The Sex Buyer Law: Choice, Voice and Violence

Hannah Bondi is the outgoing Editor-in-Chief of Breaking the Glass Ceiling.

The global sex industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. The sex industry could be seen as consisting in a range of businesses providing sex products, services (prostitution) and adult entertainment (pornography). However, if we were to understand the real way in which people are treated in it, we would be less quick to legitimise its whole existence as simply a conglomeration of ‘businesses’. The truth is that there is no ‘bad’ part of the sex industry that can be nicely separated from the rest of the sex industry. A significant part of the sex industry is prostitution, which is the practise of engaging in sexual activity for money. We know that most of prostitution is violent, coercive, strongly linked to human trafficking and exploitative. I will argue that we need to treat prostitution as such when making laws. I will first explain the ideological feminist debates that have led to the two polarised views on prostitution/sex work. Then I will examine voice and choice in prostitution before advocating for the Sex Buyer Law.

The Historical Feminist Debate on Prostitution

The feminist ‘sex wars’ of the 1970s and 1980s dealt with topics such as prostitution, pornography, sado-masochistic sexual relationships and erotica. The divide was between the radical feminists, who believed that sexuality under patriarchy is formed in ways that are dangerous, and libertarian feminists, who believed that absolute choice is the key to women’s sexual freedom and liberation. Many see the feminist sex wars as an important formative period that demarcated second-wave from third-wave. Although we can see how the debate has influenced third-wave feminism now, I disagree that the third-wave is a result of libertarian feminism. It is fair to say that third-wave feminism focuses more on choice than second-wave. However, third-wave feminists are still influenced by the critical theory of second-wave feminism, such as the theory of patriarchy.

The key difference between radical and libertarian feminists is how they viewed the ideal of sexual liberation. Radical feminists thought that:

“The ideal sexual relationship is between fully consenting, equal partners who are emotionally involved and do not participate in polarised roles.”

The libertarian feminist position is:

“The ideal sexual relationship is between fully consenting, equal partners who negotiate to maximise one another’s sexual pleasure and satisfaction by any means they choose.”

Radical feminists viewed sexual freedom, therefore, as:

“Sexual freedom requires the sexual equality of partners and their equal respect for one another both as subject and as body.”

Libertarian feminists viewed sexual freedom, therefore, as:

“Sexual freedom requires oppositional practices, that is, transgressing social respectable categories of sexuality and refusing to draw the line on what counts as politically correct sexuality.” (Ferguson, 1984)

Radical and libertarian feminists decidedly focus on different ideals of sex and sexual freedom. Radical feminists draw on theories of patriarchy to identify that sexual relationships can only be truly free if they are free from patriarchy, so sexual partners are equal. Therefore, all sexual relationships that patriarchy has used to oppress women, such as sado-masochistic relationships, must be rejected. Libertarian feminists focus on the importance of individual choice in what brings one sexual pleasure. The key to freeing oneself from patriarchy is having absolute choice in what brings you pleasure, which means rejecting ideas of respectable sex. The argument centres around the ideal form of sexual liberation.

I won’t go into the feminist sex war debates on sado-masochism, pornography and erotica. Instead, I want to focus on prostitution. Radical feminists viewed prostitution as a tool of patriarchy to keep women oppressed, maintaining the “male sex-right” of access to a female’s body to sate male ‘biological’ needs (Pateman, 1988). Libertarian feminists viewed prostitution as sex work which allows women to own their sexuality, challenging sexual stigma and benefitting financially from it (Nussbaum, 1999). I think it is important for us to know what the feminist sex wars were as they are the ideological roots of current arguments.

The question of whether those in prostitution choose to be there divides a lot of feminists. Choice is important in understanding how voluntary selling sex is. Another question is what those in prostitution want, what their ‘voice’ tells us their situation is like. Voice is the actual experience of those who sell or are forced to sell sex.


There are some who make a genuine choice to sell sex and that should be respected. People choose to sell sex for a number of reasons, such as wanting to make more money on the side and genuinely enjoying having sex for a living. However, 89% of those in prostitution globally want “to escape prostitution, but did not have other options for survival” (Farley, et al., 2008, Findings). There are a number of factors that push people into prostitution, the most obvious factor being economic need. We know that 75% of those in the sex industry have been homeless at some point in their lives (p. 43) and most are from working class backgrounds. As stated by Laura Timms who works with the East London Rape Crisis Centre, “The best available evidence absolutely bears out that, you know, by and large, women do not choose to be in prostitution” (Shuker & Mactaggart, 2014). Vednita Carter, a survivor of prostitution who holds sharing groups for those still in it, states “I’ve been doing the work of helping women escape prostitution for almost 30 years. I’ve worked with literally thousands of women. Out of the thousands of women I have heard, only very few say that they really liked it and that’s why they stay in it”. The truth is that there is no evidence of most of those in prostitution actually making a voluntary choice to enter. It is overwhelmingly true that most want out.

Another important consideration is how the preferences of those who enter prostitution are shaped by other factors. It has been noted by many that there is a link between child sexual abuse and prostitution. 60% of those in prostitution were sexually abused as children by an average of two perpetrators (Silbert & Pines, 1981) (Simons & Whitbeck, 1991). Of those who were sexually abused as children 70% “reported that the sexual exploitation definitely affected their decision to become a prostitute” (Silbert & Pines, p. 407). Those interviewed overwhelmingly stated that the feeling of “being dirty” or “feeling that’s [sex] the only thing she is good for” (p. 410) led them to prostitution. This is not to say everyone feels this way. However, the evidence shows that there is too strong a link for us to ignore.

Finally, it is important to understand the role that trafficking plays in the sex industry. Trafficking victims are enslaved peoples and so have no choice in their situation. Some say that there is a difference between those who choose to sell sex and those who are forced to and so prostitution and trafficking are separate. However, almost all sex trafficking victims (over 10 million people, 98% women and girls) are sold into the commercial sex industry (Equality Now, What is Sex Trafficking?). Therefore, when we talk about prostitution we must understand that it is definitely not separate from the sex trafficking of women and girls. The demand created by male sex buyers (there are hardly any female sex buyers) for sex feeds the sex trafficking industry. This can be seen in the contrast between countries that have the Sex Buyer law and those that have legalised prostitution. Sweden’s Sex Buyer Law, which decriminalises prostituted persons and criminalises sex buyers and third parties (i.e. brothel owners), has led to a significant decrease in sex trafficking into the country (Swedish Ministry of Justice, 2010, p. 34-5, 37). This is mainly put down to there being less of a demand for female bodies and a higher risk of being caught. Instead, sex traffickers tend to trade in women and girls in countries that have fully legalised prostitution. Axel Dreher, a professor of international and developmental politics at the University of Heidelberg was able to find a trend among the 150 countries he could find sex trafficking data on; sex trafficking is higher in countries where prostitution has been fully legalised (Meyer, Neuman, Schmid, Truckendanner, & Winter, 2013).

When we make laws on prostitution we must remember that sex traffickers are very, very much interested in what we decide as a country. Sex trafficking is not separate from our prostitution laws and we must take this into account or else we would not be trying to do justice to sex trafficking victims. Furthermore, the sex industry preys on vulnerable people. We need to acknowledge that some people choose to sell sex for a living, but evidence shows that they are a minority. As Bridget Perrier, a First Nation survivor of prostitution and activist, states “Of the 400 women that I’ve counselled in the work that I do, 98% say they wanted out, so why is the 2% speaking for the 98%”. The truth is is that the sex industry is mainly not concerned with the choice of the people it exploits. In fact, it actively makes money off those who are desperate.


An important part of feminism is the centring of experience of those from different groups. Academic feminists who theorise about the lives of women from their university studies are no longer the authority on what liberates women. The voice of those who feminists theorise about is becoming more and more important in how feminism is formed. This is a much needed change as feminism has become more inclusive of marginalised voices than when it was dominated by white, middle-class women in America. What does this mean for selling sex?

The sex work movement places a lot on the ‘voice’ of sex workers. The English Collective of Prostitutes states in their manifesto that “sex workers must decide how [they] want to work”. This emphasis on the decision-making tools being placed in the hands of the group concerned is part of a healthy feminist tradition. However, those in prostitution are most definitely not a homogenous group. The issue with the ‘voice’ principle is that it is at risk of assuming that all those in a group hold the same view on their situation. If we want to truly centre the group that we are concerned with in feminism, then we must rather focus on the many voices in that group.

Bridget Perrier and Vednita Carter, both SPACE International activists

The English Collective of Prostitutes is one of a number of groups that advocate for selling sex to be viewed as work. In contrast, other groups, such as SPACE International and local ‘exiting’ organisations, that are solely led by those who are survivors of prostitution or currently still in prostitution, view prostitution as a system whereby women and girls (and men and boys) are bought and sold for the sexual pleasure of males. They reject the idea that prostitution is mostly sex work. Fiona Broadfoot, a survivor and activist with SPACE, states that “it’s not sex and it’s not work… I’ve never met a woman who’s empowered by prostitution… For me, sex work doesn’t describe what it’s really about” (Broadfoot, 2018). She was later called a ‘sex worker’ in a BBC article, to which she replied “I am not a former sex worker, I was a victim of child sexual exploitation and abuse…this term is in no way appropriate!”.

A second important consideration is needed here. Not only do we want to listen and understand different opinions from those in prostitution, we also want a representative array of opinions. In the case of prostitution, getting a more representative opinion is near impossible. Most do not have the opportunity to be political agents demanding their rights. As previously shown, most are coerced into prostitution and controlled while in it. 53% enter prostitution with a pimp and more than 80% become involved with pimps over time (Giobbe, 1993). Most researchers agree that pimps are controlling the people they prostitute, especially with the use of “threats, intimidation and violence”, leading to “frequent, pervasive and brutal” treatment (Williamson & Cluse-Tolar, 2002, p. 1075-1076). This means that a significant number of prostituted persons are actively stopped from being able to give their own political opinion. We do not have access to a representative opinion of people in prostitution. This must be remembered when we talk about the ‘voice’ of those who sell sex.

Therefore, when we listen to the voices of those in prostitution we must remember that they do not blanket agree that ‘sex work is work’. That many oppose it because their experience of prostitution is violence. That most cannot speak.

The Sex Buyer Law

Before I argue why I believe that the Sex Buyer law is the best legal model we have for prostitution, I want to establish the level of violence within prostitution. It can be conclusively said that the vast majority of people  in prostitution have been raped, physically assaulted and/or sexually coerced while in prostitution and consequently suffer PTSD (Shuker & Mactaggart, 2014) (Farley, et al., 2008) (Farley & Banken, 1998) (Baral, Kiremire, Sezgin, & Farley, 1998). Considering these facts, as well as the lack of choice and the call from survivor-led organisations for change, prostitution is an industry that capitalises on human suffering for the sexual pleasure of males. Unfortunately, I do not think that any legal model we have will eradicate violence against those in prostitution. It is too prevalent and too many sex buyers expect to be allowed to violate the people they buy for it to be eradicated suddenly. We need a holistic solution, that will help prostituted persons exit, change the cultural narrative and much more.

Something we can all agree on is no one should be criminalised for selling or being forced to sell sex. This is important partly because of those who choose to sell sex and should not be criminalised for making this choice. However, this is much more important for those who were coerced, lured or forced to sell sex. Under criminalisation, people who did not voluntarily sell sex, which is most people, would be subject to punishment by the law for ‘soliciting’. This is fundamentally wrong.

The Sex Buyer law is what I think comes closest to actually dealing with this industry. It only punishes buyers and third parties. As previously stated, it addresses the issue of human trafficking better than other models. Moreover, the Sex Buyer law demands that there are ‘exit’ strategies for those in prostitution if they are considered an “injured party”. Whether someone is an injured party “must be determined in individual cases”, taking into account the testimony of the person in question (Evaluation of the ban on purchase of sexual services, 2010). Exit strategies help injured parties, mostly young women and girls, out of prostitution if they so wish. I see this as part of a more holistic solution as it acknowledges that we need to go beyond punishing demand and actually provide emotional, financial and general lifestyle support for those wanting to exit prostitution. This support would involve both a national strategy and local strategies that would provide a tailored approach for the individual who wishes to exit. Strategies would provide continuing care for those leaving as exiting can be a lengthy and difficult process (Pool, et al., 2016).

The popular alternative to the Sex Buyer law is blanket decriminalisation which decriminalises people who are sex workers, third parties and buyers. This differs from legalisation as legalisation involves the regulation of ‘sex work’, while decriminalisation involves no regulation. Decriminalisation exists in New Zealand, after the New Zealand Collective of Prostitutes (NZCP) successfully lobbied for the New Zealand Prostitution Reform Act that was passed in 2003. This is attractive for many as the government does not control the lives of those it considers sex workers and treats ‘sex work’ as a job. However, the same problems still arise. New Zealand’s government issued a report in 2008 that reviewed decriminalisation. It found that decriminalisation had not led to a decrease in violence, unsafe practises remained a problem (i.e. low usage of condoms) and perceived stigma had not changed (Report of the Prostitution Law Review Committee on the Operation of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003, 2008). Furthermore, there is evidence that decriminalisation reinforces “prostitution culture”, as a survey of young undergraduate men in the U.S.A. showed. Young men in Nevada, a decriminalised area, were much more likely to accept and normalise rape myths, sexual violence and exploitation within prostitution than their counterparts in areas with different prostitution laws (Waltman, 2011, pp. 457-458). This undermines the idea that decriminalisation challenges stigma; it seems that it actually reinforces it.

Some argue that decriminalisation is preferable to the Sex Buyer law as the latter risks driving prostitution underground as sex buyers are more afraid of being caught. However, there is no evidence of this. The Swedish government investigated claims of prostitution going underground after the instatement of the Sex Buyer law and found that “these fears have not been realised” (Swedish Ministry of Justice, 2010, p. 37) and that, as sex buyers became more cautious, they slowly stopped purchasing sex.

Sabrinna Valisce was a member of NZCP and an advocate for blanket decriminalisation. She now advocates for the Sex Buyer law as she says “we went from fearing the police, to fearing the pimps”. Valisce found that, under decriminalisation, the patriarchal power structures in place were strengthened rather than challenged. All the power went to the buyers and pimps and the buyers became emboldened to demand more and more painful sex acts (Moran, 2018). Normalisation of ‘sex work’ did not stop stigma, but in fact reinforced the negative sexist ideas surrounding prostitution. Valisce decided she had to leave prostitution after seeing one woman walk into the brothel she was working in collapse. The woman had just seen a ‘client’ who had raped her. She was told by the ‘manager’ to get over it and move on. Valisce walked out there and then. She says that the NZCP only wanted to make things better and she respects them for that, but that isn’t how things turned out. She now advocates for the Sex Buyer law as the only legal model we have that can truly challenge the violence and exploitation in prostitution.

A number of INGOs have voiced their support for decriminalisation. Most notably, Amnesty International finalised it’s policy advocating for states to fully decriminalise prostitution and to recognise ‘sex work’ as a profession. One could argue that they must be onto something here, as organisations that have the resources to make informed judgements. However, Amnesty drew a lot from the Global Network of Sex Work Projects and especially the former vice-president Alejandra Gil. She was recently sentenced to prison for 15 years for sex trafficking. Gil was found to have forced women, especially in Mexico City, to have sex with male sex buyers and she would keep most of the money (Banyard, 2015). This is what one victim of Gil’s trafficking scheme stated: Gil’s “job was to watch us from the car. Her son or her took us to hotels and charged us fees. She kept records. She had a list where she kept records of everything. She even wrote down how long you took”. It is important to remember that big organisations, such as INGOs, are still vulnerable to being fed misinformation, such as Gil did when she was cited as an “expert” in a World Health Organisation report on prostitution (World Health Organisation, 2012).

In conclusion, prostitution is a global industry that exploits and encourages abuse of mostly women and girls, as well as some men and boys. When deciding what law we should adopt I believe that the Sex Buyer law is the only viable option for actually addressing the vast amount of harm that prostitution does to people. I believe in the criminalisation of sex buyers because it is their demand that creates and allows this violence and so they should be treated as criminals participating in a criminal activity. We must remember that the majority of prostitution is violent, coercive and should not be seen as a legitimate form of business. The Sex Buyer law is based on this recognition. I do not think that the Sex Buyer law is a perfect solution. However, it is the best we have.



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