Prostitution is often referred to as “the oldest profession,” and it is a tremendous issue in countries all over the globe. It effects public policy as well as public health, and in the United States especially, there has been much debate over the possible decriminalization or legalization of prostitution. Research has been done in areas where sex-work is legal to see if decriminalization actually allows for better control and prevention of violence and disease related to prostitution.
There are many questions and doubts surrounding decriminalization; will it help to decrease the psychological and physical harm associated with criminal sex-work? Do those involved in sex-work want to see it legalized? Is there a point to legalization, or is sex-work inherently harmful on those involved? I hope that by the end of this discussion, which will focus more specifically on female sex-work, I will have a clearer concept of decriminalization and where I stand in the argument. Although I will use decriminalization and legalization throughout my analysis of these arguments, there is a distinction; decriminalization is the elimination of legal consequences surrounding prostitution while legalization implies government regulation on issues like location, activities taking place, taxation, etc.
The argument for decriminalization tends to shift focus away from discussion of morals and toward a discussion of workers’ rights. The fact is that most sex-work is criminalized in the U.S. through wrong approaches; prostitutes are targeted by police efforts rather than targeting the “pimps,” who are often the ones controlling the sex-workers and using violence to illustrate their power. It puts sex-workers who are being coerced or exploited, especially women and children, in a situation where they feel helpless and have nowhere to turn.
Other arguments in favor of legalization of prostitution take a harm reduction approach in which the goal is to eliminate as much risk for the human beings involved in the issue. This approach is most often associated with drug use and HIV prevention and education for sex-workers, as these are both huge risks. In cultures where sex-work is decriminalized, “sex workers have access to health and social services; and they are not heavily stigmatized or economically destitute (Rekart, 2005).”
Researchers have looked at legalization as a possible route to help prevent the spread of HIV by heavily regulating the frequency of testing and the use of condoms during sex-acts. In a study of sex-workers in San Francisco, with both qualitative interview methods and quantitative analysis methods aimed at showing how former and current sex-workers feel about decriminalization and legalization (Lutnick, 2009). Of the 247 sex-workers who were interviewed, 71% expressed interest or support of decriminalization and 84% showed support of sex-workers being required to do mandatory health screenings. The sex-workers hoped that through either decriminalization or legalization they would be safer from the violence that threatens their business.
In the U.S., sex work is a crime but it is legal in eleven counties in Nevada (Brents, 2005). Researchers often focus on this as an illustration for what legalization would be like nationwide. In a study of violence in these legal brothels, researchers assessed the “mechanisms in Nevada brothels that address safety and inhibit the risk of particular forms of violence.” They found that one out of the forty prostitutes they interviewed who were working in the legal brothels reported an experience of violence. They did find, however, that many of the prostitutes claimed violence was “part of the culture of prostitution” and they felt a need to, “constantly think like a victim.” While the legalized brothels had a safer environment, in terms of health and violence especially, the researchers make a point to explain the violence and fear inherent in the culture.
Norway is one of the countries where prostitution was decriminalized in order to control it better. A year after it became decriminalized, researchers published an article on the reaction of sex-workers and if it benefited in the way the state was aiming to, which was mostly to improve public health (Farley, 2004). Most sex-workers they interviewed had a negative view of the decriminalization and saw it as “way for the State to tax their earnings” and that it had not improved their health. The article lists detrimental physical and psychological effects that come from prostitution, no matter its legality, such as PTSD, HIV, and dissociative cognitive processes. The article comes to the conclusion that decriminalization in no way protects the women involved, it just normalizes the idea that women are objects and provides more money to “legal pimps,” who call themselves business owners.
While participating in sex-work, even if its legal, may be morally wrong and exploitive in nature and it may even be promoting gender inequality, I think after reading the research that there needs to be some sort of legal intervention that does not include arrest of sex-workers. People living in this culture in the United States have no fair legal consequences for when they are victimized and abused because they feel targeted by the law. This leads them to not seek justice for crimes perpetrated against them and prevents them from accessing valuable resources such as health care and counseling. If the criminalization of prostitution was showing a significant decrease in sex-work related crimes, then I would say to stay along that path, but it is just leading to a more fear-based culture in the U.S.
There needs to be de-stigmatization of sex-work in our country in order to treat the myriad of issues that come attached to this industry, legal and otherwise. All of the problems cited by the anti-legalization articles are reasons to implement some sort of regulation; if sex-workers are spreading HIV, government can screen for those diseases in order to prevent the spread of HIV and get that person into treatment. If they are experiencing psychological harm, they can turn to psychologists and therapy without fear of legal consequences. The decriminalization of prostitution, in my opinion, would do more good than the current situation of targeting women who are more often victims themselves.
Brents, B. G., & Hausbeck, K. (2005). Violence and Legalized Brothel Prostitution in Nevada: Examining Safety, Risk, and Prostitution Policy. Journal Of Interpersonal Violence, 20(3), 270-295. doi:10.1177/0886260504270333
Farley, M. (2004). ‘Bad for the Body, Bad for the Heart’: Prostitution Harms Women Even if Legalized or Decriminalized. Violence Against Women, 10(10), 1087-1125. doi:10.1177/1077801204268607
Lutnick, Alexandra et al. (2009). Criminalization, legalization or decriminalization of sex work: what female sex workers say in San Francisco, USA. Reproductive Health Matters, Volume 17 , Issue 34 , 38 – 46
Rekart, M. L. (2005). Sex-work harm reduction. Lancet, 366(9503), 2123-2134. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(05)67732-X