Staff Columnist

Could anti-sex trafficking policies lead to more abuse in Iowa?

Decriminalizing sex work may seem radical, but there's strong evidence for it

The Iowa City Police Department logo is shown on a squad car in Iowa City on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Ga
The Iowa City Police Department logo is shown on a squad car in Iowa City on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

Good intentions can have deadly consequences.

Government leaders in several Iowa communities are considering moves to crack down on alleged illicit massage businesses. Law enforcement authorities suspect they are selling illegal sex services, and some licensed massage therapists say they give the industry a bad reputation.

Stakeholders say their main concern with illicit massage businesses is the possibility of human sex trafficking, where victims are coerced to perform sex acts and are deprived of most or all of the money exchanged. However, some advocates are conflating human trafficking with all sex work, and supporters of sex workers’ rights say that’s a mistake.

“In the context of consensual sex work, we act as though people with vaginas should not be choosing when or why they have sex and who they have it with. Effectively it’s saying that they couldn’t possibly make decisions about their own bodies,” said Jaime Nevins, an Iowa City licensed massage therapist and an advocate for sex workers’ rights.

Nevins — who was among a group of licensed massage therapists in a recent meeting with Iowa City authorities to discuss policies relating to massage businesses — added, “It’s like you can’t really be against [the proposed regulations] or you’ll be pro-sex trafficking, or perceived as that.”

Sex work remains illegal, but it does not represent a grave violation of human rights like human trafficking does. Lumping the two together is not only incorrect, it may also be dangerously counterproductive in the difficult fight to uncover actual sex abuse.

Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed a bill earlier this year to crack down on websites like Craigslist and Backpage which people use to arrange sex services. Framed as an effort to address sex trafficking, the legislation earned huge bipartisan support, just two dissenting votes in the Senate and 25 in the House, with all of Iowa’s federal lawmakers in support.

Many of those web pages are disappearing, and some argue that’s dangerous. A 2017 study from Baylor University found Craigslist’s “erotic services” section led to a 17 percent decline in female homicides in cities where it was available before the ban.


Rhode Island decriminalized sex work between 2003 and 2009. At the same time, the state saw a 31 percent decline in forcible rapes against female victims, which analysts at the National Bureau of Economic Research attributed to decriminalization.

Decriminalizing sex work may seem like a radical idea, but several major human rights organizations are pushing for it, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the World Health Organization. They have correctly concluded criminalization only isolates potential trafficking victims from the resources they need.

Bans on sex work are in some ways similar to drug and alcohol restrictions. Prohibition inevitably leads to underground markets, with little oversight or regulation. Violence thrives in secrecy.

Humans have been exchanging sex for money and goods for thousands of years. No act of government will end the practice. To the contrary, government policy tends to make matters worse.

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