Amnesty International’s recent decision to support the legalization of sex work is a controversial one. The group reasoned that because these individuals lived outside of a licit society, they were more vulnerable to physical abuse: “Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse.” In order to bring these men and women out of the shadow economy and into the light, Amnesty International has supported the call for “consensual sex work” to be made legal in order that workers may be more legally protected from trafficking, violence, and exploitation. What interests me most–and is the question I posed to my Roman law students today–is whether the legalization of prostitution would, in fact, serve to decrease violence and discrimination towards sex workers.

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Mosaic of a Roman courtesan and a modern representation of a prostitute in a Norwegian ad campaign, which visually represented the marginality of prostitutes in society through crumpled, torn, and partially-incorporated posters at bus stops.

Although I have written a bit about courtesan shoes on this blog, I haven’t delved fully into the subject of Roman prostitutes. However, these marginal people are often disturbing mirrors, reflecting the elite fears and anxieties within a society. Both male and female prostitutes were frequently mistreated and abused in Roman antiquity, all within a society wherein prostitution was legal. Marginalization took the form of exclusion from cultic activities such as the Bona Dea festival, and the relegation of meretrices (prostitutes) to their own cult for Venus Erycina. These women were even spatially separated during certain religious rites. While the reputable Roman women celebrated within the city, disreputable prostitutes celebrated their cult outside Rome’s Porta Collina.

Detail of the Roman fresco from the bedroom (Cubiculum 43) in the Casa del Centenario .
Detail of the Roman fresco from the bedroom (Cubiculum 43) in the Casa del Centenario at Pompeii .

In regard to the physical vulnerability of these women, there could be great danger in being a prostitute. Pimps and prostitutes had less legal redress than those of higher status, and it appears that violence against those perceived as sexual deviants may have been more regularized. Even dressing as a prostitute could have violent repercussions–a defense all too familiar (and still just as ridiculous) even today. The jurist Ulpian noted:

“If someone accosts maidens, even those in slave’s garb, his offense is regarded as [less severe], even more so if the women be in prostitute’s dress and not that of a matron. Still if the woman be not in the dress of a matron and someone accost her or abduct her attendant, he will be liable to the action for insult.” (Dig. 47.10.15.15. mod. tr. Watson)

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Statue of Vibia Sabina (c. 136 AD), grand-niece of Trajan and wife of Hadrian. Vibia is dressed as a Roman matron and shows very little skin.

A key example of the vulnerability of prostitutes is in Cicero’s rather famous defense of a former Macedonian quaestor named Gnaeus Plancius in his Pro Plancio. When Plancius was accused of meddling with the election for the aedileship of 54 BCE, Cicero came to his friend’s defense and in the process enumerated some of the other accusations against him. One was the alleged rape of a mimula, a mime-actress, when he was young. Cicero defends Plancius not only by mentioning his youth, but also by saying that this was a common act against such actresses (Read: It was customary to rape such lowly actresses! No big deal!).

Coin struck in 55 BCE and issued by then-aedile Gnaeus Plancius, an accused rapist (Image via the ANS).
Coin struck in 55 BCE and issued by then-aedile Gnaeus Plancius, an accused rapist (Image via the ANS).

As individuals that bore the legal stigma of infamia (disrepute), Roman prostitutes were often dependent on pimps and those of higher status for physical protection. Extralegal individuals are almost always at higher risk for such violence both in ancient Rome and today. Let us not forget that a recent study in Colorado found that the crude mortality rate for prostitutes was 391 per 100,000 people, as compared with 1.9 per 100,000 people for the general populace. Drug use indeed caused some of these deaths, but assault and homicide against these individuals also contributed greatly. The researchers concluded that, “Women engaged in prostitution face the most dangerous occupational environment in the United States.” But can legalization dissipate this danger?

Although there are studies that support the thesis that the legalization of prostitution decreases violence against sex workers, it all depends on how it is legalized and the degree of protection afforded prostitutes. Ancient Rome had legal prostitution, but still legally stigmatized the prostitutes themselves, a move which greatly disadvantaged them within the court system and thus exposed them to social violence. When German parliament tried a move towards deregulation it in 2001, there was an increase in gang-bang brothels and human trafficking–largely from the area of Eastern Europe.

March in Toronto earlier this year to protest sex trafficking. Picture via Glammonitor.
March in Toronto earlier this year to protest sex trafficking. Picture via Glammonitor.

The historical lesson is perhaps that any move to legalize prostitution must be followed by heavy government oversight and work in coordination with police. As the Washington Post has pointed out, perhaps the best stance thus far is the “Swedish model” regarding prostitution. It criminalizes buying prostitution rather than selling it, and thus the johns / johnettes (wait, what is a female john called?) are prosecuted rather than the prostitute. One report has suggested that the Swedish model has reduced trafficking, but the data is still murky. In conclusion, I will say that I remain extremely hesitant about the move made by Amnesty International. I fear a dramatic increase in human trafficking will follow the move towards legalization of sex work, and will place thousands more into human bondage. If Roman culture has taught us anything, it is that, on a human rights level, marginal people need both legal and social protection: from rape, from violence, and from being pushed into the shadows. Legalization alone will not protect sex workers. Particularly in countries unprepared to seek out and prosecute human trafficking, it may even dramatically hurt them.