We know prostitution as an illegal institution is wrought with corruption. I’d like to suggest that legalized prostitution can remedy many of these evils, and thus worthy of serious consideration. The focus is female prostitution because this is the most common scenario (plus this way I get to go on a brief feminist rant and not have to write “he/she” and “his/her” everywhere).
I. Prostitution and the proper role of government
Prostitution is defined here as selling one’s body for sex to strangers, on a regular basis, whether one is in the mood or not (because like any job, the person is reliant on the income, so mood becomes irrelevant if you want to make rent). Prostitution such defined is degrading to one’s dignity and worth as a human being. However, as detestable it is, as bad as it is for a person’s mental health to regularly treat her body as sexual commodity, I don’t find criminalizing it appropriate. I endorse John Stuart Mill’s role of government, expressed in his “harm principle”:
…That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. ~ (On Liberty)
I posit the role of government is to enforce this principle, as opposed to making laws designed to protect people from themselves (legal paternalism). Legal paternalism interferes with human dignity (often in an attempt to preserve it, as in this case), specifically the right of a consenting, informed adult to make one’s own choices, and as Mill says, to be sovereign over his body and mind. I’d add a necessary condition for self-dominion – the person must be in a position of being capable of giving informed voluntary consent. This requires the absence of deception and coercion. Prostitution as an illegal institution thrives on both, and so voluntary consent is not possible. A pimp typically relies on (1) psychological manipulation (a form of deception) to make a prostitute think she must do the work, that she isn’t good enough to do anything else and (2) coercion (i.e. threats of physical abuse) to ensure the work gets done.
The government would have a crucial role in legalized prostitution, namely ensuring conditions are such to as to permit voluntary consent from the worker. The government would step in whenever abuse occurs, and to ensure safe working conditions for not only the prostitutes but the customers. This intervention is consistent with Mill’s harm principle.
II. Advantages of legalized prostitution
At this point in time, especially in a society so obsessed with sex, we can’t reasonably expect to stop people from selling their bodies for sex to make a living. Experience tells us that whenever there are willing buyers and sellers, there is a going to be a market. Since, at this time, prostitution is an unavoidable practice, if we find there are fewer negative consequences in legalizing it, we ought to do so.
If prostitution were legalized, a number of improvements would arise because the practice could now be regulated, which would do away with much of the corruption that is rampant in the illegal institution. Instead of going to sleazy motels with a perfect stranger, putting herself in great danger, a prostitute can now work in a regulated brothel. The client must come to her in a regulated environment. He can be removed if he acts inappropriately (well more inappropriately than having sex with a hooker – referring to abusive actions, here).
Regulation would most likely result in fair wages for prostitutes because now they would have freedom to leave their jobs (this freedom is only here now because pimps would no longer be running the lives of these women, degrading them, abusing them emotionally and physically – prostitutes can now give voluntary informed consent). As in any legal job, if your boss is an abusive asshole, you can leave and work somewhere else with better conditions. In an illegal scenario, it takes much more work for a pimp to go find another prostitute and manipulate her to feel like shit, than to just coerce (abuse) the ones he already has into staying. In a legal one, she can reasonably be said to have a choice to leave, and he (or she) can more easily hire another prostitute. Not only can she leave, but she’d have legal recourse to report her boss for brutal treatment. Again, in a legalized scenario, abuse will become rare. This is because it behooves a boss to not behave in a way that could threaten keeping his license to operate his business, or result in paying penalties for violations of mandated working conditions.
AIDS and other STDs of course are rampant and prostitution contributes to the epidemic (granted, statistics indicate it isn’t all that significant of a contribution in the U.S. and Europe in contrast to Asia and Africa). Under the regulated system, a prostitute would now be required by law to undergo regular drug-testing. Brothels would not hire women who refuse this testing because those who aren’t tested for diseases are not going to “sell” – a client will go to a brothel where the women are disease-free. More importantly, a brothel could pay penalties or even lose its operating license if its workers’ drug-testing is not current.
This isn’t mere speculation. We can look at places with legalized prostitution and verify these claims: Amsterdam, Nevada (minus Vegas), Germany, Netherlands – brothels and prostitutes pay taxes to operate legally, Peru – must be licensed and have check-ups every fifteen days, Turkey – requires bi-weekly medical exams, and other countries.
Decriminalization would free the courts and police from handling what is essentially a victimless crime with our tax dollars, allow them to focus time and money on serious violent crime, and protect society by catching real criminals. A brothel would have to pay taxes to operate. More importantly, we’d stop spending our tax dollars on putting prostitutes in prison, and could more wisely spend the money on womens’ education to prevent prostitution in the first place.
Like the war on drugs, the law isn’t going to win this battle – it just makes things worse. Society gets the bad behavior plus the harmful consequences discussed (spreading of STDs, abuse, e.g.), as opposed to just the bad behavior, which realistically, is unavoidable (at this time in our society). Furthermore, the government should not be in the business of parenting us; rather its interference should extend no further than to protect innocent people from being harmed by the actions of others.
I’m not saying let’s just let women be prostitutes, it’s their business, and call it a day. I do want to see action taken to decrease this vile practice – I just don’t think the law is the appropriate solution (just look at how well that’s working out). Prostitution is a symptom of an underlying problem: the insidious view that women are sex objects, and this is what we need to attack. Instead of criminalizing prostitution, let’s focus our money and energies on trying to prevent women from being interested in such a sad job in the first place. We do this by (1) educating society on the value of women, as intellectual equals to men and (2) having social programs which empower women. Let’s get to the root of it, and educate our women that they shouldn’t aspire to be beauty queens or princesses (I have beef with Disney), but to be leaders – thoughtful, bold, independent thinkers. Let’s give women the tools and programs to flourish. Let’s educate young boys that girls are equal to them, and should not be viewed as sex objects or intellectually inferior (this message would be more easily spread in absence of the Bible’s claim that God made women to give men company, and the Quran’s claims that women are sexual temptresses).
I do realize that “no man is an island” (or woman in this case) and when a person fucks up his/her life, this upsets the lives of family and friends. Prostitution is not conducive to a healthy society, but the options here are not (1) legalize prostitution or (2) get rid of it. Obviously, if (2) were an option, we ought to select it (I offered ways to bring about (2), i.e., education and social programs, but this will take a while to make a real difference). Instead, the reality is prostitution isn’t going anywhere any time soon and if legalized, we can reasonably expect significantly fewer harmful consequences than the alternative.
Furthermore, I maintain that the harm done to society is not significant enough to justify taking away a woman’s right to voluntarily do what she wants with her body, so we ought not to legislate against it. Remember, legal prostitution with regulations in place allows for voluntarily consent, which in the current illegal scenario is absent, as a prostitute is most often a victim of deception and coercion.
It is the proper mission of the government to help people not fuck up their lives (and education is the most powerful weapon here), not to force people to not fuck up their lives (legal paternalism). Of course, as soon as someone’s fuck-ups impinge on someone else’s ability to live a good life, the government must step in. However, I submit prostitution among willfully consenting adults (which can only be brought about if the practice is legalized) does not significantly interfere with the ability of those not engaged in the practice to live a good life.