Study: Legalizing prostitution increases human trafficking

Despite the common view of the problem, not all, perhaps not even most, human trafficking across the world is related to prostituion. But sex trafficking is a significant enough factor — particularly in the United States — that it’s worth considering whether legalizing and regulating prostitution might be a way of reducing cross-border trafficking. A ...

Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Despite the common view of the problem, not all, perhaps not even most, human trafficking across the world is related to prostituion. But sex trafficking is a significant enough factor -- particularly in the United States -- that it's worth considering whether legalizing and regulating prostitution might be a way of reducing cross-border trafficking.

A paper recently published in World Development by economists Seo-young Cho, Axel Dreher, and Eric Neumeyer takes up this question, arguing that legalizing prostitution has two contradictory effects: "a substitution effect away from trafficking and a scale effect increasing trafficking."

In other words, in countries where prostitution is legal, more domestic sex workers will enter the market since they no longer fear arrest or imprisonment, reducing the demand for trafficked sex workers. On the other hand, legalization is also likely to increase the overall demand for prostitution, since johns no longer fear prosecution either. The question is, which effect is more significant?

Despite the common view of the problem, not all, perhaps not even most, human trafficking across the world is related to prostituion. But sex trafficking is a significant enough factor — particularly in the United States — that it’s worth considering whether legalizing and regulating prostitution might be a way of reducing cross-border trafficking.

A paper recently published in World Development by economists Seo-young Cho, Axel Dreher, and Eric Neumeyer takes up this question, arguing that legalizing prostitution has two contradictory effects: "a substitution effect away from trafficking and a scale effect increasing trafficking."

In other words, in countries where prostitution is legal, more domestic sex workers will enter the market since they no longer fear arrest or imprisonment, reducing the demand for trafficked sex workers. On the other hand, legalization is also likely to increase the overall demand for prostitution, since johns no longer fear prosecution either. The question is, which effect is more significant?

This paper suggests it’s the latter. Using trafficking data from 150 countries, the authors find that "countries where prostitution is legal experience a larger reported incidence of human trafficking inflows."

As an example, they discuss Germany, which legalized prostitution in 2002. The minimum estimate of sex trafficking victims in the country increased from 9,870 in 2001 to 11,080 in 2002, to 12,350 in 2003.

Does this mean legalizing prostitution is a bad idea? Well, not necessarily. The authors note that legalization could have other positive effects, such making it easier for prostitutes to seek legal or medical help and decreasing rates of abuse and sexually-transmitted disease. But it’s a trade-off both sides of the debate should take seriously.

Via Monkey Cage

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

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