• Christopher Heaps

Most Americans support decriminalizing sex work. Will Oregon follow?

A 2015 report prepared for Multnomah County estimated that there are over 11,000 attempts to purchase sex in the county each month. A separate study from 2013 found that over 31,000 men in Portland solicit commercial sex from online ads. That's mind-blowing, and not only because it's all illegal. If nothing else, it shows that sex is big business despite the fact that Oregon criminalizes prostitution.

In Oregon, it's illegal to engage in prostitution (to sell sex or offer or agree to sell sex) and to solicit prostitution (to buy sex or offer or agree to buy sex). It's also illegal to promote prostitution (maintaining a place of prostitution or prostitution enterprise or causing others to engage in prostitution).

Whereas prostitution and solicitation of prostitution are misdemeanors, promoting prostitution is a felony, a more serious charge. That reflects the desire of the Oregon Legislature to more severely punish those who are involved in the business of prostitution, as opposed to those who are victimized or merely trying to make a living.

It also reflects the belief that criminalizing prostitution (broadly defined) will help "fight" human sex trafficking (coercing others into prostitution), which is also shockingly common in Oregon and elsewhere. And, particularly egregiously, often involves children as well as adults.

But it's far from clear that criminalizing prostitution helps reduce the incidence of prostitution or human trafficking. In fact, the 2015 Multnomah County study cited above shows that human sex trafficking is increasing in the county despite its ongoing criminalization. And the 2013 study cited above also shows that the County DA is not shy about prosecuting prostitution.

So, what's the answer? Prostitution isn't just the world's oldest profession. So is debate about whether prostitution should be prohibited, tolerated, regulated, or wholly decriminalized. A new poll by think-tank Data for Progress shows that a majority of Americans support decriminalizing sex work. Why? Well, as the data show, criminalization isn't working. And it has some pretty severe negative consequences as well.

Very few places have decriminalized prostitution. They are New Zealand; New South Wales, Australia; and Northern Territory, Australia. Those jurisdictions have reported both better outcomes for sex workers and no increase in the amount of prostitution.

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