K. and Grace’s stories are just two examples of how legalizing prostitution does not ensure that women in prostitution are protected from violence and exploitation, or that their health is protected. In Germany, brothel-keeping has been legal since 2002. While the intention of the reforms may have been to improve the status and conditions of those selling sex, it has ultimately only served to improve the situation of brothel owners, pimps, traffickers and buyers of sex. Since legalization, evidence from government and media reports has been mounting of widespread exploitation, trafficking and poor conditions both in the legal prostitution sector, as well as in the illegal sector which continues to operate alongside the legal one.
Both women were trafficked into legal brothels, K. while she was still a minor. Grace’s experience shows that being in a legal brothel does not guarantee a women’s ability to negotiate or insist on condom use, while K.’s experience shows that legal brothels do not provide protection from severe sexual and physical violence. For K., her ordeal did not end after she escaped her trafficking situation: even after it had been proven in a criminal court that she had been trafficked and exploited, she was still forced to pay the government tax on profits generated by the very same brothel, during the time when she had been exploited there. And, the civil courts have allowed a proceeding against her initiated by a buyer who is demanding back money that—as was proven in her trafficking court case—went to her pimp.
As Lauren Hersh, head of Equality Now’s sex trafficking program explained, when governments fail to tackle the demand side of the commercial sex industry, they fail to protect people in prostitution, while at the same time benefitting financially through the increased tax income generated from the exploitation of people. But they are not the only ones to benefit. By allowing the commercial sex industry to legally operate as “legitimate business,” traffickers, pimps, brothel owners and sex buyers all profit, while women in prostitution are no better off.
This is why Equality Now and our partners are advocating for the Nordic model, which decriminalizes those selling sex while criminalizing those who pay for sex. This approach seeks to achieve gender equality by reducing sex trafficking and exploitation, by tackling the driving force behind them: the demand.