Prostitution is one of the most controversial professions in the world. Legal and regulated in only 22 countries, as well as 11 counties of the state of Nevada, it is considered immoral by most of the world. The issues around prostitution are more complex, however, than a simple question of morality. Factors include crime, public health, the economy, freedom, and exploitation.
So, how do the numbers break down? Will legalizing prostitution solve the problems caused by black market prostitution, or create new problems? Should morality even be part of the discussion?
Here’s a look at the facts:
It’s difficult to know exactly how many people are or have been prostitutes, especially in areas where it is illegal, but it’s estimated that there are around 40 million prostitutes worldwide. Thailand is home to the most booming sex industry, bringing $35 billion per year to its economy, whereas in the U.S., taxpayers are stuck for $200 million per year in jail and court fees for prostitution busts. In some countries, prostitutes aren’t considered criminals, but their customers are. In the U.S., anyone involved in prostitution can be arrested, though statistics show that the prostitutes themselves are arrested 90% of the time, while only 10% of arrests are those who use them.
Pro-Legalizing Arguments and the Statistics That Betray Them
Proponents of legalized prostitution argue that a woman should have the right to make a living using her own body, and that legalizing the industry would allow prostitutes to enjoy proper healthcare, work in a safer environment with legal protection against abusive customers and pimps, and boost the economy through taxes. On paper, the arguments are sound, but the reality of prostitution tells a different story. A survey of 169 female prostitutes in the Chicago area showed that the average age at which they turned their first trick was 14, 75% had been abused as children, 58% have been assaulted, 20% carry STDs, and a whopping 92% would quit if they could afford to. Perhaps the assaults and the STDs would be improved by legalization and close regulation, but the numbers indicate that prostitution is rooted in abuse and tragedy, and that few would choose to be prostitutes if they didn’t have to.
Prostitution in Other Countries
In countries other than the U.S., prostitution comes with problems whether it is legal or not. In most countries where it is illegal, the black market sex trade booms anyway, usually to the detriment of the women and girls who are forced into sex work. In countries where it is legal and regulated, smuggling and sex trafficking are a major problem. In Bangladesh, for example, prostitution has limited legality, while pimping and brothel ownership are both legal—and yet, estimates of underage girls being sexually exploited there range from 10,000 to as many as 29,000. Legal prostitution in less corrupt countries, such as Belgium, which has highly-regulated, technologically advanced brothels (think fingerprint scanners and ID numbers), appears to be less problematic and is the gold-standard for proponents of legalization. However, even countries with seemingly successful legal prostitution attract smugglers supplying girls to other places.
Types of Prostitution in America
The word “prostitute” tends to conjure a picture of a scantily clad street-walker, and these are the type most often busted by law enforcement. However, much prostitution in the U.S. occurs through escort services and spas or massage parlors acting as a front for sex services. If you’ve ever been to Vegas, you may have seen signs for escorts or gentlemen’s clubs that are clearly shilling for johns. Nevada is the only state with legal prostitution, but all big cities have similar businesses advertising openly.
Escort services are careful to only advertise social companionship, though it’s understood that sexual encounters are often a part of the deal. Escort businesses protect themselves by remaining separated from any private arrangements that the escorts may make with individual clients. Law enforcement turns a blind eye, preferring to focus on the more visible street prostitutes.
Massage parlors are such obvious fronts for prostitution you would think they’d all be closed down by now, but they are proliferating throughout the U.S. with estimates as high as 90% of massage parlors offering sex in some areas. Like escort services, these establishments advertise openly, but avoid specific references to sex. The sheer number of them makes enforcing prostitution laws to raid and shut them down a nearly impossible task.