Sunday, May 10, 2015

What No One Tells You about Legalized Prostitution

I have avoided writing my definitive opinion on the legalized prostitution until now. After my time in South America, I felt it important to explain my concerns and thoughts. This post may be very scattered, as I have not reached clear conclusions on the topic as a whole. However, based on my experiences, I see glaring problems with the legalization of prostitution outright. I look forward to hearing other thoughts and opinions on this topic.

Prostitution in South America

Even though I'm only able to visit one country in South America for this fellowship, I believe that many of my findings here in Colombia are a good indication for most of the continent. I want to be careful not to generalize too far, but there are some interesting trends that are common in most of South America regarding the topic of sexual exploitation.

First of all, South America is different from any of the other regions I have visited in its widespread legalization of prostitution. Some form of prostitution is legal in almost every country in South America, including Chile, Ecuador, and Peru. While this is not necessarily a problem in and of itself - some countries have legalized prostitution with some success in terms of protecting victims of exploitation.

There are certainly many concerns, though, when a country like Venezuela, for example, considers 14 the legal age for consent in soliciting for sex. Furthermore, many of these countries still have huge problems of child prostitution. Bolivia, for example, is on the Tier 2 watch list for the most recent Trafficking in Persons Report. This is due to many problems in the country, but the report specifically calls out the lack of services provided to the children rescued from forced prostitution.

As you can see left, the majority of the countries in South America are also on Tier 2 or the Tier 2 watch list (shown in yellow and orange). Many of these have such a low ranking because of the problem of child trafficking for the sake of prostitution in the country.

If the legalization of prostitution is not protecting the most vulnerable - children - then why is it made the official policy in so many South American countries?

What's worse, most of the countries that have legalized prostiution do not regulate the trade in any way. Essentially, this lowers the risk for those hoping to exploit vulnerable women and children. The only group that benefits from this arrangement is the government, as now fewer people are behind bars, and on paper there seem to be lower crime rates.

Prostitution in Colombia

I would like to talk specifically about the situation in Colombia, as a case example. Those that argue for legalized prostitution never bring up the problems present in countries like these. It is important to understand that whether legalized prostitution will work depends greatly on the context at hand. Unfortunately, the context of Colombia does not seem to work well with this policy change.

The biggest problem with prostitution in Colombia is the use of "tolerance zones" in order to keep the problem contained to particular areas. This policy was not enacted to protect those working in prostitution. Instead, it was put in place in order to keep something that the country considers distasteful in already poor communities with other problems such as drugs and gang violence.

Directors of organizations working in these tolerance zones all say that creating this policy has only made the situation worse for the women themselves. When you walk through the areas of Colombian cities where prostitution is allowed (more like ignored), you rarely see law enforcement or anyone who could help someone in distress. The law also has not made any provisions for the providing of health care to the women working in these areas. Instead, this law has simply made the women more vulnerable to drug use, more at risk for health problems, and more susceptible to violence.

It is not only those working in prostitution who are at risk. Many of the individuals working in the tolerance zones as prostitutes have children. Not only this, but they live in these dangerous parts of the city with their children. After school, the children are very susceptible to violence and drug use. What's worse, many of the children live in the same buildings where their mothers work as prostitutes. Many organizations are attempting to remedy this by giving children a safe place to play and study after school. However, without cooperation from the government, not much can be done to bring about true change.

Problems with Legalized Prostitution

In summary, here are my main concerns with legalized prostitution

  • The laws often protect the majority, economically well-off communities (or the customers, even), rather than the already vulnerable
  • These policies are put in place without plans to use the new legal status to deliver needed services to the prostitutes and their children
  • When these laws pass but are not coupled with efforts to crack down on violence, exploitation, and trafficking, these problems only increase
  • These types of changes do not take into account other systemic problems in a country like racial oppression, poverty, and patriarchy

I have reached a point where I feel comfortable saying in a public forum that I believe all prostitution is exploitative in our current context. I believe that models like the Swedish model have potential, but this is not the simple legalization of prostitution. This policy is based on the same belief I just stated - it punishes the customers, but not those being exploited. At this point, I believe that the legalization of prostitution is an ineffective solution to the problem of sexual exploitation. I hope to continue to develop this stance further, but my time in Colombia has certainly given me an example filled with the problems involved.


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