Prostitution, “the world’s oldest profession,” is fraught with stereotypes of immorality, filth, and disease. This is partially because of its continued criminalization in much of the world. It continues to be controversial issue, even though it has been around for thousands of years. Many people, such as the religious and some feminists are opposed to prostitution on moral grounds, whether they see it as harmful to women or to society. It has been called “white slavery.” Others against prostitution follow legal grounds, citing consistency of law enforcement as more important than legalization. On the other side of the debate are people who believe that prostitution should be legalized. Some of these people are feminists themselves, and the issue of agency and personal freedom is one main reason for legalization. Another argument proponents of legalization make is that the laws and policies we have in place against sex work in much of the world are not stemming the incidence of prostitution, but are making it more dangerous. Health and safety are important aspects of both sides of this issue.
Some believe that it is more important to standardize enforcement of current laws regarding prostitution than to reform the laws themselves or remove punitive policies. Criminalization has often affected only the sellers of sex, who are disproportionately arrested more than the buyers (Johnson, 2014, p 717). Throughout the history of prostitution in the US, Americans have “almost universally refused to legalize and regulate prostitution” (Johnson, 2014, p 720). With this knowledge, it is clear that enforcing the laws that already exist with an even hand is more likely to be effective and accepted than completely changing the laws. We don’t arrest “johns” (purchasers of sex), nearly as much as prostitutes, partially because of discrimination and the fact that police use male decoys, partially because it is harder to catch johns (although many police do not try and many courts do not delve deeply into evidence when johns do appear) (Johnson, 2014, p 727). As both johns and prostitutes profit from sex in a reciprocal exchange, both should be punished equally under existing law (Johnson, 2014, p 744).
One side of feminism is of the view that prostitution manifests a systemic problem of male domination in politics, economics, and society overall (Johnson, 2014, p 722). As posited by the former Swedish Minister of Gender Equality, Margareta Winberg, often women and children in prostitution are those who are marginalized economically and ethically, treated as a “caste of people whose purpose is to sexually service men” (Farley, 2013, p. 370). Prostitution is part of rape culture that encourages male violence and is harmful to women (more like slavery than liberation) (Farley, 2013, p. 370). There is psychological damage associated with being a prostitute, with most experiencing emotional distress and two thirds of people in prostitution meeting criteria for PTSD in a 9 country study (Farley, 2013, p. 371). One survivor, a lap dancer, says she can no longer tolerate the touch of any man, and from their hateful remarks toward her she has come away with “numb disinterest” (Farley, 2013, p. 371-2). Impoverished women enslaved in countries like China and Vietnam are transported to the US and renamed “migrant sex workers,” denying violent racism and implying free choice (Farley, 2013, p. 372). Third party control of prostitution shows up in pimping as high as 80% of all prostitution, and this type of coercive control meets “most legal definitions of trafficking” (Farley, 2013, p. 373). Commodification of women into objects sets prostitution up for violence and is a dehumanizing process (Farley, 2013, p. 373).
Prostitution is rarely a choice, more often being a last resort to continue survival when other alternatives exist; 89% of those in prostitution said they did the work because they had no alternative means to survive economically and saw no means of escape (Farley, 2013, p. 374). Women in prostitution show higher rates of being sexually abused as children than other women, and then they grow up to be paid for similar forms of abuse (Farley, 2013, p. 374). Coerced consent is not truly consent. Just because a woman knows what type of work she is getting into, this does not necessarily give her control of the situation or means to avoid it. Harm reduction programs offering support groups and free condoms are not enough, because they do not offer prostitutes a means of escape from the work (Farley, 2013, p. 376). Those who buy sex are predatory, often having attitudes that justify violence and objectification of women (Farley, 2013, p. 376). Coercive methods used by pimps and traffickers are very similar to those used in slavery as listed in the Thirteenth Amendment: “being deprived of food, sleep and money, being beaten and being raped, being tortured and threatened with death” (Farley, 2013, p. 379). Being choiceless is inherent to both prostitution and slavery, and in both situations, desperation can keep people in the same situation. Women who have survived prostitution see the experience as highly degrading (Farley, 2013, p. 382). Prostitution is bestial and encourages inequality and violence (Farley, 2013, p. 384).
Some human rights activists and feminists believe that legalization of prostitution would help the health, agency, and legal harms that sex workers face. The International guidelines on HIV/AIDS and human rights states that sex work that doesn’t involve victimization should be decriminalized and then the health and safety aspects of it should be legally regulated to support both sex workers and their clients (Overs & Loff, 2013, p. 187). Overs and Loff state that United Nations agencies and groups of sex workers argue that criminalizing sex work has a negative impact on the workers’ health and human rights; the sex workers are adversely affected by laws and enforcement that actually result in higher exposure to violence and HIV, and lower their access to health services and education (2013, p. 187). Advocates of law reform argue that legitimization of sex work would protect sex workers from exploitation, and allow for trade in safer work places (Overs & Loff, 2013, p. 187).
In areas that have legal, regulated prostitution such as New Zealand, public health measures can be undertaken to reduce health risks to both client and worker (Overs & Loff, 2013, p. 188). Here, it is illegal to buy or sell unprotected sex; in many regions, medical examinations for STIs and HIV are required or strongly encouraged, and in other places like Nevada, sex workers cannot work if they have an STI (Overs & Loff, 2013, p. 188). In some regions that do not permit prostitution, sex workers are forced to undergo STI and HIV testing anyway, and their pictures are published along with their test results (Overs & Loff, 2013, p. 188). HIV in sex work presents the same problems whether prostituting is legal or criminal, but in the criminal case the workers are already not complying within parameters of the legal sector (Overs & Loff, 2013, p.188).
It is difficult to make policies regarding prostitution because enforcement rarely follows formal law and is based on discretion; this leads the policies to be prone to corruption (Overs & Loff, 2013, p. 188). Incarceration of sex workers can further their health risks by exposing them to assault, sexual violence, and depriving them of medications such as those for HIV (Overs & Loff, 2013, p. 189). Sex workers are disproportionately affected by lack of citizenship rights due to lack of legal status of the work, social stigma, or migrant status (Overs & Loff, 2013, p. 189). This places them in a disadvantaged position, making it difficult to attain lawful accommodation or health services and leading to vulnerability to loan sharks and other unscrupulous manipulators (Overs & Loff, 2013, p. 189).
When the law prohibits access to commercial sex in certain venues, sex workers will find other ways to conduct their affairs, whether it is solicitation on the street, in secret places or cover businesses for brothels, or over the phone or internet (Overs & Loff, 2013, p. 190). Therefore the transactions are still taking place, but now in riskier environments — shabbier, clandestine places with seedy crowds and higher likelihood for violence and unprotected sex (Overs & Loff, 2013, p.191). This could be helped if legal and regulated workplaces were established, and labor rights of sex workers were recognized (allowing for the application of safety and health standards, and legal as opposed to unlawful/unenforceable employment contracts) (Overs & Loff, 2013, p. 191). According to the UN Advisory Group on Sex Work, attempts to empower sex workers have led to improvements in their agency, quality of life, and self-confidence; regulatory frameworks are essential for these improvements (Overs & Loff, 2013, p. 191). If sex workers feel like they are seen as full citizens and their rights are recognized, they are more likely not only to come to authorities with crimes against them, but also to be comfortable reporting other crimes they witness (Overs & Loff, 2013, p. 192).
Theoretically, the eradication of prostitution is the ultimate goal of many states that have criminalizing policies (Carrasquillo, 2014, p. 704). On paper this may be a reasonable goal that could help prevent STD spread, reduce related illegal crimes, and enforce family values (Carrasquillo, 2014, p. 704). It also helps to maintain the stigma attached to prostitution, which is essential in order for the views of society to continue to cast it in a negative light, by seeing it as degrading and dangerous (Carrasquillo, 2014, p. 704). So if prostitution were seen as a moral and health problem, eradication by criminalization would help. The problem with this line of reasoning is that even with all of the criminalizing policies, prostitution has persisted (Carrasquillo, 2014, p. 704). Courts have upheld laws against prostitution because the practice may be harmful to the “fabric of our society,” and this displays that the government is allowed to decide what is immoral (Carrasquillo, 2014, p. 706). The immorality of prostitution is one of the most weighty reasons prostitution remains illegal, and a large part of this is runoff from times such as the Victorian era (in which prostitutes were seen as “fallen” women who had not protected their sacred purity), and the early years of criminalization (in which prostitutes were seen as a threat as the family unit because it was a way for women to support themselves outside of marriage, and a way to encourage husbands to cheat) (Carrasquillo, 2014, p. 707).
Statistics have demonstrated that prostitutes are “constant reoffenders” and criminalization does not decrease the amount of prostitution (Carrasquillo, 2014, p. 708). Criminalization poses a legal burden: when prostitutes are afraid of punishment, they do not report related crimes, and prostitutes cost taxpayers large amounts of money when they serve jail time (Carrasquillo, 2014, p. 708). Removing criminal penalties from prostitution/purchasing sex and adding standards of control is the most favorable option. Licensing could be required, and regular medical testing could make selling sex safer (Carrasquillo, 2014, p. 716). Prostitutes could receive employee benefits and make more informed decisions about entering the business in the first place (Carrasquillo, 2014, p. 716). Many of the harms of prostitution come from violent clients, who could be screened and refused service, and from third party sellers of sex (pimps) who could be banned from being part of the business — both of these policies have shown benefit where they’ve been implemented in Nevada.
Both sides of this argument bring up poignant and valid points. While both of the opposing sources quote first hand sources, this had limited impact on me as I did not feel it was particularly thorough or objective. The source that vilified prostitution brought up good points, but cited very few sources and used much emotional and fallacious strategies, at times collapsing into angry ranting. I wholeheartedly agree with the other opposing source — with laws as they are, they should at least be enforced with blind justice. I am not convinced that efforts are better put into this than into reforming the laws and policies themselves, however, and this resource did not touch on their reasoning for that, other than the fact that Americans have refused to legalize prostitution (which is vague and undated in the article).
The proponent sources I found seemed to have more solid arguments. The Overs and Loff article focused on recognition of sex workers as legal persons in order to protect their rights, and cited instances of this being effective, as well as logical reasons why criminalization presents a barrier to this humane goal. The other article that approves legalization of prostitution showed many examples of how policies have affected concerns such as STDs and health in societies with varying levels of legality. The authors reviewed scales from criminalization to full legalization and showed evidence for harms and benefits of each. Thus, I feel their conclusion of legalization as the least harmful option was justified. While I do see that prostitution as it is now lends itself to secrecy, violence, and degradation, I do not think this has to be how it is. What would really make a difference in the profession is if women were to have control: control over their own bodies and those they choose to sell to, control over their own enterprise independent from controlling third parties, control over their health and safety in a legal and protected work environment, control over their finances and education, their decisions to enter prostitution in the first place.
Carrasquillo, T. (2014). Understanding prostitution and the need for reform. Touro Law
Review, 30(3), 697-721.
Farley, M. (2013). Prostitution, Liberalism, and Slavery. Logos: A Journal Of Modern Society
& Culture, 12(3), 370-386.
Johnson, E. M. (2014). Buyers Without Remorse: Ending the Discriminatory Enforcement of
Prostitution Laws. Texas Law Review, 92(3), 717-748.
Overs, C., & Loff, B. (2013). Toward a legal framework that promotes and protects sex
workers’ health and human rights. Health & Human Rights: An International Journal,