Prostitution: A proposition

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.

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11 Responses to Prostitution: A proposition

  1. Jeff Randall says:

    Wait, women are more than sex objects?
    When did this happen?

    Seriously though, a great article…

  2. mysterymilfinri says:

    What gives you the right to assume all sex workers want to work in a brothel, where they have to fork over 1/2 their pay to the brothel owners on top of paying taxes.
    We are not in chealp hotels without security, we are not all stupid women, we are not all drug addicts and many of us have college degree’s.
    We don’t need anyones protection, we need to not be criminalized against. There is a big difference between a mature sex worker who spends her daytime hours meeting with married, professional buisness men, in private, than the agency girls who post for 100 bucks and see 10 clients a day, or the lizard lot from the truck stops or your local crack addict working the street.
    How we have given LE permisssion to STALK, HARASS and ABUSE these women is ironic especially when men in today’s society can still run for public office after being caught with a sex worker.
    Not all men like going to sleazy massage palors and they are not going to pick up some street girl, and they are not going to show up at an appointment and try to solcit the sex worker for sex, they simply call and make a date and rarely are the real upscale sex workers ever caught.
    I love all the people especially men who want to say what the sex worker should do or not do and what should be legal and not legal, because other what they read in the media and their own personal experience of having sex with one of these women is the only thing they know about it.
    They have now clue what the lifestyle is like so why are they renting all this space in their heads, the only want it to be legal so the will have no fear in being prosecuted for trying to buy sex. If they really cared about the sex workers plight they would be providing services for these women.
    I say we do like Sweden, lock up the jOHNS and PIMPS and be compassionate toward the sex worker who still suffers and is only trying to survive.
    All the street hookers and drug addicts and pimps and predator sex offenders would still be fair game to LE and they sex workers would and could then report dangerous people.
    The problem is LE does nothing to protect our kids from these PIMPS and they are just running the industry underground,terefore making it harder to monitor, and they do not even catch 1% of the people doing it and out of that 1%, they catch less than 1% of humans being trafficked

    • Jeff Randall says:

      What gives you the right to assume all sex workers want to work in a brothel

      I don’t think she said that all prostitutes WANT to work in brothels. However if the government is going to legalize it, and regulate it, then allowing legal brothels has proven (in NV and many European countries) to be one way to do it.
      Part of the advantage of brothels is the safety for the women (since it’s much easier to kick men out of a brothel, than for one lone woman to fight him off in a hotel or motel room.
      But allowing brothels does not mean that all prostitutes would choose to work there. Just like prescription drugs, there would still likely be a “black market” where women who choose to not work at a brothel would opperate.

      where they have to fork over 1/2 their pay to the brothel owners on top of paying taxes.

      Paying part of their money ot the brothel does give them women some advantages (such as safety, ease of booking clients, etc), but as I mentioned, some women would not choose that, and would likely remain “free agents”.

      In the case of the IRS though, I disagree strongly. I believe that even those who make their money illegally should be paying their share of taxes. As long as you’re benefitting from government services (roads, police, fire, schools, etc) then you should be contributing to those services if you’re financially able.
      And keep in mind, not paying taxes is how “they” “got” Capone.

      I love all the people especially men

      Perhaps you did not notice, but Sarah (the author of this post) is female.


      I know you covered much more in your comment, however that was the primary point that I felt compelled to respond to.

    • Tana Owens says:

      mysterymilfinri – to address a couple of points:

      The point of legalizing brothels and allowing sex workers that option is to protect the workers, the clients, and – more broadly – the public from the more degrading and criminal elements that often accompany prostitution. As Jeff has already pointed out, no one can force a sex worker to work at a brothel and, naturally, “free agency” will continue; some of these “free agents” will be the type who are able to go to nice hotels with clients and others will be street walkers who hop in the back of cars with questionable individuals. The proposal here of legalized brothels will not rid the world of unregulated prostitution; however, if it may cut back on some of the violence towards sex workers, it is worth a try (it has worked in a number of countries, though – SARAH – do you know of any statistics available that demonstrate legalized prostitution cuts down on violence, STDs, etc.?).

      As for “forking over” wages to brothel owners and for taxes: no sympathy there! While rates of pay would vary, the operators of brothels would be providing you services for which you would pay “rent” to operate in their establishments; this is common practice for a number of professions (for example, stylists who work in hair salons). Unlike pimps and madames who are currently unregulated, these people would have a legal (and no doubt monetary) incentive to treat their “tenants” with respect and fairness. And, as Jeff mentioned, if you want to live in society and benefit from government services, you need to pay taxes…working “off the grid” should not exempt you from something those of us in legal professions do.

      And frankly, nowhere in the article did Sarah ever say that all prostitutes are “stupid” or “drug addicts.” But apparently you live a charmed life in your chosen profession (which I do not judge you for, by the way): you seem to imply that you’ve never been made to feel uncomfortable, been forced to engage in an act that you found degrading or painful, felt that your safety was at stake? Well, GREAT for you! But that is NOT the life of most prostitutes…especially the ones which you condescendingly dub “lot lizards” and “street girls” (who sell sex for money just like you). Don’t you realize that most of those ladies would like to be choosing “professional” clients and meeting in “private” places? For various reasons (too poor? Drug-addicted? Too ugly?), they are not privy to your situation and these are the people who would most benefit from the option of practicing their profession via legalized means. One caveat: I realize that a good number of those women would not leave the sleazy, unregulated underground, but that is often because of problems that go beyond their jobs as prostitutes.

      Now, a question for Sarah: with the coming of legalized brothels, what should we do with your common “street walkers” who are caught outside the system? Should they still be subjected to current solicitation laws? Or should those be drastically overhauled (say, you get a fine for working without a license ;) ).

  3. Paul H. says:

    enjoy your blogs, including this one – as they challenge our individual thinking and collective consciousness.

    There was, however, one thought that I couldn’t satisfy with your arguments. And, that is the idea that prostitution is a victimless crime. I’m not sure it is. Maybe it is during the act; and, for the two (or more) participating partners. But, for all the participants, it serves to further alienate them from a positive and contributing (from society’s point of view) life role/experience.

    Prostitution, like drug usage (let’s say pot), even unbridled alcohol consumption (let teenagers buy liquor – heck, let grade schoolers imbibe) generally dull our senses, our ambition, our motivation and, all too often, lead to or enable other aberrant behaviors. In other words, “Is it a good idea to legalize and therefore promote practices that tend to move people towards more antisocial behaviors and/or less productive societal roles?”

    I’m thinking of the overall impact on a society. I’m thinking of the fall of the Roman Empire. It wasn’t defeated, per see – it crumbled from the inside, from corruption — both political and social. In other words, it lost its sense of self, its self-respect, its discipline as a society; and, in turn, it’s ability to continue and survive crisis and attacks.

    Therefore, when considering victimless crimes, we should also consider the long-term consequences of individual choices. Legalizing pot, legalizing prostitution, legalizing gambling, legalizing speeding (if you don’t hit someone), legalized subprime mortgages, etc. tend to push a society to its crumbling point, weakening its ability to be survive because its strength is based on the strength and constructive life style choices/behavior of it individual citizens.

    So, such a debate should also consider the culmative consequences of seemingly inconsequence or “victimless” actions.

    Now, keep working at your government job to help pay for my monthly retirement checks (one more is due at the end of this week). See how dependent we, as a society, are on each other’s productivity?

    • Leah says:

      I suppose I can see where you’re coming from, however I think that the pros of legalization outweigh the cons. The safety of sex workers is important. Prostitution, regardless of how you feel about it morally or otherwise, is not going anywhere. The safety of women in this profession trumps the rest, in my opinion.

  4. Dad!! (Paul H) –

    I loved your response here – very thoughtful and cogent and I sympathize with your points. I do acknowledge in the essay that “no man is an island” so what I do, absolutely affects those around me and arguably, society at large. I do agree prostitution is harmful to society. The problem is it’s illegal now of course, and we see the law doing absolutely nothing to dissuade the practice. Prostitution carries on, and because it’s illegal, we can’t regulate it.

    I appreciate the suggestion that government endorsement is tantamount to giving a “thumbs up” to prostitution. I don’t see it that way. I think it’s an acknowledgement that people have a right to do what they wish with their own bodies, so long as they don’t harm others. Again, brings us right back to your point, which is just that society IS harmed. If the harm to society is the issue, I’d point out all the tremendous harm we see as a consequence of prostitution as an illegal institution.

    I really want to fight prostitution with education and social programs, and the government would endorse such programs – would that allay the worry that legalizing prostitution is tantamount to endorsement? I think it might…the government will use our tax dollars on these efforts which aim to eliminate the interest in prostitution. Th is the government explicitly telling society “this is a bad practice.”

    You aren’t going to get rid of a practice if there is motivation behind it – let’s get to the root of it and try to eliminate the enticement without which we wouldn’t have prostitution in the first place.

    Thank you for taking time to not only read my blog but to develop a very cogent response…..sorry about those teenage years!

    PS. Clearly, you get your intellect from me. ;)

  5. Collin says:

    Prostitution is demeaning to women only because most prostitutes are women. If there were a roughly equal number of men working as prostitutes, that would take care of the sexism problem.

    (It would also be a good idea if in Muslim communities where the women wear a veil and a burka, the men also wore a veil and a burka.)

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