Law Reform: Defining Terms
There has been much debate over the last few decades about prostitution
law reform. In the course of discussion, several terms are used to
indicate current or preferred situations, alternatives and legal strategies.
To understand the definitions of legalized, decriminalized, regulated
prostitution, etc., we need to understand the context in which these
terms are used.
and Decriminalisation according to Scarlet Alliance, Australia
PRINCIPLES FOR MODEL SEX INDUSTRY LEGISLATION
Scarlet Alliance and the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations
Refers to the use of criminal laws to regulate or control the sex
industry by determining the legal conditions under which the sex industry
can operate. Legalisation can be highly regulatory or merely define
the operation of the various sectors of the sex industry. It can vary
between rigid controls under legalised state controlled systems to
privatising the sex industry within a legally defined framework. It
is often accompanied by strict criminal penalties for sex industry
businesses that operate outside the legal framework.
Defining terms for contemporary discussion
Although there have always been reformist efforts and movements concerning
prostitution, the prostitutes' rights movement, as we know it today,
began in the late 60's and early 70's. The difference between the
contemporary prostitutes' movement and previous efforts is that the
current movement has been defined in a large part by prostitutes themselves.
Prostitute activists have defined prostitutes' legal status in specific
ways since the beginning of the prostitutes' rights movement. The
current movement includes a recognition of the rights of prostitutes
to autonomy and self-regulation.
Common definitions of legalization
There is no official definition of legalized or decriminalized prostitution.
Those who are not familiar with the contemporary discussion about
prostitution law reform usually use the term "legalization" to mean
any alternative to absolute criminalization, ranging from licensing
of brothels to the lack of any laws about prostitution. Most references
to law reform in the media and in other contemporary contexts use
the term "legalization" to refer to any system that allows some prostitution.
These common definitions of legalization are extremely broad. Conflicting
interpretations of this term often cause confusion in a discussion
Many (or most) societies that allow prostitution do so by giving the
state control over the lives and businesses of those who work as prostitutes.
Legalization often includes special taxes for prostitutes, restricting
prostitutes to working in brothels or in certain zones, licenses,
registration of prostitutes and government records of individual prostitutes,
and health checks which often means punitive quarantine. The term
legalization does not necessarily have to refer to the above sorts
of regulations. In fact, in one commonly accepted definition of legalization,
legal can simply mean that prostitution is not against the law.
From sociological perspective, the term legalization usually refers
to a system of criminal regulation and government control of prostitutes,
wherein certain prostitutes are given licenses which permit them to
work in specific and usually limited ways. Although legalization can
also imply a decriminalized, autonomous system of prostitution, in
reality, in most "legalized" systems the police are relegated the
job of prostitution control through criminal codes. Laws regulate
prostitutes businesses and lives, prescribing health checks and registration
of health status (enforced by police and, often corrupt, medical agencies),
telling prostitutes where they may or may not reside, prescribing
full time employment for their lovers, etc. Prostitute activists use
the term legalization to refer to systems of state control, which
defines the term by the realities of the current situation, rather
than by the broad implications of the term itself.
Because of the range of definitions of legalization, it is difficult
to use the term in a discussion of reform. When the general public
concerned with civil rights, privacy, etc., call for "legalization,"
they may not be aware implications of that term, or of the problems
inherent in many legalized systems.
Prostitutes' rights organizations (ie, COYOTE, National Task Force
on Prostitution) use the term decriminalization to mean the removal
of laws against prostitution. Decriminalization is usually used to
refer to total decriminalization, that is, the repeal of laws against
consensual adult sexual activity, in commercial and non-commercial
contexts. (Prostitutes' rights organizations such as US PROS, English
Collective of Prostitutes prefer to refer to 'the abolition of laws
against prostitutes'). Prostitutes' rights advocates call for decriminalization
of all aspects of prostitution resulting from individual decision.
Asserting the right to work as a prostitutes, many claim their right
to freedom of choice of management. They claim that laws against pimping
(living off the earnings) are often used against domestic partners
and children, and these laws serve to to prevent prostitutes from
organizing their businesses and working together for mutual protection.
They call for the repeal of current laws that interfere with their
rights of freedom of travel and freedom of association. Civil rights
and human rights advocates from a variety of perspectives call for
enforcement of laws against fraud, abuse, violence and coercion to
protect prostitutes from abusive, exploitative partners and management.
The "regulation of prostitution" usually refers to the criminal regulation
of prostitution, but prostitutes' rights activists also refer to regulation
in terms of both civil regulation and self-regulation. They call for
prostitute regulation of prostitute businesses, and civil codes regulating
prostitute businesses with regard to the conditions and rights of
workers. Those who call for autonomy support solo and collective work
arrangements, and prostitutes' control of their own lives and businesses.
The discussion of regulation is primitive and it is difficult to invoke
concepts of self-regulation in a context that presumes police control
The attitudes of prostitutes' rights activists contrast with attitudes
about prostitution by anti-prostitution or abolitionist organizations.
Abolitionist movements define prostitution and other categories of
sex work as inherently exploitative. Currently abolitionists define
prostitution as violence, per se, emphasizing involvement in prostitution
as a response to childhood sexual abuse. As a reaction to the exploitation
fostered by imperialism and military occupations, international anti-prostitution
activists oppose prostitution per say, as well as sex tourism and
trafficking (international "pimping"). Historically, abolitionists
have dedicated themselves to rescuing women from prostitution, and
training women to find alternative careers or security in marriage.
Abolitionist groups want to end the institution of prostitution, envisioning
a world where no one sells sexual services for any reason. Organizations
such as WHISPER (Women Hurt In Systems of Prostitution Engaged in
Revolt) oppose the legitimization of prostitution. These organizations
do not self- define as prostitutes' rights organizations. They work
to reduce or abolish the sex business, advocating against pornography,
strip clubs, etc.
Obviously there is much work to be done as we create the framework
for a broad discussion of prostitutes' rights. Each of the linguistic
approaches can be problematic: The term legalization is overbroad.
The term decriminalization has not worked its way into a contemporary
discussion and can elicit confusion and misinterpretation. Obviously,
all the above terms will be evoked in thorough discussion of the issues.
Consensus regarding definitions should be established early on. As
the discourse develops, it is essential that terms be developed from
the perspective of those who will be effected by the legislation.