San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution
Final Report 1996

Prostitution and The Law: International Policies and Practices

by Carol Leigh

May 1995

(The material in this article, unless otherwise noted, is based on "Prostitution: A Difficult Issue For Feminists," by Priscilla Alexander from Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry. Pittsburgh: Cleis Press, 1987).

Historically, civil and religious governmental bodies have addressed prostitution in a number of ways. One of the first laws about prostitution dated 2000 BC in the Code of Lipt-Ishtar, which codified a separation of prostitutes and wives.1

In 1100, BC the Assyrians enforced the first dress codes for prostitutes.2
In 6th century BC Solon of Athens, famous for institutionalizing roles of women in Greece, consolidated a new empire by a rigid regulation of family structure comprehensive programs of laws designed to regulate the place of all women.3 Solon was the first organize a legalized prostitution industry in which he conscripted slaves to work in state run brothels. At the same time he passed stringent laws including high taxes controlling independent prostitution.4

During the Renaissance prostitutes were often required to wear special clothing, and/or were confined to special districts. Interestingly, they were required to live in the same districts with Jews, who had to similarly mark their clothing.

In the 19th century, England passed the Contagious Diseases Acts under which any woman suspected of being a prostitute could be arrested and taken to a "lock ward" in a hospital for examination and treatment for venereal disease.5 The United States' laws prohibiting prostitution were enacted in this country just prior to ratification of the suffrage amendment in 1920.

In 1949, the United Nations passed a convention paper that called for the decriminalization of prostitution and the enforcement of laws against those who exploit women and children in prostitution.

The paper, which was read to the United Nations General Assembly by Eleanor Roosevelt, has been ratified by more than fifty countries, but not the United States. Most European countries have 'decriminalized' prostitution by removing laws which prohibit engaging in an act of prostitution, although most have retained the laws against soliciting, pimping, pandering, running a disorderly house, and transporting a woman across national boundaries for the purposes of prostitution.

The United States has retained the laws prohibiting the act of prostitution as well (except in rural counties in the state of Nevada with populations of less than 250,000, which have the option of allowing legal, regulated brothels). Legalized prostitution, as practiced in these counties, provides safe environments for a relatively few clients and a minority of prostitutes who can work under the strict regulatory system.

However, the system gives rise to its own set of civil rights violations as it institutionalizes third party management (i.e., pimping) while independent prostitution remains criminalized.

In addition to laws prohibiting soliciting or engaging in an act prostitution, and the related issues of pimping and pandering, or procuring, the United States has laws that bar anyone who has ever been a prostitute from entering this country, remaining in this country as a resident, or becoming a citizen. Deportation proceedings on those grounds were instituted in the early 1980s against a French woman who managed a brothel in Nevada, even though the business was perfectly legal.

Over the past year, The Task Force conducted an investigation of prostitution law and policy issues from around the world which included review of international reports and materials, and presentations by a number of guests.

Visitors included guests from cities in Holland, Germany, and England. Christina Shenk, a German Parliament representative, explained that lack of zones in Berlin has resulted in less visible street prostitution and less problems on the street, as compared with other German cities where zoning laws and policies resulted in dangerous conditions in neighborhoods in which prostitutes were confined to work.

Germany has developed a variety of approaches ranging from a tightly controlled, single-zone brothel system in Hamburg, to a laissez-faire, open-zone system in Berlin.

Dr. Robert Gorter worked with prostitutes in both Amsterdam and Berlin. He discussed prostitutes' unions in those countries and emphasized the need to encourage pride through self-organization. He reported that when prostitution was legalized in Hamburg in the 1950's, related crime diminished.

In Holland, prostitution is acknowledged to be a matter of privacy, although laws criminalizing aspects of the business result in human rights violations and stigmatization of prostitutes.

Selma James from the English Collective of Prostitutes discussed the importance of repealing all laws against prostitution. In England, prostitution itself is not illegal, but soliciting, pimping and 'kerb-crawling' are, making it effectively against the law.

James made a strong case for complete decriminalization, as opposed to compromises. She held that partial decriminalization (including regulatory schemes such as zoning) or plans to reduce penalties, do nothing to address the flaws in systems that are based on the criminal definition prostitution.

The Task Force also reviewed policy summaries from various countries. In different nations, various policy formulations have fallen under the rubric of decriminalization and legalization. The Australian Capital Territory Act of 1992 mandates condom use and a $5000.00 fine for those who break the law.

In New South Wales, the most liberal of Australian Provinces, "prostitution is not illegal...However, there are provisions in a number of Acts which create a legal framework through which the industry is regulated."6 In Japan, and in many Asian countries, including those in which "sex tourism" is a major industry, prostitution is prohibited outright, however it operates under the guise of an 'entertainment industry."

Prior to perestroika, prostitution was decriminalized in the Soviet Union, but women who worked as prostitutes were arrested for not having a legally-recognized job.

In 'legalized' systems such as Switzerland, Senegal and Singapore, prostitutes are issued licenses which allows them to work, however only a small percentage of prostitutes are able to apply for licenses. In Senegal only 2% of prostitutes are registered.7

Denmark has repealed most of the laws restricting the right of prostitutes to work, and has passed laws designed to help women who want to get out of prostitution. Norway does not prohibit prostitution, although there are many restrictions on advertising.8

Forced Prostitution
The discussion of force and coercion in the context of prostitution is complex. Forced prostitution may be equated with forced labor, on a continuum of slavery, debt bondage and economic coercion, which describes the conditions for most forms of labor in most societies. In addition, some conditions of forced prostitution have been regarded as a form of rape.

Forced and coerced prostitution can take place in any country, even in the post-industrialized west. Reports of abuse and violence also vary widely within various populations.9

Although estimates vary widely, Philippines feminists claim that there are approximately 300,000 prostitutes, a large majority of whom work in the vicinity of (former and current) American military bases, some voluntarily, but many under duress (including being sold into prostitution). Some leave the Philippines to look for other work, or to be married, only to find that the work in the new country is still prostitution. Their isolation is compounded by the fact that, in many cases, they do not have legal immigration papers. 10

In India, young girls are sometimes sold by their parents to traders, allegedly for "service to the goddess," but actually for work in brothels in the major cities.

In both India and the Philippines, prostitution is officially prohibited. Evidently, the legal prohibition of prostitution does not begin to address the problems, and there is evidence that the prohibitions exacerbate the situation by increasing the marginalization and vulnerability of those who work in the industry.11

Internationally, prostitution policy is based on a combination of laws, customs and values. Laws and enforcement priorities express gender-based power dynamics (ie, specifically between police and prostitutes), as well as issues of class, race and ethnicity.

An analysis of prostitution in an international framework has led us to conclude that the countries with the most restrictive legal systems have the most problems with violence against prostitutes, thefts associated with prostitution, and exploitation of prostitutes.

Conversely, the countries with the least restrictive measures which afford some means of recourse, and allow prostitutes to organize for self-protection, also appear to have the least problems.

Additionally, various health crisis, along with exploitation, are directly associated with poverty as the source of most of the worst aspects of prostitution. Recent studies by health outreach agencies in countries with the most depressed economies demonstrate that even in the most extreme circumstances, harm reduction techniques are the recommended alternative to restrictive laws and enforcement.

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