The worldwide debate about sex work: Morality meets reality

Public debate on prostitution can be tough, passionate, even angry.

Advocates for differing views cannot even agree on shared language: Those who defend their way of making a living as sex workers embrace their identity, while those, like Catholic sisters, who decry the term "sex work" as demeaning, argue that there can be no dignity in a relationship where sex is exchanged for money.

"I think all prostitution represents violence against women," said Sr. Winifred Doherty, who represents the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd at the United Nations.

The passion Doherty and others bring to the topic has been on display during the last year at the U.N., where space for debate about social topics is frequently honored. The topic of prostitution was addressed at several U.N. forums during the March meetings of the Commission on the Status of Women.

And inevitably, the U.N.'s upcoming World Day against Trafficking in Persons on July 30 may prompt debate. The commemoration was designated by U.N. member states beginning in 2013 as necessary to "raise awareness of the situation of victims of human trafficking and for the promotion and protection of their rights."

There is, of course, overlap between prostitution and trafficking — many prostitutes are, or have been, trafficked. But Monica Jones, a transgender woman and self-identified sex worker in Phoenix, Arizona, argued during the commission meetings it is a mistake to equate the two.

"They are two different things," she said, arguing that critics of prostitution too easily slide into muddying the issues. "Do not conflate trafficking with sex work."

Interviewed by Global Sisters Report, Jones said she sees a distinction between trafficking, which is illegal and based on coercion, and sex work, which she insists can be a choice of employment. "If you are trafficked, you are trafficked," she said. "Sex work is between two consensual [adult] individuals."

She argued for the full decriminalization of sex work and against laws that continue to criminalize the purchase of sex — a position championed by prominent human rights groups. Jones, an African-American, declared, "I have the right to my body, and no white person, no European person, is going to tell me what to do with my body."

Amnesty International, in its May 2016 statement on the issue of legalization, said it was joining other organizations pursuing "decriminalization of consensual sex work in order to protect human rights and public health." Other groups calling for full decriminalization include Human Rights Watch, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, Global Commission on HIV and the Law, UNAIDS, and the World Health Organization.

Amnesty's position resonates with Jones and other self-identified sex workers and advocates who spoke in New York this year. They argued that full decriminalization will take sex work out of the shadows and make their work safer for all.

Prostitution is legal in 49 countries, illegal in 39 nations and has limited legality in 12 others as of 2016, according to, a website about controversial issues. In the United States, legalization exists in very narrow areas, and it is listed as having limited legality.

Two neighboring countries in South America illustrate the complexities of prostitution. In Colombia and Venezuela, prostitution is legal. Partly due to Venezuela's deteriorating social and economic situation, there are believed to be about 4,500 Venezuelan prostitutes working in Colombia. Until recently, The Economist magazine reported, "they were often rounded up by police and deported back to Venezuela by the busload." But in April, Colombia's highest court ruled that the sex workers from Venezuela are entitled to work visas. The court cited the need to protect the women from mass deportations, which it said violate international human rights law, The Economist reported.

The debate over prostitution splits groups often allied in other causes: Catholic sisters, with their dedication to gender equality and ending systems of oppression that force women into prostitution, and human rights advocates, who push for those without much choice in how they make a living or who argue their right to do such work.

In both cases, different groups are talking about the best ways to protect vulnerable persons and promote dignity — something that those whose lives have been marked by prostitution say is a struggle.

A young woman from Great Britain spoke of that struggle. During one forum at the United Nations, she said that because of economic pressures, she became a sex worker at the age of 15.

"I felt trapped," she said — an experience that led her on a journey to eventually become a public advocate against the full legalization of sex work. The woman said she hopes her knowledge and that of other women can shed light on a system she believes debases them. "Young women need to be heard and believed," she said.

A key part of the growing debate about prostitution is a legal framework becoming increasingly common in Europe and sometimes called "the Nordic Model," because of its origins in Sweden and Norway. Laws there and now in five other European countries Finland, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Ireland and France — have decriminalized acts of prostitution for women selling sexual services but continue to criminalize the act of purchasing sex.

Proponents of the Nordic Model say it has helped reduce prostitution where it is in force and has proven more effective than the model in countries that have legalized prostitution, such as the Netherlands and Spain.

Writing for CNN last year, retired U.S. Ambassador Mary Ann Peters, now the chief executive officer of the Carter Center, hailed the Nordic Model as being effective in "reducing the demand for paid sexual services" and thus threatening "the profits of those who traffic in human beings for personal gain."

In contrast, she argued, the competing model — best known in the Netherlands — "has backfired, proving a disaster for exploited persons and creating new victims. Sex tourists have flocked to the Netherlands, turning brothels there into a powerful industry that faces minimal regulation."

Still, the experience of Iceland, one of the countries embracing the Nordic Model, indicates that the problems associated with trafficking and prostitution can probably never be fully eliminated. Iceland Review On-Line recently reported that prostitution appeared to be on the rise, with one website showing a "five-fold" increase of women advertising escort services over the last year and a half — from 34 to 152. Reykjavík police attributed the growth to the increase of tourists in the capital.

Iceland Review also reported last year that police officials said they believed human trafficking was increasing in Iceland, probably due to heavier tourism.

"Iceland is a destination and transit country for women subjected to sex trafficking and men and women subjected to labor trafficking," according to the U.S. State Department's 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report. "Women from Eastern Europe, the Baltics, West Africa, and Brazil are subjected to sex trafficking, often in nightclubs and bars. Men and women from Africa, Eastern Europe, South America, and South and East Asia are subjected to forced labor in construction, tourism, restaurants, fish factories, and as au pairs in private houses," the report said.

European women's advocates have embraced the Nordic Model as aligning with the U.N.'s long-term Sustainable Development Goals for reducing poverty and empowering girls and women, as a statement issued in March noted.

"The realities of the sexual exploitation and prostitution of girls and young women need to be addressed and tackled, if we want to ensure girls' and women's human rights," the statement said.

Some human rights activists hold there is little room for legal compromise when it comes to the sex trade.

Sarah Benson, who heads Ruhama, an Irish humanitarian group supporting women affected by prostitution, said at the U.N., "Prostitution does not fit the description of dignified work."

For sisters like Doherty, there is no question about the human dignity of women involved in prostitution. "Maybe the 'bad people' aren't the bad people," Doherty said at an event sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy during the commission meetings.

Doherty and others at the U.N. are passionate advocates for girls and women who, she says, "out of desperate need" become involved in "a very violent trade."

Fueling this belief are the sisters' own mission experiences in poor countries — such as Doherty's 16 years in Ethiopia — where they saw firsthand the miseries of sex work and exploitation endured by women.

"We are the people dealing with the carnage of the world," said Sr. Margaret O'Dwyer of the Company of the Daughters of Charity, in a GSR interview, also with Sr. Veronica Brand, who represents the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary at the U.N. Too many sisters, O'Dwyer said, have seen the results of social and economic contexts in which women and girls have far too few choices and become vulnerable to exploitation.

"No one says, as a little girl, 'I want to become a prostitute,' " Brand added, acknowledging that even the use of the word "prostitute" leaves her and other sisters uneasy. The very word, adds Doherty, "is derogatory, demeaning and discriminatory. I always use the term 'prostituted person or girl or woman.' "

Doherty acknowledges that "all of this is a highly complex and complicated issue," and centers around a multibillion-dollar commercial sex industry "profiting largely from the exploitation of the female body."

The victimization is even wider: "It is recognized that it is not just 'female' but that children (girls and boys) and the transgender community and men are also exploited in the commercial sex industry," she said.

Still, the focus of Doherty and sisters at the U.N. has been on prostitution's effects on women. Doherty says some of the arguments made by those who call themselves sex workers can't be dismissed because they stem from personal experience.

But she says that many making the argument for legalization of sex work "don't understand the inherently violent act that prostitution is … [which is] perpetrated by patriarchy, misogyny, male privilege, sexism and gender-based violence."

For her part, O'Dwyer finds the arguments made by sex workers "persistent" but not persuasive. "Legalizing prostitution, in my opinion, would result in an increase in the trafficking of women and girls, to meet the demand. Commodifying human beings results in the worst forms of violence and abuse," she said.  

Irish women's advocate Benson said she and others know the world is never likely to be rid entirely of prostitution. But she does believe the scale of prostitution can be reduced by legal initiatives like the Nordic Model.

Doherty argues that the model — also known as the "Equality Model" in South Africa — has the most merit because of its linked steps of decriminalizing the prostituted person while criminalizing the purchaser of sex and promoting exit strategies and support for those seeking to leave prostitution. "How to dismantle power systems that subjugate women and girls? Implement the Nordic Model," she said, adding that the key reference point for the model is decriminalization, not legalization.

Not all agree that ending prostitution helps all women. In certain circumstances, sex work can lead to a form of economic empowerment, argues Andrea Cornwall, a political anthropologist who teaches at the University of Sussex in Great Britain and who has studied activism of sex workers in India.

"Sex workers can be more empowered than women who are in dangerous domestic situations," she told GSR. In some cases, she said, feminists in the Global North are making things more difficult for women in the Global South because they are treating sex work "as a problem rather than seeing it as a form of agency."

While agreeing that in a world of gender equality, prostitution or sex work would not need to exist, Cornwall was quick to say that is not the current reality. Cornwall said the women she researches believe, " 'We can have a choice in our lives. We are free.'"

"They are not victims," Cornwall said of the Indian sex workers. "They believe that sex work is a better alternative than other jobs. This is the reality of these women's lives."

Sr. Clare Nolan, the recently retired international justice training coordinator for the Sisters of the Good Shepherd and a GSR contributor, is respectful of all debating the issue of legalization. She acknowledges that she and other Catholic sisters, "get a lot of pushback" about the issue and are often called "moralizing."

"I'm a person in a celibate lifestyle, so who am I to talk about it?" she said, acknowledging a common argument.

But she strongly disagrees with the oft-heard description of prostitution "being the world's oldest profession," calling it instead "one of the world's oldest oppressions against women." She described sex-trade destinations in countries like Thailand as "circles of violence."

Arguments about women having choice and being empowered in sex work, she said, don't take in "a fuller critique of the whole system" that pushes women into prostitution.

Having worked with many who have experienced life as prostitutes, she believes that advocating for women's equality and dignity means tackling these larger issues.

"As faith communities, as families, I think we have a lot to do. There is a lot to deal with — with our cultural notions of sexuality, of patriarchal power."

[Chris Herlinger is GSR international correspondent. His email address is]