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Should the Sex Trade Be Legal?


Here, ethnic Vietnamese sex workers wait for clients in a popular red light area in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Red light areas are where people buy sex. (FILE PHOTO 2001)

Here, ethnic Vietnamese sex workers wait for clients in a popular red light area in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Red light areas are where people buy sex. (FILE PHOTO 2001)


It is said to be the oldest way to make money – trading sex for money, or prostitution. And a long-standing question surrounding sex work is -- should it be legal? An international human rights group is now trying to answer that question.

Amnesty International has suggested a way of improving the human rights of sex workers – by decriminalizing sex work.

The rights group says if people are not arrested for sex work, they would not be forced to live outside the law. Sex workers would no longer be seen and treated as "criminals." This would give them more power when dealing with police and other law authorities.

However, many human rights activists do not agree that this will help the lives of sex workers. They say the proposal of Amnesty will legalize the abuse and mistreatment of these workers.

One of the most vocal opponents of decriminalizing sex work is Cindy McCain.

Ms. McCain heads the Human Trafficking Advisory Council at the McCain Institute for International Leadership. She has been a leader in the effort to end the illegal movement of people, usually for the purpose of forced labor or prostitution.

Ms. McCain says there are ways to help the complex problem of human trafficking. But, she adds, decriminalization is not one of them. She explains that many adult sex workers started out as exploited children. Often, children are sold as sex slaves or they are kidnapped to work in the sex trades.

In a 2014 interview, Ms. McCain says that child sex trafficking is a “low risk and high reward” business. To show how high the rewards are in the U.S., Ms. McCain states how much a pimp, a man who controls and profits from sex workers, can make per child, per year.

She uses numbers from an organization in the United States called the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, or as she calls it “NCMEC.”

"NCMEC (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children) also estimates that a pimp can make between $150,000 and $200,000 per child per year. The average pimp has four to six little girls."

In an interview with VOA, Ms. McCain said that legalizing prostitution and other sex work is not the right way to protect these people. She says she believes that criminalizing those who pay for sex is the right approach.

Critics say decriminalization sends the wrong message

In a recent Washington Post story, Ms. McCain says the sex industry is not safe. Sex workers in many countries often face violence. She says the suggestion by Amnesty International to decriminalize sex work tells women, men and children that sex work is a safe and acceptable choice for work. It also tells those who pay for sex that they have the human right to do so.

Cindy McCain says sex traffickers are criminals and need to be treated like criminals.

Ms. McCain explains that sex traffickers are often linked to organized crime. The people who traffic humans may also traffic guns, drugs and illegal animal parts, she says. And when they traffic children they are also involved in child abuse. So, these people need to be treated like criminals, she stresses.

As an example, Ms. McCain talks about her trip to Georgia and other surrounding countries. She says that in those areas organized crime is heavily involved in the sex trade.

How war affects sex trades and human trafficking

Ms. McCain says the effects of war on a country are, of course, severe. But, the effects on women and children, she adds, are extremely severe.

Ms. McCain says that the sex trade is destroying communities. She says in Georgia, Kosovo and other post-conflict countries, you can plainly see how war affects sex trafficking and how that affects a community – there are fewer young women.

War also creates refugees. And refugees who have no money and who have fled their homes risk becoming victims of sex trafficking. Ms. McCain says the migrant crisis that is happening now in Europe could lead to an increase in sex trafficking.

Amnesty stands by its suggestion of decriminalization

However, Amnesty International says keeping sex trades illegal only increases a sex worker’s exposure to violence. Making the sex trade a criminal offense also violates a sex worker’s human rights.

Amnesty says it chose to support decriminalization after talking with many groups involved in the issue -- sex workers, HIV agencies, activists for women's rights and gay rights, anti-trafficking groups and leading academics.

There is one very important difference in this conversation. Amnesty strongly states that it does not consider a woman who is forced to sell sex to be a sex worker.

Ms. McCain and other human rights activists argue that decriminalizing sex work puts those in the industry in greater danger. Decriminalization will take away the authority to go after those who use and abuse people for personal profit.

These same activists say such a policy of decriminalization would be a step backward in the fight against human trafficking worldwide.

I’m Mario Ritter.

And I’m Anna Matteo.

Vivian Charkarian reported this story from Washington, D.C. Anna Matteo adapted it for Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

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Words in This Story

prostitution n. the act of having sex in exchange for money

decriminalize - v. to make (something that is illegal) legal by changing the law

human trafficking n. organized criminal activity in which human beings are treated as possessions to be controlled and exploited (as by being forced into prostitution or involuntary labor)

exploit v. to use (someone or something) in a way that helps you unfairly : adj. exploited

kidnap v. to take away (someone) by force usually in order to keep the person as a prisoner and demand money for returning the person

pimp n. a man who makes money illegally by getting customers for prostitutes

per prep. for each : “The tickets will cost $10 per person.”

war-torn adj. very badly harmed or damaged by war : torn apart by war

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