Most people find the idea of prostitution a little seedy, even if they partake of it, personally—and many do. A 2004 poll showed that 15% of all men, and 30% of unmarried men over age 30, had paid for sex. There’s a reason it’s called “the oldest profession,” because it has flourished in every human society, regardless of legality.
Private, consenting adult sex work, as one organization refers to it, is actually legal in most of Europe, Brazil, Australia, Israel, Canada, parts of Mexico, and is at least tolerated in much of Asia. The United States is the notable exception, where all forms of prostitution are both illegal and actively criminalized.
A big reason for this is that the U.S. was colonized by Puritans and remains a heavily religious, morality-driven country, at least among lawmakers. Prostitutes are considered sinners and whores, so their trade must be prohibited.
But are there more compelling reasons than morality for why prostitution is illegal? Would legalizing it—with certain reasonable guidelines, of course—cut down on the crime, health issues, and exploitation associated with it, or would it make it all worse? And who should bear the brunt of moral judgment–the prostitutes, or those who use them?
Who Is the Criminal Here?
One of the major issues with the question of prostitution is criminality vs. legality. When prostitution is illegal across the board, as it is in all of the U.S. except for parts of Nevada, then everyone associated with it becomes a criminal, including women who may be forced into it by poverty or other factors. Decriminalizing prostitutes themselves is one way to keep a legal eye on the practice, discourage it by prosecuting johns and pimps, but allow the women themselves to seek medical care and police protection without fear of jail time. While decriminalizing isn’t the same as legalizing, it allows police to look the other way to protect the women who are more often victims than criminals.
As with reproductive rights, the question comes down to “whose body is it, anyway?” Proponents of legalized prostitution argue that a woman has the right to use her own body as a means of earning money and that it is a violation of civil rights for the government to disallow the practice. Prostitutes are forced to constantly put their bodies—and therefore their livelihoods—at risk because they have no legal protection or rights. Legalizing prostitution (or decriminalizing the seller) would allow women to seek the healthcare they need, specific to their profession. State regulation could require monthly testing for HIV and other STDs, which would decrease the spread of those diseases.
In addition, prostitutes who are raped or otherwise abused would no longer need to be afraid to seek help. With regulation, prostitutes would have specific rights and the option of taking legal recourse when those rights are violated.
Any industry that involves sin is one that is vastly profitable—prostitution is an estimated $14 billion per year industry in the United States. Obviously, the fact that it’s illegal hasn’t hurt profits much, so why not siphon some of that cash into the country’s economy? By legalizing and regulating, the U.S. could tax prostitution and stock the coffers. The fact is, no matter how bad the economy, people will still buy pleasure, and legal pleasure is going to be far more of an economy booster than that which could land you in jail.
The Subjugation of Women
Given the money, civil rights, and health arguments, it seems pretty dumb not to legalize prostitution, right? Yes, except it’s a lot easier to justify on paper than in truth. Those who oppose legalization for reasons other than morality point out that, although consenting sex workers do exist, prostitution is absolute violence against women by men, and far more commonly non-consensual.
In fact, prostitution has been likened to slavery because of the high majority of sex workers doing so by force instead of choice–primarily underage children, the poor, and immigrants. Though in theory, legalizing prostitution would allow for regulation and then all the happy sex workers would be healthy and free, the reality is that it is likely to result in more trafficking, would give pimps even more power, and legitimatize the idea of women as a commodity.
Any change in the laws around prostitution should be focused on protecting the health and rights of the women who provide sex services. Decriminalization of the women while continuing to prosecute pimps and traffickers may be part of the answer. The role of the client is a grayer area, though some argue that any man who pays to use a woman’s body as an object is every bit as bad as those who enslave such women—especially in the cases of underage or non-consenting women. Perhaps it is the johns whose morality should be judged.