How Basic Economics Reveals the Connection Between Legalized Prostitution and Sex Trafficking
Acton Institute Powerblog

How Basic Economics Reveals the Connection Between Legalized Prostitution and Sex Trafficking

SexTraffickingReality has no shortage of enemies. In America alone there are millions of people who will throw away common sense, empiricism, and established economic principles when it conflicts with their pet political ideology. Oftentimes the best we can hope for is that the reality-denying does not tip over into outright advocacy of evil.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what has happened at a one of my favorite online publications. Since its inception, The Federalist has been churning out a steady supply of fresh, often funny, and indispensable content from a conservative perspective. The work being done by the editorial staff, several of whom are my friends, is nothing short of amazing.

But even the best editors can make a mistake, and The Federalist has made a huge unforced error in publishing Lucy Steigerwald’s article, “Prostitution is Just Another Vice—So Legalize It.”

The article not only promotes the evil of prostitution, but it display an almost total lack of understanding about the topic of prostitution. I don’t mean that as an insult, but as an accurate description of the almost complete lack of research that was done on the subject. For example, the article not only denies that prostitution hurts women, but implies that there is little to no connection between prostitution and sex trafficking.

The reality is that the connection between prostitution, both legal and illegal, and sex trafficking is exceedingly well established. As Donna M. Hughes has noted, “evidence seems to show that legalized sex industries actually result in increased trafficking to meet the demand for women to be used in the legal sex industries.” Melissa Farley adds that, “wherever prostitution is legalized, trafficking to sex industry marketplaces in that region increases.”

But the association should be obvious to anyone with an understanding of basic economics. To understand this point, let’s start by considering the question, “Why does sex trafficking even exist?”

Supporters of prostitution might claim that because it is illegal, few women are willing to enter the market for sex work. This leads to an undersupply of prostitutes, thereby providing an incentive for sex traffickers who are willing to force women into this illicit labor. Under this view, if we would simply legalize the practice then the supply of female “sex workers” would increase and the need for sex trafficking would dissipate.

Of course, the reality is just the opposite: Countries that legalize prostitution report larger human trafficking inflows than countries where is it illegal.

Again, this should be obvious to anyone with even a basic understanding of both prostitution and the concept of supply and demand. Even Steigerwald seems to partially acknowledge this when she says, “a simple grasp of economics should make you realize what artificially decreasing the supply of clients does to prostitutes.”

Making prostitution illegal certainly does have the effect of artificially decreasing the supply of men who would solicit a prostitute. Legalizing prostitution would therefore increase both the existing pent-up demand and the new demand that would result from de-stigmatizing the vice.

What Steigerwald seems to have missed, though, is that there is another side of the equation: the supply of prostitutes.

The reality is that few women want to sell their bodies to strangers. The practice is disgusting, degrading, and corrosive to the soul. (This is something that tends to be missed by supporters of legalized prostitution, many of whom have never come in contact with an actual prostitute!) However, even women who might be enticed by the monetary benefits understand the drawbacks.

Consider, for instance, the effect on their romantic prospects. Few men are interested in being in a serious relationship with a woman who spends her working hours having sex with strange men. Women who want to marry—or simply be in a stable relationship—are therefore not going to be enticed by sex work as long as they have other options.

This is but one of hundreds of reasons why women do not voluntarily engage in sex work, and why the supply of prostitutes is naturally low. The disadvantages associated with prostitution are so numerous that many women would refuse to engage in sex work even if no other options for survival were available.

So by legalizing prostitution, we substantially increase the demand for sex work while minimally increasing the supply of prostitutes. As Hughes writes in the Journal of International Affairs, “The transnational trade in women is based on supply and demand from sending and receiving countries. Countries with large sex industries create the demand and are the receiving countries, while countries where traffickers easily recruit women are the sending countries.”

The reality that legalization advocates ignore is that increasing a country’s “sex industry” by legalizing prostitution naturally leads to sex trafficking. This is not only economically intuitive, but apparent to anyone open-minded enough to look at the evidence.

Steigerwald and other advocates of legalized prostitution should therefore be honest about the implications of their position and acknowledge the historical connection between legalized prostitution and sex trafficking. By admitting this outcome, and perhaps conceding it is a “necessary evil”, they can maintain their dogmatic ideological consistency and show that they are not wholly ignorant of basic economic principles.

Such honesty would also help signal to the rest of the world that they are far more concerned with championing their hot-house ideology than with the dignity of women and the plight of the vulnerable. If they are going to deny reality, the least they can do is be open about it.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).