The truth about prostitution


Last year, in what appeared to be a breakthrough ruling, Canada decided to legalize prostitution. Kind of.

Yes, as of December 6, you can legally prostitute yourself in Canada, but you can’t legally solicit a prostitute or advertise the sale of sexual services. Whether Bill C-36 effectively protects sex workers or doesn’t go far enough, the bill shows that prostitution still hasn’t found a comfortable place in society. The oldest profession in the world has been around for quite some time, but governments still don’t know what to do about it.

Here are some facts about prostitution around the world, and arguments for and against legalizing it.

Prostitution in the US and around the world

Quick facts:

  • Worldwide, prostitution is a $186 billion business
  • In the United States alone, prostitution is a $14.6 billion business
  • The number of prostitutes worldwide is estimated to be between 13.8 million and 40 million
  • Number of prostitutes in the United States is an estimated 1 million
  • 80 percent of prostitutes are female

(Statistics from Havocscope and Fondation Scelles)

As a matter of criminal law, prostitution is legal to some degree in many places, including Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, most of South America, many European countries, some African countries, and parts of Asia. In the United States prostitution is legal only in parts of Nevada. In Nevada, 11 of 16 counties have legalized prostitution, although only 8 counties currently have brothels.

(See this on a map.)

 Arguments for legalizing prostitution

– Legalized prostitution would bring in tax money. A 2009 proposal to charge just $5 per customer in Nevada included an estimated $2 million yearly increase in tax revenue from legal brothels alone. The proposal, Senate Bill 369, was rejected.

– Legalized prostitution would improve safety conditions for prostitutes. Female prostitutes are subject to higher rates of rape and physical abuse compared to women of the same age who are not prostitutes. An estimated 68 to 80 percent of prostitutes have been raped. The mortality rate is higher among prostitutes, too. One study found that the mortality rate among prostitutes was 391 per 100,000 compared to 1.9 in the general population.  According to the same study, the two leading causes of death were violence and drug use. Women working illegally as prostitutes may be unwilling to contact authorities for help or to prosecute their abusers. By legalizing prostitution, the argument goes, these women would be less likely to suffer violence in the first place and more likely to report abuse.

– Legalized prostitution would reduce the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases and other diseases. In legal Nevada brothels, prostitutes are tested monthly for syphilis and HIV and weekly for gonorrhea and chlamydia. They are also required to use condoms. A study presented last year at an AIDS conference in Australia stated that HIV infection rates could be reduced by 33 to 46 percent if prostitution were legalized. A 2012 report from the United Nations Development Program argued that voluntary prostitution should be decriminalized around the world for the primary purpose of reducing the spread of HIV.

– Individuals should be free to make contracts regarding their own bodies, including the consensual decision to exchange sex for money. The American Civil Liberties Union makes this argument and also points out that, although both male and female prostitutes exist, the laws against prostitution are more frequently used against women.

– “It’s been around forever, and it’s not going away, so you might as well legalize it and regulate it.” This argument has been used to argue for legalizing and regulating abortion, guns, and drugs.

Arguments against legalizing prostitution

– Legalized prostitution would lead to more human trafficking. As a 2004 report from the Department of State states, “Where prostitution is legalized or tolerated, there is a greater demand for human trafficking victims and nearly always an increase in the number of women and children trafficked into commercial sex slavery.” The report also says that of the estimated 600,000 to 800,000 people who are trafficked internationally yearly, 80 percent are female. A 2012 study of countries where prostitution is legal found that countries with legalized prostitution have higher rates of incoming human trafficking than countries where prostitution is outlawed.

– Legalized prostitution would not lead to the eradication of illegal prostitution. All of the supposed benefits of legalizing prostitution, like better working conditions and less violence against sex workers, would not be a reality for the many prostitutes working illegally. In an area of Queensland, Australia, where brothels are legal, three brothels closed due to competition from the illegal sex trade. Even where prostitution is legal, an illegal trade exists alongside it.

– Prostitution is simply wrong. Many individuals believe this, and many religions state this as a value, too, including Catholics, who say that “prostitution does injury to the dignity of the person who engages in it.”

– “The fact that it’s been around forever isn’t enough of a reason to legalize it. Slavery has also been around forever, but you can’t argue that we should legalize and regulate that.”

Which side are you on? Is it time for the United States to legalize prostitution?

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Avvo.

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