TIME politics

What the Swedish Model Gets Wrong About Prostitution

TO GO WITH AFP STORY 'Norway-prostitutio
A prostitute working on the street in central Oslo. AFP—AFP/Getty Images

Making the purchase of sex a crime strips women of agency and autonomy. It should be decriminalized altogether.

Prostitution is known as the “world’s oldest profession,” and whether it should be criminalized – or not – is one of the oldest debates among social reformers. Today, a growing consensus around the world claims the sex trade perpetuates male violence against women, and so customers should be held as criminals. On the contrary, it’s decriminalizing prostitution that could make women—in and outside the sex industry—safer.

This modern debate has roots in Victorian England, which branded prostitutes as wicked, depraved and a public nuisance. Yet a shift in social thought throughout the era introduced the prostitute as a victim, often lured or forced into sexual slavery by immoral men.

Today, we’re seeing a global shift in prostitution attitudes that looks startlingly like the one in Victorian England. Many areas have adopted or are considering what’s known as the “Swedish” or “Nordic Model,” which criminalizes the buying, rather than the selling, of sexual services (because, as the logic goes, purchasing sex is a form of male violence against women, thus only customers should be held accountable). In this nouveau-Victorian view, “sexual slavery” has become “sex trafficking,” and it’s common to see media referring to brothel owners, pimps, and madams as “sex traffickers” even when those working for them do so willingly.

The Swedish model (also adopted by Iceland and Norway and under consideration in France, Canada and the UK) may seem like a step in the right direction—a progressive step, a feminist step. But it’s not. Conceptually, the system strips women of agency and autonomy. Under the Swedish model, men “are defined as morally superior to the woman,” notes author and former sex worker Maggie McNeill in an essay for the Cato Institute. “He is criminally culpable for his decisions, but she is not.” Adult women are legally unable to give consent, “just as an adolescent girl is in the crime of statutory rape.”

From a practical standpoint, criminalizing clients is just the flip side of the same old coin. It still focuses law enforcement efforts and siphons tax dollars toward fighting the sex trade. It still means arresting, fining and jailing people over consensual sex. If we really want to try something new—and something that has a real chance at decreasing violence against women—we should decriminalize prostitution altogether.

How would this work, exactly? “Decriminalizing” may sound like a less radical step than “legalization,” but it’s actually quite the opposite. Decriminalization means the removal of all statutory penalties for prostitution and things related to its facilitation, such as advertising. It does not mean there are no municipal codes about how a sex-work business can be run or that general codes about public behavior do not apply, explains Mistress Matisse, a dominatrix, writer and prominent sex-worker rights advocate. Legalization, on the other hand, is a stricter regime, wherein the state doesn’t prosecute prostitution per se but takes a heavy-handed approach to its regulation. “This is how it works in Nevada, for example, where legal brothels exist, but one may not just be an independent sex worker,” says Matisse. Under both schemes, forcing someone into prostitution (aka sex trafficking) and being involved in the sale or purchase of sex from a minor would obviously remain a crime.

But other crimes supposedly associated with the sex trade could be reduced if prostitution were decriminalized. Research has shown incidences of rape to decrease with the availability of prostitution. One recent study of data from Rhode Island—where a loophole allowed legal indoor prostitution in 2003-2009—found the state’s rape rate declined significantly over this period, especially in urban areas. (The gonorrhea rate also went down.) “Decriminalization could have potentially large social benefits for the population at large–not just sex market participants,” wrote economists Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah in a working paper about their research.

In New Zealand, street prostitution, escort services, pimping and brothels were decriminalized in 2003, and so far sex workers and the New Zealand government have raved about the arrangement. A government review in 2008 found the overall number of sex workers had not gone up since prostitution became legal, nor had instances of illegal sex-trafficking. The most significant change was sex workers enjoying safer and better working conditions. Researchers also found high levels of condom use and a very low rate of HIV among New Zealand sex workers.

The bottom line on decriminalization is that it is a means of harm reduction.

Keeping prostitution illegal is done in the name of women, yet it only perpetuates violence against them while expanding the reach of the carceral state. Decriminalization would end the punitive system wherein sex workers—a disproportionately female, minority and transgender group—are being separated from their families, thrown in jail, and saddled with court costs and criminal records over blow-jobs. It would also allow them to take more measures of precaution (like organizing in brothels) and give them access to the legal protections available other workers (like being able to go to the police when they’ve been wronged). Yet for Swedish Model advocates, only the total eradication of the sex trade will “save” women from the violence and exploitation associated with it.

Certainly some in the sex trade – like minors, for example – are exploited, abused and forced into prostitution, while others aren’t literally trafficked but feel trapped in the industry by economic necessity. These are the people who should receive attention, and resources, from social reformers. And there would be a lot more resources to devote if we left consenting adults to exchange money for sex in peace.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown is a staff editor for Reason.com. She blogs often at Reason’s Hit & Run and enjoys covering food issues, gender, Gen Y, reproductive rights, intellectual property, sex work and things people are talking about on Twitter. This piece originally appeared at The Weekly Wonk.

TIME Crime

FBI Recovers 168 Children From Sex-Trafficking Rings Across the U.S.

FBI Director James Comey participates in a news conference on child sex trafficking, at FBI headquarters, June 23, 2014 in Washington, D.C.
FBI Director James Comey participates in a news conference on child sex trafficking, at FBI headquarters, June 23, 2014 in Washington, D.C. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

The weeklong operation took place in more than 100 cities

The FBI has rescued 168 children and arrested 281 pimps in a weeklong child-prostitution sting operation carried out across the U.S., in partnership with local law-enforcement agencies and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).

Operation Cross Country VIII took place in 106 cities across 54 FBI divisions, the bureau announced Monday. The various cross-country operations have to date rescued around 3,600 children and led to 1,450 convictions, more than a dozen of which have come with life sentences in prison. The FBI operation has also recovered more than $3.1 million in assets.

“Operation Cross Country reveals that children are being targeted and sold for sex in America every day,” said John Ryan, the CEO and president of NCMEC, in a statement.

Initial targets have typically included casinos, truck stops and websites advertising escort and dating services, as identified by local law enforcement. The FBI uses the information gathered from these busts to expand their search and to partner with the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Offices to serve those running child-prostitution rings with federal charges.

“Child sex traffickers create a living nightmare for their adolescent victims,” Leslie Caldwell, assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice, said in a statement. “They use fear and force and treat children as commodities of sex to be sold again and again. This operation puts traffickers behind bars and rescues kids from their nightmare so they can start reclaiming their childhood.”

TIME apps

20 Million Chinese WeChat Accounts Closed for Links to Prostitution

Images Of Tencent Holdings Ltd. As Company Plans Share Split After Earnings Miss Estimate On WeChat Expenses
The download page for Tencent Holdings Ltd.'s WeChat application Bloomberg—Getty Images

In response to pressure from Beijing

The Chinese company behind the popular messaging app WeChat said Tuesday that it had shut down 20 million accounts for being linked to prostitution.

Tencent Holdings Ltd. dubbed the massive shutdowns “Thunder Strike” in a blog post. WeChat is a three-and-a-half-year-old micro-messaging site with an active-user base that just surpassed 396 million people—meaning Tencent shut down 5% of active accounts. The purging of accounts came in response to a May government crackdown specifically against the platform. Many use the app as a news source in a heavily censored web environment, but the government said it also being used for harmful practices ranging from fraud to terrorism to prostitution. Authorities had promised to “hold service providers responsible if they do not fulfill their duty,” according to Chinese state media outlet Xinhua.

WeChat said last week that it would clean up its accounts from to “protect the user experience.”

TIME sex trafficking

Inside the Scarily Lucrative Business Model of Human Trafficking

Igor Bilic—Flickr Vision

New report estimates almost $100 billion annual profits in sex trafficking alone.

Though many people believe slavery to be a thing from the distant past or award-winning movies, new figures out from the International Labor Organization (ILO) suggest that human trafficking—essentially, coercing people to work under unjust, often inhumane, circumstances—is a growth business.

Estimates of just how much the human trafficking business is worth have grown massively since the last ILO report on forced labor almost a decade ago. Back in 2005, the business was estimated at about $44 billion annually. Now, it’s more like $150 billion. This likely reflects a growing awareness of the numbers of people who have been caught up in some sort of bonded labor, rather than actual growth in the business.


ILO’s study suggests that what often pushes people into bonded labor is not a constant level of grinding poverty, but a sudden financial setback. Poor households are much less able to deal with an unexpected misfortune—a lost job, a medical emergency, a hike in the rent or the prices of goods and services.

This setback, which sometimes makes it hard for at-risk populations to even afford food, pushes individuals into borrowing, which sets them up for usurious interest on credit, or pushes them into accepting any work at all to feed their families.

Contrary to a widespread misconception, only a small portion of the trade comprises sex trafficking, though most of trafficking money does come from the sex trade.

“Globally, two-thirds of the profits from forced labour were generated by commercial sexual exploitation,” says the report, “amounting to an estimated $99 billion [U.S. dollars] per year.” There’s also a lot of profit from bonded labor among those who gather food, in either agriculture or fishing industries. Laborers are worth approximately $9 billion a year in profits.

The homefront isn’t a safe haven either. The ILO estimates that “private households that employ domestic workers under conditions of forced labour save about $8 billion [U.S. dollars] annually by not paying or underpaying their workers.”

Since we’re talking about a very informal and mostly illegal trade, numbers are extremely hard to come by. These are not the kind of businesses that create annual reports. The ILO uses a slightly different formula for working out how much each sector is gaining from forced labor. For the agriculture industry, it estimated the difference between the value added by the worker and the wages paid to the workers in that sector, using 2012 Global Database information.

(Under modern parameters, people can be paid while engaged in forced labor. For example, domestic workers are considered to be in forced labor if they’re paid 40% or less of what they should be paid.)


More than half the money from forced labor is made in the Asia Pacific region, says the ILO. India and China have lots of bonded workers, some of who they export to other parts of the world. Much of this trafficking, although not all, is for the sex industry. Some anti-slavery advocates are highly critical of tourists who pay for prostitutes in foreign countries.

“We have a culture that normalizes the sex industry so that it is seen as a benign, ‘victimless’ crime,” says Carol Smolenski of ECPAT-USA, an organization that fights child prostitution. “Even though the life histories of so many of women show them turning to this industry out of desperation, a lack of options or through violence and intimidation by pimps and traffickers.”

But while the big money comes from the Asia Pacific region, more profit is made from each bonded laborer who ends up in wealthier nations.

In developed countries and the EU, coerced workers can be worth almost $35,000 a year to their exploiters. In the Middle East, it’s more like $15,000. Most of this money is made on the back of undereducated or unskilled workers in industries and sectors where demand for labor fluctuates. Apart from the sex industry, agriculture and domestic work, these workers toil in construction, manufacturing and mining.


In general, the likeliest victims of forced labor are poor, unskilled workers who get stuck in a bad situation in a place where the rule of law is a little iffy. But not always. Sometimes highly skilled individuals can be caught up too, particularly if they’re on foreign soil.

In this week’s Time magazine, Shandra Woworuntu, who worked in finance in Indonesia, tells the story of how she was snapped up from the airport and traded from brothel to brothel in a sex trafficking ring in 2001 for several months and finally escaped by jumping from a second story window. What lawless part of the world did this horrific event take place in? Brooklyn, New York.

TIME cities

New York Cops To Stop Seizing Condoms in Prostitution Cases

"A policy that actually inhibits people from safe sex is a mistake and is dangerous," Mayor Bill de Blasio said. The police commissioner said that the force would change its policy due to serious public health concerns

New York City police will no longer seize condoms as evidence when making prostitution arrests, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday, in a victory for advocates who worried the policy was discouraging protected sex among prostitutes.

“A policy that actually inhibits people from safe sex is a mistake and is dangerous,” de Blasio said during a press conference. “And there’s a number of ways that you go about putting together evidence. And I have absolute faith in [Police] Commissioner [Bill] Bratton and his team, and they felt that this was not the right way to go, that the previous policy was not the right way to go and that they could be effective in gathering evidence without it.”

Bratton said in a statement that the police department changed its policy because of public health concerns. “The NYPD heard from community health advocates and took a serious look at making changes to our current policy as it relates to our broader public safety mission,” he said.

Advocates see the policy as a big step forward in ensuring the safety of sex workers, who previously had to hide their condoms or avoid them altogether for fear of police discovery. Activists applauded the decision. “This policy opens the door for individuals in prostitution to stop risking their health for fear of carrying condoms,” Sonia Ossorio, President National Organization for Women, said in a statement. “It’s every individual’s right to be able to protect their health and this policy shift under the new NYPD leadership goes a long way in furthering sound public health policy.”

The new condom policy comes just months after New York state announced a new approach to prostitution enforcement, which focuses more on prosecuting pimps and helping sex workers escape trafficking.

TIME Prostitution

There Is Now an App for Prostitution

The creator of Peppr, available in Germany where prostitution is legal and where the sex industry is worth about $21 billion a year, thinks letting prospective clients and prostitutes create and be matched by digital profiles will "revolutionize the image of sex work"

The new app, Peppr, is similar to a dating site, but it’s for connecting prostitutes to clients.

In 2002, Germany legalized prostitution, and the industry there has expanded dramatically since then. Some estimates put the number of prostitutes in Germany at about 400,000, many of whom are foreign nationals from economically stressed parts of Europe like Bulgaria and Romania. According to the Telegraph, the country’s sex industry is worth $21 billion a year, and several 12-story megabrothels have opened. Two years after prostitution became legal, the industry was thought to be worth $8.3 billion.

And now a startup based out of Berlin has launched an app called Peppr, which bills itself as the “first mobile Web app for booking erotic entertainment.” Prospective clients simply list their location, acknowledge they are at least 18 years old, select a gender of choice, and they’re presented with photos and profiles of potential men or women offering to have sex for a fee. Prostitutes set up their profiles for free and clients pay €5 to €10 for booking. Clients can browse the prostitutes based on services they want, as well as the body type they desire.

In an interview with the German news site the Local, co-founder Pia Poppenreiter said the idea came to her when she was walking through the red-light district at night. “I was walking down Oranienburger Straße — I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s the truth — it was chilly, and I saw the poor girls on the streets, and I thought, why isn’t there an app? It’s not efficient to wait outside,” she told the Local. Poppenreiter thinks the app will “revolutionize the image of sex work” and make it appear less “shabby.”

Poppenreiter says her company talks to the prospective prostitutes over the phone to try to determine if they are signing up voluntarily, or by force, but that’s notoriously tough to verify. Sex trafficking and coerced prostitution have become a growing concern for European nations like Germany, in which prostitution is legal and where the business has grown so much that the prices are falling even as demand rises for additional workers.

The official number of trafficking victims in Europe is about 23,600, according to a 2013 E.U. report, but because sex trafficking is so difficult to trace, the European Commission estimates that the official number doesn’t come close to documenting what they believe are hundreds of thousands of trafficked men, women and children in Europe, most of whom come from East European nations recently admitted to the union. The E.U. study found that human trafficking increased by 18% between 2008 and 2010 while the number of convictions for the crime fell by 13%. About 62% of all those trafficked are exploited for sexual purposes, according to European Commission data, and 68% of sex-trafficking victims were women, 17% men, 12% girls and 3% boys.

MORE: Germany: The Cut-Rate Prostitution Capital of Europe


An Unhappy Customer Sues Prostitute for Failing to Complete a Sex Session

The prostitute told the court she attempted to return the man's phone and money but he refused to accept them Jutta Klee—Getty Images

But his demand for $70,000 is brusquely dismissed in court

A New Zealand man who felt that a sex worker violated the country’s Consumer Guarantees Act by not completing a sex session with him has had his ensuing law suit shot down in court.

The customer and the prostitute — identified as Mr N and Ms N in court documents — had been involved in a two-month sexual arrangement when their last encounter ended in a quarrel at a brothel in February 2012. Ms N said she had attempted to return Mr N’s money and a mobile phone he had given her to set up their weekly meetings, but he refused.

Mr N then sued for $70,000 in compensation and damages, claiming that Ms N had “gained unjust enrichment” and violated consumer laws.

An infuriated Justice Peter Woodhouse dismissed Mr N’s claim, calling it a “sinister use of the court’s processes.”

“Not only am I satisfied the proceedings are frivolous but I also believe they are vexatious,” the judge said.

A doubly unhappy ending for Mr N in this case, it seems.


TIME States

Hawaii Debates Law Allowing Cops to Have Sex with Prostitutes

Hawaii Prostitution Police
A pedestrian walks in front of a Honolulu Police Department station in Honolulu's tourist area of Waikiki on Wednesday, March 19, 2014 Oskar Garcia—AP

Officers are urging lawmakers to pass a bill that aims to curb prostitution, as long as they keep in the exemption that allows cops to have sex with prostitutes during investigations. Critics say it only further victimizes sex workers

Hawaii lawmakers are debating a fiercely-criticized law that currently permits undercover police to have sex with prostitutes during investigations.

A new bill that clamps down on prostitution originally eliminated the sex exemption for officers on duty. But after law enforcement officials testified in favor of the exemption, the bill was amended to restore it, the Associated Press reports. The revised bill passed the state House and is set to go before a state Senate committee on Friday.

Police say the provision helps them catch sex workers in the act, but human trafficking experts who are critical of the law point out that the provision is unnecessary and only hurts sex workers—who are often forced into their positions—even more. Some say that women who have left their careers as prostitutes behind report being forced to give sexual favors to policemen who threaten them with arrest.

Critics say it seems impossible for every officer using this exemption to judge every prostitute’s situation—whether she has been forced into that lifestyle, her real age and more—before having intercourse with her. And advocates say the risk police will take advantage of prostitutes outweighs any benefits.

Even without such exemptions in place, police in other states have been accused of abusing sex workers. A former officer is facing charges in Philadelphia for allegedly raping two prostitutes and forcing them to do drugs at gunpoint. A cop in West Sacramento, Calif., was recently found guilty of raping prostitutes. And last year a Massachusetts officer pleaded guilty to threatening prostitutes with arrest unless they had sex with him.

Law enforcement officials say the exemption doesn’t lead to inappropriate behavior.

“All allegations of misconduct are investigated and the appropriate disciplinary action taken,” Michelle Yu, Honolulu police spokeswoman, told the AP.

Laws governing disclosure of police misconduct in Hawaii block the public from seeing whether an officer has ever faced disciplinary action for having sex with a prostitute.

During testimony, law enforcement officials would not reveal how often they use the exemption, claiming that doing so would alert pimps and prostitutes to how far policeman are and are not allowed to go, and compromise future investigations.

“As it is, we are already subject to ‘cop checking’ where prostitution subjects do certain acts or attempt to do certain acts to determine whether the person is an undercover officer,” Major Jerry Inouye of the Honolulu Police Department told local Hawaiian news station KITV.

Democratic state Rep. Karl Rhoads, the committee chairman who amended the proposal to restore the exemption, said that civilians cannot understand the measures necessary in undercover police work. “It’s a really murky area,” Rhoads said, according to the AP. “I was reluctant to interfere in something that they face all the time. If they think it’s necessary to not have it in the statute, this is one area where I did defer to them and say, ‘I hope you’re not having sex with prostitutes.’”

Hawaii’s law appears to be unique. Roger Young, who worked sex crimes for the FBI in Las Vegas for over 20 years, told the AP he didn’t know of “any state or federal law that allows any law enforcement officer undercover to penetrate or do what this law is allowing.”


TIME europe

E.U. to Debate Making Buying Sex Illegal

A prostitute waits for customers along a road of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris Aug. 28, 2013 Christian Hartmann / Reuters

This week, E.U. lawmakers will consider following the lead of some European nations and criminalizing the purchase of sex across the continent. But the critics of the proposals, including many sexworkers, are legion

Perched on high stools and tugging at tight uniforms of spandex, satin and lace, the women in the windows of Ghent’s red light district barely register the police patrolling outside. Bored eyes flicker up briefly before returning to the screens of mobile phones, the TV discreetly hidden in the corner, or the client trying to negotiate a knock-down price on the other side of the glass.

The Belgian police appear equally indifferent to the women sitting in the dim red glow of neon tubes, even if they are occasionally flouting a city rule specifying exactly how much skin can be on display from neck to navel. Of far more interest to the 40 officers fanning out across the area one windy Friday night are the license plates of cars crawling past the windows in the three streets that form the heart of Ghent’s regulated sex industry.

Nearby in France, buying sex usually means a hasty transaction on the street and the risk of a fine or public identification. So young men pack in their cars and drive 50km east for nights out that can turn rowdy. “There were complaints about criminality and disturbances in the neighborhood,” says Police Superintendent Johan Blom.

(MORE: Facing Crackdowns in the E.U., Hookers Find Sanctuary in Switzerland)

Ghent police now hold monthly operations to stop and search French cars. If they find drugs or weapons, the men pay a fine and police motorcycles escort them to the highway and point them towards the border. It’s a nuisance for the police, but for campaigners pushing for a more unified approach to prostitution across Europe, that border is nothing short of a battle line in the fight for a woman’s rights over her own body.

The politicians and feminists who consider prostitution a crime against women are hoping the European Union‘s 28 member states will follow the lead of France, Iceland, Norway and Sweden and criminalize the purchase of sex. A report recommending this approach is due before the European Parliament in the coming days.

On the other side of the debate are many social workers dealing directly with prostitutes, sex workers’ unions and at least seven European governments. They say any criminalization forces the trade underground, puts sex workers at greater risk and removes a woman’s right to choose a profession which some see as their route out of poverty. “It will exist somewhere in the dark, and then nobody is safe: not the client, and not the girl,” says Isabelle De Meyer, a social worker in Ghent.

In Belgium, the purchase and sale of sex is legal, but making a profit from prostitution is forbidden. Cities interpret the laws differently, and prostitutes in Ghent are officially hired as “servers” in “bars” – in reality a dimly-lit room with a bed behind the glass display window. The prostitutes must have a contract and social security number, meaning the city has a record of every woman working the sex industry, and social workers can make regular visits to check for abusive relationships or victims of human trafficking.

No one claims the system is perfect: police can only act if the women speak out about abuse or illegal pimps. But all the sex workers who agreed to speak to TIME said they felt safe in Ghent and opposed criminalization. “Once these kind of places exist, then everybody can relax and there is less violence than in the street,” says Gaby,a 25-year-old from Romania, who like other working women in Ghent’s red light district asked that TIME only use her first name to protect her identity.

(MORE: Swiss City to Unveil Taxpayer-Funded “Sex Boxes” for Prostitutes)

For every woman like Gaby, however, there is the scared young Eastern European girl repeating “everything is fine, everything is fine” while keeping a wary eye out the window. It is the women who may have been coerced or trafficked into the sex industry who worry Mary Honeyball, a Member of the European Parliament representing Britain’s Labour Party.

Honeyball has drafted a report recommending E.U. member states adopt a system known as the Nordic Model, which is currently in place in Sweden, Norway and Iceland. The model criminalizes buying sex, but legalizes selling sex, in theory treating prostitutes as victims of a crime rather than perpetrators. “According to the information we have from Sweden it actually reduces demand for prostitution, and if you reduce demand the consequence is that you reduce human trafficking,” she says.

If the report passes, it would not be legally binding, but Honeyball hopes it would help steer the debate in member states. France’s Lower House adopted such laws in December, and politicians in Ireland and the United Kingdom have also raised it as a possible way forward.

To countries with more repressive laws on prostitution and large religious or socially conservative communities, it may be a politically palatable first step. But no European country which has introduced a regulated sex industry – including Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, and Switzerland – is seriously considering rolling back to the criminalization of the client, although they are looking at ways to improve the laws.

One country that may amend legislation is Norway, held up as an exemplar of the Nordic Model. The new Conservative-led government is waiting for the results of an independent review in June before deciding whether to repeal the 2009 law banning the purchase of sex.

While the number of women selling sex on the streets initially decreased, social workers say they did not simply disappear. Some traveled abroad, while others started selling their services over the Internet. Bjørg Norli, director of Pro Sentret, which works with prostitutes in Oslo, says street prostitution is re-emerging, and under the current laws women feel more vulnerable than ever. Clients rush transactions to avoid detection, meaning women have little time to assess whether the client poses a danger. If they do have problems, they are unlikely to go to police out of fear they will then be monitored by law enforcement looking to catch buyers.

Behind Ghent’s windows, the heaters are on full blast as the women in their skimpy outfits negotiate via hand gestures with men bundled up against the cold outside. The going rate is €50 for 15 minutes, but a client may want more time, a lower price, or a special service. If a woman has misgivings, she just leaves the door locked and turns away. Zorha, a former civil servant from the Netherlands, says in a good night she will have sex with 25 men. It is not a life she particularly enjoys – she wants to open a restaurant – but when she found herself in debt a few years ago she decided it was her best option. She and other established Ghent sex workers worry about the new influx of younger women from Eastern Europe, who they say work long hours for cut-down rates.

The link between a regulated sex industry and human trafficking is unclear. While the first E.U. report on human trafficking released last year shows a high number of victims detected in the Netherlands, countries like Italy and Romania, where prostitution is illegal, also fared badly. Belgium, meanwhile, reported relatively low levels. Norway – not in the E.U. but included in the study – shows barely any change in the year before and after the law banning the purchase of sex. Similarly conflicting statistics exist in Sweden.

With a lack of reliable data, the debate often focuses on the moral rights and wrongs of sex as a commodity, with Honeyball’s report equating prostitution with “sexual slavery.” For many women working in the industry, being labeled mute victims of male aggression simply means their voices are excluded.

“[Politicians] don’t inform us when they are seeking to make our lives more difficult and dangerous,” says Catherine Stephens, a British activist with the International Union of Sex Workers. “There is nothing feminist about the criminalization of our clients and disregarding our consent.”

TIME China

China Launches Anti-Vice Campaign, Putting Sex Workers at Risk

Chinese police rounding up alleged sex workers and clients at an entertainment center in Dongguan, in southern China's Guangdong province, on Feb. 9, 2014 AFP/Getty Images

The latest crackdown will hurt prostitutes, but will not change the system

No paid sex, please. And while we’re at it, no gambling or drugs. That’s the message China’s government is sending as it launches a new, national struggle against the so-called three vices. State media are selling it as a matter of morality — a move that feels dangerously out of synch with facts on the ground.

The crackdown got under way more than a week ago after state broadcaster CCTV aired a segment on the prevalence of sex work in southern China’s “sin city,” Dongguan. The report showed women lining up for selection by customers and dancing in karaoke clubs — hardly unusual for the steamy manufacturing hub in Guangdong province. But just hours later, a 6,000-strong police force was sweeping the city. At least 67 people were arrested and two officials sacked.

(MORE: Vice Doesn’t Pay: 10 Scandalous Chinese Officials Who Landed With a Bump)

What seemed like a local operation now looks set to become a national crusade. Since the raids in Dongguan, several provinces have launched similar operations. On Sunday, the Ministry of Public Security officially urged other jurisdictions to follow Dongguan’s lead. “Be resolute with the crackdown, no matter who is involved, and regardless of what official ranks they are at, with no leniency or softheartedness,” it warned.

The language echoes the rhetoric of Xi Jinping’s anticorruption push. Since coming to power in late 2012, China’s top ruler has made fighting graft a public priority, vowing to target both “tigers” (top bureaucrats) and “flies” (rank-and-file civil servants). The effort has seen some high-level cadres caught red-handed — and has seriously hurt sales of luxury items, from pricey liquors to expensive wristwatches, favored by the ruling elite. The policy is far from perfect, but it is broadly popular.

The Dongguan dustup? Less so. Chinese netizens last week wondered why the state broadcaster needed hidden cameras to expose what is plainly visible on the street. Sex work is so commonplace in Dongguan’s hotels and spas that to “expose” it is absurd. And many expressed sympathy for the men and women — mostly women — caught up in the busts. A photograph of a candle with the phrase “Don’t Cry Dongguan” was widely circulated online. “Tonight, we are all Dongguaners,” others wrote.

Many seemed wary of a law-enforcement-led crackdown. Why send in local cops, people asked, when they no doubt played a role in the “protective umbrella” that kept the sex trade booming? Local police forces use fines levied on hotels, spa, saunas and karaoke parlors to bolster their bottom line, says Maya Wang, a Hong Kong–based researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Sex workers at the bottom of the business, who don’t have these relationships, will be the ones losing out,” Wang says.

(MORE: Communist Party Officials Gone Wild: Sex-Tape Scandal Rocks China)

Those arrested face a grim future in custody. Last year, a a 51-page Human Rights Watch report, Swept Away: Abuses Against Sex Workers in China, documented torture, beatings, physical assaults, arbitrary detentions and fines. Another report, by Asia Catalyst, a New York City–based NGO, chronicled systemic abuse in an extralegal system called “custody and education” that sees alleged prostitutes detained for up to two years without trial or recourse. “These types of crackdowns create an environment ripe for abuse,” Wang says.

High-profile antivice operations just push sex work underground, advocates say. When carrying condoms is grounds for arrest, sex workers are less likely to carry — or use — them. Men and women involved in the sex trade are also less likely to report violence or abuse if doing so puts them at risk of detention. “The most direct influence of the vice crackdown to them is they no longer have a steady job or they have to be more careful when working,” says Betty Shao, program officer at Zi Teng, a Hong Kong–based rights group that focuses on sex workers.

Ye Haiyan agrees. Ye is one of China’s best-known advocates for the rights of sex workers, abused children and people living with HIV/AIDS. In a bid to understand the sex trade, she once worked at a 10-yuan ($1.50) brothel and blogged about it. For this and other campaigns, she’s been detained and forcibly evicted by police. “Targeting sex workers who are already at the bottom of society is much easier than other targets,” she says. “The punishment for sex workers will be severe, but nothing will change.” Perhaps that’s why it’s unpopular.

— With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing

MORE: In China, a Young Feminist Battles Sexual Violence Step by Step

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