploitation of many others.
The vast majority of prostituted persons are female, most come from economically difficult or abusive backgrounds, and most were first prostituted as minors. One would be hard-pressed to find many prostituted women who come from affluent families and neighborhoods; people with resources are more difficult to manipulate and control. Prostitutes rarely own homes or even cars, which should lay to rest the idea that prostitution is an attractive career choice.
In short, the sex trade thrives because traffickers, pimps, and clients — mostly men — exploit vulnerable women and underage girls (as well as a smaller number of men and boys). It is the traffickers and pimps who get rich, not the victims.
“Let’s stop the profiteers and buyers — those with the power in this relationship, those with the money, those with a real choice,” former President Jimmy Carter, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, urged in 2015.
The United States has passively tolerated this abuse for far too long. The human rights of people trapped in prostitution are not a matter of political ideology. Congress should enact legislation along the lines of the Nordic Model without delay. Prostitution is a human rights issue, and it is long overdue for reform.