Give for Freedom

Four Legal Response Models to Prostitution

What do laws say about sex trafficking? It depends on how a governing body decides to approach prostitution. The four possible legal responses to prostitution are:

  • Criminalization
  • Partial Decriminalization
  • Full Decriminalization
  • Legalization


All aspects of commercial sex are deemed illegal. All individuals including traffickers, buyers, and victims are legally responsible for their role. In the United States, this is the most common response to the issues of prostitution and sex trafficking.

Most commonly, trafficking activities are defined as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons for the purpose of exploitation. States differentiate on terminology and characteristics of the crime and vary in the degree of punishment. Some jurisdictions have expanded their definition of trafficking by including activities like purchasing, benefitting or profiting.

According to the National Conference of State Legislation, Vermont is among those imposing the stiffest penalties, defining “benefiting financially from participation in a venture where a person is compelled to engage in commercial sex." California’s trafficking statute applies to actions that would prove "depriving someone of their liberty, including coercion, violence, menace, and duress."

Partial Decriminalization

Buying or facilitating the sale of sex is deemed a crime, but prostituted individuals are viewed as victims and not criminals. This model is widely known as the Nordic Model. It is the result of the 1999 Swedish legislation that increased penalties for buyers and traffickers. Eye Heart World endorses this model because it recognizes that the sale of sex is inherently exploitative. It criminalizes buyers and traffickers while providing support to survivors.

Full Decriminalization

All laws prohibiting and regulating prostitution are removed, including those against facilitating and buying. Other laws, including those against sex trafficking and child exploitation, still apply.


Prostitution is regulated by the government. These governmental controls include for the prostituted individuals, NOT the buyers: mandatory licenses, mandatory health screenings, zoning ordinances, curfews, special taxes. Germany, Amsterdam, and parts of Nevada have legalized prostitution.

Eye Heart World endorses Partial Decriminalization, aka the Nordic Model.

Here’s why:

  1. It’s proven to be successful in substantially decreasing sex trafficking.

The Nordic Model decriminalizes the sale of sex by prostituted individuals while increasing the penalties for other parties. First adopted by Sweden, the Nordic Model has also been implemented in Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Canada, France, and Israel.

According to the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, the first decade after Sweden enacted its legislation to severely prosecute traffickers and buyers has seen incredible results.

“Street prostitution has been cut in half; there is no evidence that the reduction in street prostitution has led to an increase in prostitution elsewhere, whether indoors or on the Internet; the bill provides increased services for women to exit prostitution; fewer men state that they purchase sexual services; and the ban has had a chilling effect on traffickers who find Sweden an unattractive market to sell women and children for sex.”


  1. It recognizes that prostitution is inherently harmful.

The Nordic Model sees all prostitution as a human rights violation. When Sweden first implemented the Nordic Model, they identified the goal of abolishing prostitution by eliminating the demand for commercially exchanged sex. It’s time we all recognized that violence is inherent to prostitution and it can never be truly, totally safe.

  1. It promotes gender equality and puts people first.

The Nordic Model relies heavily on the presence of a socio-economic system that prioritizes gender equality, aspires to economic equity, and recognizes the government’s responsibility to provide comprehensive services.

According to the Scandinavian Human Rights Lawyers, “Another positive effect [of the Nordic Model] was that social attitudes towards purchasing sex shifted and today the majority of the Swedish population, especially young people, support the ban. The law is said to have made a clear statement about respect for women and gender equality – women are not commodities to be sold or bought – and was part of a bill on violence against women.”


  1. Legalizing prostitution does NOT reduce trafficking.

It is a common misperception that the legalization of prostitution will result in fewer individuals being sex trafficked.

Nevada is the only U.S. state where licensed brothels are legal in counties with a population of less than 700,000. (Prostitution and brothels are not legal in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located.)

An analysis completed by Creighton University this year reveals that adjusted for population, Nevada’s commercial sex market is by far the largest of any other state in the nation.

Nevada’s number of prostituted persons per capita is 63% larger than the next largest state, New York, and more than twice as many as California. The analysis shows at least 5,016 individuals are sold for sex in an average month in Nevada.

Nevada’s illegal sex market has more than 19,000 women and children being sold for sex annually. To give context, that is nearly the student body of the University of Nevada.

The Creighton analysis further reveals that a person prostituted in the illegal trade near licensed brothels is at similar risk of being trafficked as a person trafficked in areas without legal brothels.

Not only does the existence of brothels do nothing to curb the occurrence or reduce the harms of sex trafficking, but the existence of legal brothels also empowers those seeking to exploit women and children and further increases prevalence of trafficking.

  1. Legalizing prostitution does NOT reduce sexual exploitation of minors.

The Creighton analysis also reveals youth is an important characteristic sought by sex buyers in Nevada. Evidence of this comes from the advertised prices of youth being sold for sex. The data shows higher prices are charged for younger females in Nevada and puts Nevada in the top ten states in the country in terms of prostituted youth and trafficked persons. We know from the clients we serve and from a solid body of research that many were first prostituted at 13-15 years old.


**This study was commissioned by Awaken and research was funded by the Nebraska Women’s Foundation of Omaha.  

LInk to the study: