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Legal Approaches to Ending Sexual Exploitation

In enacting and implementing national legislation we advocate that states consider the ecosystem of national laws, policies, and actors interacting with each other that impact sexual exploitation.

This may include laws regarding:

  • human trafficking
  • sexual offenses
  • prostitution
  • immigration
  • child protection
  • sexual violence
  • technology and communication
  • maritime business and offenses
  • tourism, etc,

as well as gender and sex discriminatory laws that increase vulnerability and policies related to social welfare and the reduction of gendered socio-economic vulnerability.

Legal principles to ending sexual exploitation

Ending sexual exploitation requires a comprehensive human rights and gender equality based approach, which takes into account that vulnerability arises from systemic inequality and seeks to address it.

Sexual exploitation can often mean that people are caught in cycles of sexual violence and assault. It is critical to implement legal safeguards for those who are exploited, ensuring they are protected from harm and are never criminalized.

Laws and policies must aim to achieve substantive equality by:

  • Addressing vulnerability through equality in the law
  • Resourcing a strong social welfare state
  • Ensuring accountability for those who are responsible for or are enabling exploiters to continue to act with impunity, e.g. child protection in schools or and tech companies protecting vulnerable users.
  • Ensuring accountability for those who would sexually harass, abuse, assault or exploit
  • Providing holistic support for people who are exploited or abused, including opportunities to recover

Taken collectively, these policies function to greatly reduce one’s vulnerability to being groomed, trafficked or otherwise sexually exploited, including commercially to meet one’s basic needs.

In addition to reducing vulnerabilities, there must be accountability for those who would sexually harass, abuse, assault or exploit. The #MeToo movement is a particularly potent example of the global call for accountability around issues of violence against women. Among the legislative approaches to increase accountability are laws that require positive sexual consent (meaning sex must be voluntary) and penalize those that would use their position of power – including socio-economic power – to obtain sex acts, whether it be in exchange for a promotion or money.

Recognizing that sexual exploitation may nevertheless occur – particularly among migrant women and other marginalized groups that may be in situations of heightened vulnerability, support must always be freely accessible and independent of immigration status.

International human rights law

International human rights law protects a person’s right to be free from exploitation. These treaties and standards include:

By ratifying international human rights treaties, States commit to putting in place national legislation compatible with their treaty obligations and duties. To fulfill their human rights obligations, States must take positive action to enable people to realize those rights.