As I begin this post I want to take a moment to thank all of the readers who have been commenting on this article series so far. I’ve been blown away by the willingness of this magazine’s readers to engage critically with a subject that’s often considered taboo. Thank you, so much, and please keep commenting. It’s wonderful to have a dialogue with all of you!

Today I’d like to take a look at yet another, related aspect of sex work that was brought up by commenter Delia. As she put it, “It seems that we have yet to find a way where empowered people engaging in sex work doesn’t lead to dis-empowering sex work for participants who are unwilling or legally incapable of giving consent.” I want to break this down a bit further, but in essence, her observation is correct: Everywhere in the world, whether sex work is legalized, decriminalized, or illegal, people take advantage of the young, the dis-empowered, and the marginalized and exploit them like crazy. So how do we handle this?

First, I would go against the grain and disagree that empowered people engaging in sex work leads to the exploitation of those incapable of consenting. As Kristof’s in-depth study “Half the Sky” points out, sexual exploitation in its purest sense is a massive problem around the world. Even in places where sex work is illegal, there are people who look for ways to prey on the non-consenting. This, to me, suggests that we have to look at sexual predation as a function of human desires for power and control, not as a function of the presence or absence of legal sex work. In other words, legalizing or decriminalizing sex work gives these predators different opportunities to exploit their victims. It doesn’t create the problem itself.
Prohibition-era poster, from

That being said, however, there’s a very legitimate concern here. Exploitation of a product or service, whether sexual or otherwise, happens in all areas of commerce. Shoplifting is a problem, right? Still, however real the damage done by a shoplifter, the damage done by sexual exploitation is far worse and has longer-lasting consequences. The sexual exploitation of a child can not only cause physical and emotional trauma but can damage that child’s brain as well. It’s the kind of damage that may not look like damage – behaviours reminiscent of ADD, for example – but is indicative of very real changes that have been worked on that child’s neurobiology. That’s not something to be taken lightly.

In all honesty, I go back and forth on how to manage these concerns. Do we legalize sex work and know that the exploitation of the disempowered continues? Do we try to stop the exploitation before legalization or decriminalization, and know that the victimization of the empowered continues? Either way the stakes are rather high. I wonder if the sort of economic empowerment that Kristof advocates would truly change the dynamics of the game or if people would continue to be predators. I wonder if we can ever eradicate the kind of evil that it takes to be so sexually exploitative, or if it’s the harsh reality of the human condition and we can only change so much. I wonder if harsher penalties, better awareness of trafficking and exploitation, and stricter laws with better definitions could change things.

I look at other severe situations with legalization and wonder if they have lessons that are applicable to this topic. Alcohol legalization in some countries, for example, comes to mind. In the U.S. alcohol prohibition in the early 20th century was intended to stop many of the problems associated with drinking. It was wildly ineffective – the economic and social implications were astounding – but one of the lessons learned was that Prohibition didn’t stop the problems – it just hid them away. Does criminalizing sex work make it easier for sexual predators to target their victims?

I would love to hear your thoughts, readers, since I don’t have all of the answers (much to my chagrin) and you all have some phenomenal ideas. Share them below!