Policing Prostitution

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Policing prostitution is a fairly difficult task. There have been many attempts to curtail the amount of prostitution in the United States, but most have taken away the civil liberties of many of those individuals. Furthermore, the tension that law enforcement, as well as pimps and traffickers, has made it that much more difficult for sex workers to come forward about crimes that may have been committed against them. This research paper focuses on some of the unfairness that individuals under the label of prostitution have been exhibited to, as well as the progress the nation has made in terms of making a fair playing field in terms of the law.

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“Policing Prostitution”

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Prostitution has consistently maintained a part of society throughout the existence of humanity. While the legality of prostitution is a highly subjective topic, the policing of the crime has come under scrutiny in recent years. The criminal justice system would do well to focus on legislation that helps protect the rights of prostitutes, hold law enforcement accountable for treatment of prostitutes, and continue its fight against human trafficking.

Treatment of criminals has been on the forefront of American thought in recent years. Penelope Saunders and Jennifer Kirby, writers for Social Justice, detail their perceptions of Washington, D.C. law enforcement’s treatment of sex workers. Of the Acts that have been passed with D.C. involving sex workers, one of the provisions included a prostitution-free zone. This would keep men and women who are deemed by police as prostitutes from entering and traveling within these parts of the city. This would present obvious problems, and could give law enforcement too much power considering they would be limiting who would come in and out of certain areas. Furthermore it has been found that law enforcement does not always treat sex workers with the utmost fairness. In their treatment of people profiled as prostitutes, police far exceed their legal mandate, subjecting them to extortion, false arrest, illegal detention, and physical and sexual abuse (Saunders & Kirby, 2010).

The study conducted by Saunders and Kirby shows that there are two clear patterns when it comes to policing prostitution. First, police often stigmatize and dehumanize the “prostitute” as a kind of trash, social blight, and/or threat to public safety and order (Saunders & Kirby, 2010). Second, the patterns of abuse displayed by law enforcement have not been random. A significant fear that the authors present is that if society begins to fear and restrain the civil liberties of prostitutes, how far would it go? This could lead down a slippery slope and curtail other criminals’ civil liberties. Secondly, they fear that their need for help from the police will be dismissed because of their status. If they are known as sex workers by law enforcement and they complain about a crime that has been committed against them, it is feared that they may not be treated seriously (Saunders & Kirby, 2010). The fear itself is that the crimes, especially of the sexual nature, committed against them would be in jeopardy of losing their importance because of their preoccupation with prostitution.

It is accepted that crimes such as rape and sexual assault are very common across the United States. At the same time, they are some of the most under-reported crimes out there. Barbara Sullivan, writer for the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, details some interesting statistics involving sex workers. Sullivan notes that, for quite some time, if a sex worker were raped, it would not be considered as such. Instead, because they were a sex worker, they were automatically consenting to whomever it was that sexually assaulted them. The 1980s and 1990s saw a drift from this view, when men were finally beong tried for the rape of sex workers. However, there might be other reasons as to why a sex worker would not come forward about being sexually assaulted (Sullivan, 2007).

Sex workers are less likely to come forward to law enforcement about being sexually assaulted than the average female. Among these reasons are the feelings of shame and powerlessness that present clear barriers to the reporting of these crimes (Sullivan, 2007). Furthermore, this decision can also be seen as a rational choice since perpetrators of sexual assault are very unlikely to be charged, let alone convicted, and that victims will often suffer significant negative consequences during and after a rape prosecution. Females, whether sex workers or just females in general, suffer from these societal entrapments. However, it has been shown that female sex workers are less likely than the average female to come forward about allegations. This is because of the fear that they will be arrested once they admit to police how the event transpired. Furthermore, they often feel as though, because of their line of work, that they will not be taken seriously (Sullivan, 2007).

In recent years, the fight against prejudice involving sex workers has been fairly progressive. In the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada rape law reform has at least limited the admissibility of evidence relating to a complainant’s sexual reputation and past sexual history (Sullivan, 2007). Indications have been pointing to a new age where the sexual history of an individual is not admissible in court. There have been many examples of this, for example, a woman was picked-up, brought to an abandoned establishment, and raped several times. The defense brought up the fact that she was charged with prostitution 10 years prior, but it was not deemed admissible by the judge. So as it stands, it would seem as though things are trending upward for the civil liberties of those who work as prostitutes. But one of the darker sides of prostitution lies in with the fact that many who are participating in this crime are a part of human trafficking (Sullivan, 2007).

The act of sexual trafficking is defined as a situation where women or girls cannot change the immediate conditions of their existence; where, regardless of how they got into those conditions, they cannot get out; and where they are subject to sexual violence and exploitation (Nelson, 2002). On average, 45,000-50,000 women and children are brought into the United States for the purpose of trafficking. Often times, these females are given passports by their captors, but have them taken away once they have reached the United States. Because these women are practically left stranded and without money of their own, they are forced to participate in sexual work. Refusal to do so could lead to punishment from their captors. Furthermore, these women are treated harshly, and are often told if they do not comply, that they will be brought to the police and arrested. Obviously this can contribute to the lack of willingness for prostitutes to report to law enforcement (Nelson, 2002).

One of the greatest steps forward that the United States has made in terms of alleviating sex trafficking is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. In essence, this Act was aimed at curtailing the amount of trafficking by establishing specific task forces, perfecting immigration services, and bringing in initiatives that may include programs for skills training and job counseling, programs to keep girls in elementary and secondary schools, and programs to educate victims of sex trafficking. The initiatives also include grants to nongovernmental organizations to advance women’s political, economic, and educational roles in those countries (Nelson, 2002). While this is an excellent step, further progress legislatively is needed to help eradicate the problem of human trafficking.

How law enforcement can approach the subject of prostitution is up for debate. Many people are divided on the morality of prostitution, while some believe it is more reprehensible, another side believes that it is not harmful to the people/government. This makes it especially difficult for some law enforcement who are tasked with upending the act itself. One of the proposed, but unlikely, solutions is to legalize the act all together.

As of 2003, prostitution has been legal in New Zealand. The Prostitution Reform Act subjected the newly legalized industry to health and safety requirements and brothel certification processes; further, the Act authorized “territorial authorities” to regulate the location of brothels and oversee other related zoning requirements [] formed the Prostitution Law Review Committee, a committee of eleven members appointed by the Minister of Justice and charged with reviewing the effectiveness of the decriminalization scheme vis-a-vis its purpose: improving the working conditions of sex workers (Vanderbilt Law Review, 2018). This Act outlines some of the measures that the New Zealand government goes to in order to regulate the sex-work industry. But the question is, how effective was this decision?

According to the Vanderbilt Law Review, the sex-workers who were locate inside of brothels (regulated by the government) were far less likely to experience crimes such as rape, abuse, or other illegal acts. Furthermore, the workers were now given sanitary conditions to work in, making it safer for the workers themselves. Because this act is fairly new, some of the data involving the negative or positive effects has not been fully fleshed out (Vanderbilt Law Review, 2018). But one of the largest concerns involving prostitution within the United States is the worry that legalized prostitution would be monopolized by pimps and the like.

Bjam Hofmann and Morten Magelssen, writers for BMC Medical Ethics, detail a study taken on sex workers from Los Angeles, which found that only 6% of the workers had a pimp. While these numbers may have fluctuated since the time of this study, it is more than likely that most sex-workers in that area are not under a pimp (Hofmann & Magelssen, 2018). However, any implementation of government regulated sex-work within the United States would take a number of years to perfect. The process would appear to be logistically more simple for New Zealand considering the size of the country itself.

The criminal justice system would do well to focus on legislation that helps protect the rights of prostitutes, hold law enforcement accountable for treatment of prostitutes, and continue its fight against human trafficking. While prostitution remains a criminal activity, those that participate in it should be treated with the same rights as any other individual. While legislation and progress have been very positive in recent years, further changes seem to be on cusp of arriving.


Hofmann, B., & Magelssen, M. (2018). In pursuit of goodness in bioethics: analysis of an exemplary article. BMC Medical Ethics.

Nelson, K. E. (2002, Spring). Sex trafficking and forced prostitution: comprehensive new legal approaches. Houston Journal of International Law, 24(3), 551+

Saunders, P., & Kirby, J. (2010). Move along: community-based research into the policing of sex work in Washington, D.C. Social Justice, 37(1), 107+.

Sullivan, B. (2007, August). Rape, prostitution and consent. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 40(2), 127+.

Trafficked in Texas: Combatting the Sex-Trafficking Epidemic Through Prostitution Law and Sentencing Reform in the Lone Star State. (2018, October). Vanderbilt Law Review.

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Policing Prostitution. (2019, Jul 24). Retrieved January 31, 2023 , from

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