Optimal policy toward prostitution

An email from Samuel Lee:

…we take the liberty of sending you a link to the working paper:

In the paper, we build on Edlund and Korn’s model of voluntary prostitution (JPE, 2002) to study the effect of prostitution laws. Our main results are as follows:

– Neither across-the-board legalization nor criminalization unambiguously reduces sex trafficking. The impact of either of these policies crucially depends on the incidence of voluntary prostitution, which in turn depends on other variables, such as the female-male income ratio.

– Even if across-the-board criminalization reduces sex trafficking, it comes at the expense of voluntary prostitutes, who prefer legalization. There is then an inherent conflict between safeguarding (the liberties of) voluntary prostitutes and preventing trafficking. (This conflict is borne out in recent public controversies about prostitution laws in Canada, France, and South Korea.)
– Between different types of criminalization, criminalizing johns is preferable to criminalizing prostitutes. The former is more effective in combating sex trafficking than the latter. The latter is furthermore unjust towards trafficked prostitutes, who’d then be doubly victimized.
Based on our analysis, we propose a different legal approach, which has so far not been tried by any country: criminalization of johns outside of a “safe harbor” for voluntary prostitution. To be more specific:
– Licensed brothels and prostitutes (i.e., regulated brothels) combined with — and this is crucial — criminal penalties for johns who purchase sex outside of these brothels. This (i) discriminates between the two “modes of production” of commercial sex, voluntary sex work and trafficking, and (ii) funnels all demand to the desirable “mode.” Trivial as the idea may sound, this policy has the potential to achieve both objectives, safeguard voluntary sex work and prevent trafficking, and hence to reconcile the two sides of the debate.
– There are implementation issues, but none that couldn’t be addressed. Point (i) requires effective background checks for the licensing procedures. It also requires monitoring of regulated brothels to ensure that only licensed prostitutes are employed there. Point (ii) requires undercover law enforcement (“fake illegal prostitutes”) to deter illegal purchases. And it requires severe penalties for illegal purchases — surveys suggest that the most effective one is public registries (shaming), which in this case is less of a moral statement about prostitution than about trafficking because buyers outside of the “safe harbor” would be aware that they very likely purchase sex from trafficking victims.
– There are clearly costs of licensing and enforcing the laws against illegal purchases. It seems to us, however, that these costs might be lower than for alternative, less effective approaches — which include the costs of enforcing across-the-board criminalization of prostitution and/or law enforcement activities targeted directly at traffickers, who are notoriously hard to catch or convict.

There are other questions regarding prostitution laws that we discuss in the paper, some of them call into question simple interpretations that are often made about empirical associations between domestic prostitution laws and the domestic incidence of trafficked prostitution. We hope that you find the paper interesting.


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