The trading of sexual services for cash is often called the world’s oldest profession. Prostitutes and the johns that love them are as engrained in the fabric of the American flag as apple pie, baseball and slavery. The Prostitutes’ Education Network estimates more than 100,000 American women sell their bodies on street corners and in illegal brothels, but law enforcement would rather incarcerate sex workers than keep them safer and healthier by legalizing prostitution.
There are proponents and dissenters on both sides of the argument. However, leading scholars and legal experts, including law professors and sociologists, claim legalizing prostitution will cut costs for law enforcement, lower the rates of transmitted diseases and keep sex workers safe from violent pimps and rapists.
Prostitution is a victimless crime, according to Sherry F. Colb, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Law. Colb argues prostitution is a one-to-one transaction that doesn’t cause greater societal harm.
“Prostitution should not be a crime,” she says. “Prostitutes are not committing an inherently harmful act. While the spread of disease and other detriments are possible in the practice of prostitution, criminalization is a sure way of exacerbating rather than addressing such effects. We saw this quite clearly in the time of alcohol prohibition in this country.”
Colb also sees a sexist double-standard that criminalizes prostitutes while ignoring the customers purchasing them.
“The prostitutes are harassed, arrested, and sometimes prosecuted, while the johns (and often the pimps, who are far more likely to be engaged in violent and master/slave-like treatment of the prostitutes) are ignored,” she says. “This reflects the view that men who traffic in women are not as bad as the women in whom they traffic. If people are honestly concerned about the wellbeing of women in this profession, then they must begin by removing the status of ‘outlaw’ from these women so that they can come forward and receive help if and when they feel they want to leave a profession that can otherwise be quite difficult to escape.”
More than 50 countries in the world, including Argentina, Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom and Italy have legalized prostitution, setting perimeters for solicitation and regulating the industry.
Regulating prostitution by requiring standard testing for STD’s and HIV and establishing laws to protect them from violence can also keep sex workers in safe environments where assault won’t be prevalent.
Dr. Kirby R. Cundiff, an associate professor of finance at Northeastern State University, finds regulation will allow states to set prices for sexual favors. He approximates a decrease in 25,000 rapes each year if fixed prices are established.
“In the United States where prostitution is illegal, the low-end price for most prostitutes is about $200 and the monthly per capita income is $2,820,” he says. “In Amsterdam, Netherlands where prostitution is legal the price is $30. If prostitution were legalized in the United States it is rational to assume that prices would resemble those in the Netherlands, this would result in… a decrease in the rape rate of 10 per 100,000.”
Regulatory perimeters will also decrease STD’s by ensuring prostitutes don’t have to hide from police and can thus have access to medical care.
Priscilla Alexander, co-founder and coordinator of the National Task Force on Prostitution, says “health problems associated with prostitution, such as sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and violence, are commonly assumed to be ‘risks of the trade,” but regulation can prevent this.
“Individuals arrested on prostitution charges often modify their work behavior in an attempt to reduce their visibility to the police,” she says. “They may agree to acts carrying higher risks if it means more money, in order to reduce the time on the street, and thus the likelihood of being arrested. As a result, sex workers become more vulnerable to pressure to not use condoms, thereby increasing their risk of contracting STDs, including HIV.”
Regulation may not lessen HIV-exposure, however. Alexander thinks the destruction of stigma can prevent this.
“For HIV/AIDS prevention to succeed, the conditions of risk have to change,” she says. “The context – legal, social, economic – of sex work has to change, with repeal of criminal laws, access to visas and work permits, freedom of movement and association, and occupational safety and health regulations, to reduce the imposition of risk from above. Until then, it will be heroic, strong individuals that can insist on safe behaviors, leaving those who are less heroic, those who are more timid and afraid, to suffer the consequences of the context of risk.”
The legalizing of sex work is a controversial issue, especially for women’s rights advocates that equate prostitution with sexual, emotional and mental abuse. Prostitution has been linked to childhood sexual trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in several studies, including the “Bad for the Body, Bad for the Heart” report in the Violence Against Women journal. However, other studies have shown that prostitution has no impact on the psychological well-being of sex workers.
Legalized prostitution may never reach consensus in the United States, but it is a cause worth considering.