Legalized Prostitution Increases Human Trafficking

One of the advertised advantages of legalizing prostitution is that it should reduce illegal human trafficking. The theory is that customers will favor legal over trafficked prostitutes, thus reducing demand for the latter. Yet, legalization may also raise overall demand for prostitution. This increase in the size of the market may lead to more trafficking even if  most customers prefer legal prostitutes.

Seo-Young ChoAxel Dreher, and Eric Neumayer find in a recently published article in World Development that this latter effect dominates empirically:  countries that legalized have larger reported inflows of human trafficking than similar countries where prostitution is illegal. They also found this effect in a more detailed study of Sweden, Germany and Denmark, which changed their prostitution laws.

Eric Neumayer reflects on some of the implications and caveats of the study here, including the difficult data issues that are inherent to a study like this. It may be difficult for customers to distinguish legalized from trafficked prostitution, perhaps partially because prostitution is not always fully legalized. There may also be benefits of legalization for working conditions. Yet, the point that legalizing prostitution can make consumption more desirable (or acceptable) to a broader audience (and lead to negative consequences) strikes me as both plausible and important. Perhaps there is something to be said for the Swedish policy, which makes it illegal to buy sexual services but not to sell them. As Eric Neumayer points out:

The number of human trafficking victims in 2004 in Denmark, where it is decriminalised, was more than four times that of Sweden, where it is illegal, although the population size of Sweden is about 40 per cent larger.

23 Responses to Legalized Prostitution Increases Human Trafficking

  1. Wonks Anonymous June 13, 2013 at 11:40 am #

    I don’t quite understand the mechanism behind the increased demand. It would make sense if the illegality premium which normally applies to goods like drugs goes away, thus reducing the price of the good and increasing the quantity demanded. But that penalty should still apply to the illegal sector.

    • Erik Voeten June 14, 2013 at 1:21 am #

      That is why I pointed out that even after legalization it is often difficult for consumers to differentiate legal from trafficked prostitutes.

      • Wonks Anonymous June 14, 2013 at 2:24 pm #

        I was assuming illegal things cost more because illegality imposes costs (very substantial costs in the case of drugs), not because consumers aren’t willing to pay as much. Anti rationalist’s explanation has some plausibility, but I am still curious about costs.

    • Anti rationalist June 14, 2013 at 1:09 pm #

      It makes sense if you adjust your model of decision making. When something is illegal, it is presumed to be socially unacceptable. When it is legal, it is less so. People ascribe moral significance to the law. It is more than simple cost benefit analysis. Or, it is adjusted cost benefit, if you like.

  2. Navin Kumar June 13, 2013 at 1:12 pm #

    Subscribing to thread.

  3. Anonymous June 13, 2013 at 8:17 pm #

    Could it be that the countries that have legalized, semi-legalized or decriminalized prostitution have an easier time of monitoring for human trafficking than those countries that have an entirely underground sex market?

  4. Kevin June 14, 2013 at 1:12 pm #

    If the definition of “human trafficking” you are using is simply helping someone to immigrate with the intent that the person work as a prostitute, even consensually, how is this surprising? People immigrate to where the jobs are. (People often equate “trafficking” with “slavery,” but most definitions of trafficking do not require any form of coercion. Instead a person can be trafficked if they quite willingly want to move to another country to work as a prostitute because, for example, they can make more money there than their home country.)

    • Anon June 15, 2013 at 7:45 am #

      This is highly relevant.

      I would also add that it’s not at all the customers’ job to distinguish between coerced and voluntary prostitutes, any more than McDonald’s customers are expected to check whether McDonald’s employees are enslaved.

      There is this new thing called “law enforcement”. Maybe we could have a group of people called “the police” who can learn to do this right.

      • Navin Kumar June 15, 2013 at 8:17 am #

        I agree that whether they’re measuring immigration or HT highly relevant.

        However, no-one is arguing that the Johns should do the policing. There exists a theory that legalization would reduce sex slavery since Johns (generally) prefer willing sex workers to sex slaves. However, if they can’t tell the difference, this effect might not be strong.

    • LH July 3, 2013 at 3:57 am #

      In the U.S. “human trafficking” actually does legally require coercion or fraud unless a minor is involved according the the TVPA. “Human smuggling” is what you are referring to. Human smuggling and human trafficking are not the same thing – at least in the United States.

  5. Laura June 14, 2013 at 2:04 pm #

    This is entirely consistent with Kristof and WuDunn’s book “Half the Sky” – which I doubted – but I’m willing to read the paper.

  6. Brett June 14, 2013 at 2:58 pm #

    It may be difficult for customers to distinguish legalized from trafficked prostitution, perhaps partially because prostitution is not always fully legalized.

    This. Usually there’s a “gray market” element to prostitution even in countries where it’s been ostensibly legalized, due to there being a stigma on the profession. Traffickers tend to take advantage of that.

  7. Tsyelrand June 14, 2013 at 4:50 pm #

    I’ve been looking at the issue of legalizion of protitution in the Netherlands for over two decades.

    It is hard to believe, but the centuries old flourishing prostitution sector in the Netherlands was actually illegal until the year 2000 when it was legalized. and then a strange thing happened.

    The problems surrounding paid sex got worse. Far worse.

    The new laws made it possible for city councils to crack down on brothels that were previously tollerated, and they did this with a vengeance. Only brothels with a lot of (criminal) money were able to defend against this kind of bureaucratic onslaught. To make matters worse sex workers now had to register openly by law, forcing many into the anonymous underground.

    There are now far more criminals involved in the (illegal) sex trade than during the times that it was banned, but tolerated.

    To combat this there is now talk in the Netherlands of switching to some sort of the Swedish model, but I doubt that this is a practical sollution. That system is not as enlightened as it is usually portraited, the bitter irony is that in Sweden young people are more likely to get paid for sex than in any other industrialized nation.

    History shows us that there is a way to deal with the (worst) problems of the oldest trade in the world and that is to make prostitution a high status profession, like it was before in many of the world’s early civilizations.

    Bur even if there was a broad consencus to try this approach, I doubt if anyone has a clue how to pull that of in the Netherlands.

    • Sven June 15, 2013 at 4:53 am #

      > in Sweden young people are more likely to get paid
      > for sex than in any other industrialized nation.

      Citation needed.

  8. Fallibilist June 15, 2013 at 9:17 am #

    I belief that this, and many investigations like it, is a culpable misuse of empiricism beyond its inherent limitations.

    Regarding the literature surrounding usage of illegal drugs, with which I am more familiar, there is a lot of data on usage. Measuring black market activity is inherently difficult due to the presence of sanctions surrounding the activity as well as stigma-fueled demand for privacy. The external validity of all survey data in this area is extremely suspect.

    Furthermore, researchers are at the mercy of the gap between crime incidence and crime reporting (which is subject either to under- or over-reporting on the part of victims and police). Advocates with a political agenda, especially feminists researching sex-work/sex-trafficking/pornography/rape are highly likely to be over-reporting abuse in an effort to enact ameliorative reform.

    Investigations in these areas represent a classic example of the reason that many STEM-types use scare quotes around the term “social science.”

    • Jethro June 15, 2013 at 12:35 pm #

      The points you’re making are in some sense trivial–these problems are shot through all of social science. Yes, they’re important to keep in mind for the purposes of extending the research and especially for exercising due caution when enacting policy (and undermining those who think results are definitive), but merely pointing out that “social science isn’t science” entirely misses the point of what social scientists do.

      Also: “feminists” are just as likely to over-report abuse as to under-report it. Does anyone even know what “feminists” believe anymore? My sense is that in most cases some qualification would be necessary for the term ‘feminist’ to actually communicate anything.

  9. Michel June 16, 2013 at 12:08 am #

    One difficulty in extrapolating too much from this well written paper with regard to recent legal regime changers such as Denmark and Sweden and Germany is that the researchers must measure the effects on trafficking in these few countries who have decriminalised or legalised while their neighbor countries have not changed their laws, or vice versa. The effect of one small country changing its laws among several other nearby countries who do not, especially in an area of relatively free migration and travel such as Northern Europe, may be difficult to conclusively measure.

    Footnote 36 acknowledges as much:

    36 Part of the demand in Denmark might however arise due to the change in Swedish prostitution laws and vice versa. As pointed out by Collins and Judge (2010), clients can be expected to react to inter- jurisdictional differences in regulations. Swedish clients might cross the border and use prostitution services in Denmark, while prostitution and trafficking in Sweden might be higher if prostitution were illegal in Denmark as well.

    This is no more complicated than suggesting that things might look very different if the entire EU went to decriminalization, rather than only a few sporadic nations, islands in a sea of criminalization.

  10. Anti-Collectivist June 16, 2013 at 1:17 pm #

    Author makes a point that increased (voluntary) prostitution is somehow undesirable.
    Big fail, end of story.

  11. Cheryl June 18, 2013 at 8:06 pm #

    This 2008/2009 journal article notes the links between prostitution and trafficking. It also discusses the rise in sex trafficking in locations where prostitution is legalized:

  12. Ethan Vanderbuilt August 26, 2013 at 4:11 pm #

    There is really no logical reason to legalize prostitution. The legalization of prostitution will increase the availability of prostitutes and lower the cost of their services. This would then increase demand, drawing even more under aged girls and boys into prostitution. As a society we have an obligation to try and limit the amount of people involved in a job that is basically sexual assault for money.

  13. Mad Mother August 27, 2013 at 4:53 pm #

    This is exactly why Miley Cyrus should have been cut off the network.. They block us from international news but let our kids watch child porn which endangers and is completely demeaning to woman of any age… I overheard it called ” Pop Hooking” , like it’s a glamouras thing.. don’t think you can protect your children, their friends all have ipods.. I felt it promoted child trafficing and pornography. It should have been blocked!!!!!!!!!!!

  14. HONEST September 23, 2013 at 10:04 am #

    Its the business of homeless, therefore price never can be deal to scared. Legalisation leads to compund cooperation, 3quikmore kids to breeding.