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Should Prostitution be legalized?

By Chaya Benyamin
 Ulet Ifansasti / Stringer
*Updated 2023
The oldest profession is rigorously recorded in the Bible depicting instances of prostitution by career professionals as well as prostitutes prompted by circumstance. Today, with over 42 million prostitutes worldwide and around two million prostitutes in the US alone, it’s not surprising that every country on the planet has laws governing it. Whether prostitution should be vigorously opposed or tacitly accepted is a subject of much debate, and it seems no one policy holds a monopoly on success or failure.
So, when it comes to prostitution, should we legalize it or keep it criminal? Here are both sides of this debate.


Keep it criminal


Legalizing prostitution has failed to check its illegal counterpart

When the Netherlands legalized prostitution in 2000, one of its main objectives was to curtail human trafficking and the criminal prostitution enterprise. In spite of its best intentions, illegal brothels still proliferated and prostitutes continued to suffer abuses at the hands of pimps. The government is continuing to try to clean up the Red Light District by relocating its sex workers, but they fear this forced change may further put their rights and safety at risk. Similarly, Nevada’s illegal prostitution industry is estimated to be about four times as large as its legal gambling enterprise. If legalization does not protect prostitutes, then it proves nothing more than a cynical revenue source for government.


It reinforces the darkest attitudes of capitalism, in which people are reduced to commodities

How does one quantify value for an hour of her time? How about for a pound of her flesh? Exchanging money for sexual interaction, an interaction that is commonly regarded as both an expression and vehicle of intimacy reduces this bond-solidifying act to a mere transaction. And while some buyers voice disillusionment with the services rendered, others draw extreme satisfaction from the leverage one gains from paying for sex, allowing them to “do things with [prostitutes] that real women would not put up with.” But, let’s not forget that prostitutes are as real as girlfriends and wives. The essence of this statement, which was taken as part of an international research project researching men who buy sex, shows just how effective sex-for-pay is at removing all traces of humanity from its practitioners.


Prostitution promotes degrading attitudes toward women, and invites violence against them

The fact that sex workers are 80% female cannot be overlooked, nor should the fact that a sizable portion of sex workers are coerced by physical means or by economic hardship. Female prostitutes are more likely to be raped or murdered than any other population.

And so, by the necessity to protect themselves, either from physical harm or from destitution, an overwhelmingly female contingent of sex workers find themselves at the mercy of the men they serve. Cruelly, society blames women for the violence committed against them, often postulating how she might have brought the trouble on herself. The only way to oppose such attitudes (and realities) is to increase legal measures against those who perpetuate the prostitution industry.


Legalize it


Legalization circumvents the most dangerous aspects of prostitution

The criminalization of prostitution leaves prostitutes on the fringes of society, making them vulnerable to violence, poverty, and health risks. Decriminalization allows sex workers to call the police in incidences of violence. In the Netherlands, decriminalizing prostitution gave sex workers access to social security and public health care.  India’s union of sex workers improved prostitutes’ financial security by teaching them how to identify counterfeit bills.

Sexually transmitted infections are also statistically lower in areas where prostitution is decriminalized. In rural Nevada, where prostitution is legal (and condoms and regular HIV tests mandatory), there has not been one case of HIV/AIDS diagnosed in a registered sex worker since 1986. Beyond all the practical benefits, legalizing prostitution brings sex workers into the fold of society, increasing their sense of belonging, and thereby enhancing their feelings of responsibility toward others.


Legalization can harness the sex industry’s potential to contribute to society

One formerly illicit trade that is now legal in many US states, marijuana, has done wonders for economic and social rejuvenation in these states. In 2021, a handful of states grossed tens of not hundreds of million of dollars in pot tax revenues, with California earning more than $1 billion. At city and county levels, such states are using their share to ramp up public initiatives, such as funding alcohol and drug treatments, school construction, veterans’ services and more. Imagine how different prostitution would seem if a portion of its proceeds went to providing child-care support for working parents, or to supplement medical research that helps cure disease or to help fund drug rehabilitation programs.


Legalization reflects the victimless nature of consensual prostitution

The internet abounds with sex worker testimonials who attest to the satisfaction of a career in sex, and these personalities carefully draw a distinction between themselves and those who are coerced. Some prostitutes marvel at their great financial success and draw feelings of “empowerment” from their work. Stories of satisfied practitioners and customers beg the question: Why isn’t prostitution simply viewed as a normal business transaction? As the great variation in prostitution laws across the globe reflects, the illicit nature of prostitution is by no means an objective reality. And even if the ethical parameters of prostitution are unclear, free societies should, in principle, avoid restricting business transactions that do not harm individuals or society.


The Bottom Line: Prostitution is not a hegemonic practice. Because it comes in so many mediums and is practiced by willing and unwilling parties, governments are unlikely to effectively address the ills (or the benefits) that accompany prostitution with one-size-fits-all policies – nor should they try. What do you think?

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