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Elizabeth Nolan Brown on the War on Sex Workers

Separating Facts from Hysteria on Sex Trafficking

3 min readMar 6, 2019


It seems like a rule that whenever government declares war on something, the problem gets worse. Elizabeth Nolan Brown is an award-winning journalist and Reason editor who writes about how hysteria around human trafficking has created a “War on Sex Workers” to complement the failed Wars on Drugs, Poverty, and Terror. The co-founder of Feminists for Liberty, she belongs to the wave of feminism that believes women are capable of making their own choices, freely, without harassment.

Consider the unseen effects of criminalizing prostitution. Where it’s illegal, women who would otherwise voluntarily become sex workers face the possibility of being abused by their clients with no recourse to law enforcement. Meanwhile, those who are being trafficked are forced to continue to meet inevitable black market demand.

Also consider that moral theologians from Augustine to Aquinas have supported legalized prostitution. Many countries operate regulated brothels to protect sex workers, but in our Puritan-founded country, we often fail to distinguish between the clear crime of sex trafficking and the victimless crime of voluntary prostitution. Historically, U.S. law enforcement has conflated the two in order to scare the public into supporting a ban on prostitution.

You can read about that history here:

Nolan Brown believes the latest hysteria spawned from Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft and the wave of crackdowns on prostitution is harming innocent women and creating a bogeyman. Here’s her message for an easily-excited media audience: Stop Letting People Lie to You About Hate Crime and Human Trafficking Spikes.

The increase in reported sex trafficking cases (as with hate crimes), comes from flawed data and reporting.The hysteria is bringing more and more non-trafficked sex workers into the legal system’s dragnet without addressing the actual problem.

Less hysterically, The Federalist’s David Marcus recently argued that “keeping government out of the bedroom” shouldn’t apply to commercial transactions. Marcus says legalization would remove the social stigma, which in turn would make the industry more profitable, widespread, and entrenched.

But does legalized prostitution increase human trafficking? Here, a question of principle turns into an empirical puzzle over which there is some disagreement. Certainly, differences between jurisdictions create islands of legalization and thus incentives for traffickers to transport women across borders like commodities.

However, statistics on sex trafficking are notoriously unreliable. Advocacy groups often inflate figures to attract more money from the government, and law enforcement is rewarded for each “perp” they bring to justice. Brown has documented cases in which overzealous police departments and sensationalist media have portrayed small, voluntary prostitution rings as major organized human-trafficking schemes.

My take: Everyone wants to pose as the Knight in Shining Armor who rescues women from being trafficked, including President Trump — who is using the issue as a talking point for his Wall.

There are no perfect solutions in an unjust world, but a rational society might start by acknowledging that not all sex workers are victims. David Marcus may have his heart in the right place, but he fails to consider how the market might regulate liaisons between consenting adults while reserving moral suasion for the cultural arena — leaving only questions of coercion in the hands of law enforcement.

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