Concerned Women for America (CWA) had an historic opportunity recently to debate the proposition, “This House would decriminalize prostitution” at the world-renowned Oxford Union Debates. The “pro” team consisted of a student speaker, two representatives of prostitute unions (in England and New Zealand) and a local leader of a British feminist organization. The “con” team included a police officer in Ipswich, where five prostitutes were murdered, a Member of Parliament, a representative from an anti-trafficking foundation and me — a representative of Concerned Women for America, the nation’s largest public policy women’s organization. In other words, the pro team, other than the student speaker, consisted of pro-prostitution activists, and the audience was definitely on their side. In contrast, the con side had four people who know the “issue” of prostitution from the policy, research, data and enforcement levels.
Held in the historic debating chamber of the Oxford Union, the nearly 200-year-old tradition of black-tie debates on timely issues is filled with pomp and circumstance. The pre-debate reception is always held in the Gladstone Room, where the former Prime Minister’s famous U-shaped cabinet table holds a place of honor. An elegantly served pre-debate dinner and official photographs in the library precede the formal procession of the opposing debating teams into the debate chamber. Following the debate, participants gathered in the Union president’s office to hear the voting results; the pro team won 127-90, with the con team garnering a surprising 40 percent of the vote of the overwhelmingly pro-legalization student audience.
The issue of legalization of prostitution has been at the forefront in England since five prostituted women were murdered in the Ipswich area in 2006. Those favoring legalization argue that prostitution is here to stay, so make it work. They want this “legitimate career option for women” to be safe and for taxpayers to provide health and welfare benefits. The pro speakers argued that “prostitutes are doing nothing more for money than other women do for security, respectability or for a home and children.” One student speaker equated marital sex with prostitution (to sustained applause from the audience and pro-side debaters). The prostituted women, according to the pro-side debaters, are “primarily” mothers trying to support their children. (This, of course, is not supported by the facts, with 80 percent of prostituted women in Amsterdam reporting that they were there by force, over 60 percent in Germany being foreigners and 80 percent in Spain being coerced by gangs).
None of the pro-side debaters wanted to talk about the research data, real life situations or the ramifications of multiple sexual activities with multiple partners night after night; street prostitutes typically service 10-15 men a night. Among themselves, the prostituted women call their work “paid rape,” and they all know friends who “didn’t make it out alive.” Rather than face these realities, pro-prostitution advocates kept their remarks to propositional statements and utopian generalities. At the Oxford Union debate, they preferred to ignore the comments of one client who explained why men go to prostitutes: “Look, men pay to get what they want. Lots of men go to prostitutes to do things to them that ‘real women’ would not put up with.”
The truth is that everywhere prostitution has been legalized or decriminalized, illegal prostitution has increased dramatically, along with corruption, sex trafficking, the drug trade and other undesirable and criminal activity. This is true in Australia, where illegal brothels increased 300 percent; in New Zealand, which considers itself a model for the rest of the world; and the Netherlands, which neighboring countries call a “failed experiment.”
The real tragedy, though, is that pimps control 80-95 percent of all forms of prostitution. No wonder most prostitutes (90 percent) desperately want out. One study found that 80 percent of prostituted girls and women were assaulted by their pimps, and over one-third received death threats to themselves or their families. A majority of the girls and women end up drug-addicted, bruised and battered; they get older, tired out and used up.
When advocates wax eloquent about the career option of prostitution, they fail to mention that nearly 70 percent of those in prostitution enter before age 16 — hardly old enough to make a reasoned choice of life direction. In the U.S., the age of entry is typically 12 years old! In fact, legalization creates a greater demand for younger girls, who are thought by clients to be less likely to have an STD. Legalization throws open the flood gates for child prostitution.
The war against the pimps and traffickers is the slavery issue of our time. The pimp culture — so glorified in the entertainment industry — corrupts societies around the world and ruins the lives of countless young people. Those who truly want to help girls and women will join the abolition movement of today to end the scourge of modern-day sex slavery.