The practice of prostitution in the United States is as polarizing an issue as any other, but with approximately one million prostitutes here and 45 million worldwide; it is a substantive one that society needs to evaluate seriously regarding its legitimization. Prostitution is misrepresented or romanticized with movies like Pretty Woman and books like Belle Du Jour–it is a profession misunderstood by most people. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of deep division, glamorizing or completely demonizing it, when instead we need to look at the real social and individual human complexities of prostitution to know how best to address them.
Prostitution is a profession rife with assault, disease, abuse and exploitation. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is depicted in an article in the New York Times. In this article Michael Wilson interviews a seventeen-year-old girl, Joannie, who ran away from home and went to live with a man who she met on a messaging app. While she lived there with him he told her that she had to make money; that she had to prostitute. Joannie did not want to return to the home she had run away from, “I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t have any options.” She was prostituted through the website Backpage, which can be said to be a kind of craigslist, where one can find jobs, apartments and things to sell or buy. But this website has been used often as a place to buy or sell sex, although this is supposedly against the website’s rules.
People who start in prostitution often feel as though they have no other path, this feeling of helplessness and despair can lead to a situation where even if they choose to become prostitutes they are forced into it by the situation they are caught in. in Joannie’s case she acted in desperation because she had no other place to go and subsequently became trapped, with the man breaking her phone and threatening her with a gun. Opponents of legalizing prostitution can point to the feeling of desperation and helplessness that Joannie experienced as commonplace, and indicative that the solution to this precarious situation means not the legalization of prostitution but the redoubling of efforts to do more to help women themselves so that they do not feel that they have no other option but to sell themselves.
Joannie’s entire situation is fodder for both supporters and opponents of the decriminalization of prostitution because Joannie was both a victim of the man, Raymond Johnson, as well as the judicial system, which targets the prostitutes over the pimps and the “clients.” It can be argued that Joannie was seventeen years old and not at the age of consent so even if prostitution was legalized for consenting adults (over 18) the criminalization of her prostitution would remain intact. Many countries like France have laws in place to protect women from trafficking and being forced into prostitution by making pimping, human trafficking and brothels illegal. If such laws were in effect in the U.S. this would have made what Johnson did a crime even if Joannie was over eighteen.
Part of the push for the legalization of prostitution comes from the dangerous nature of the work. Prostitutes are more likely to be assaulted, according to the study “Infectious Diseases; Toxic Agents” conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), 82% of prostitutes had been attacked and 68% had been raped. If prostitution was legalized the victims of these crimes would feel more comfortable coming to police to report attacks, it could also help with the stigma that surrounds prostitutes. Some people hold the view point that prostitutes cannot be raped due to their line of work, for example Judge Teresa Carr Deni presided over the case of a female prostitute. The prostitute was held at gunpoint and gang raped by a group of four men; despite the horrific nature of these men’s crimes Deni said that the men should not be charged for rape but “theft of services “because the woman was a prostitute.
In the same study 88% of the prostitutes wanted to leave prostitution but felt for many reasons that they were completely constrained, and legal prostitution could help protect these people, as long as we put in services to help them make the transition from being a prostitute to some other career. Furthermore, an argument can be made that making prostitution legal helps protect the health of the workers. The only place where prostitution is protected legally in the United States is in parts of Nevada, and the workers are tested weekly by certified medical professionals for gonorrhea, HIV, and other STDs and STIs. If the woman is found to be positive, “the person shall immediately cease and desist from employment as a sex worker”(R089-10). It is ironic to note that the prostitutes are required to be tested weekly but there is no testing of patrons at all. Moreover, the prostitutes in Nevada also require the clientele to use condoms or they will be refused service or “bounced” if they do not comply with this and other rules. This helps the prostitutes insist on safe sex practices and to enforce them, knowing that there is security in place if someone resists.
The legalization of prostitution would also allow women and men to get help from the police if they are victims of a crime. Due to the illegal nature of their work it can be hard to get legal help without incriminating themselves. It is also important to note that women prostitutes are more likely to be arrested than male prostitutes. Male prostitutes usually start around the age of fourteen and leave prostitution at twenty-five years old, they are also less likely to have pimps which means they have a far smaller chance of being pulled over for solicitation. However, all prostitutes are far more likely to be arrested than “johns” or pimps, with figures for those arrested for crimes associated with prostitution at 70% women prostitutes, 20% male prostitutes and 10% johns. This means that the more than 200 million dollars the American taxpayers spend on arresting those involved in prostitution affects the prostitutes themselves by a huge margin, not the people paying for sex (“Prostitution in the United States”). This is ironic since it is not a crime to have sex but it is to buy it. It also means that women are less likely to get out of prostitution, as a criminal record makes it harder for them to get a better, mainstream job and escape prostitution.
Advocates of prostitutes see it as a profession, and as such, deserving of the same protections that any other job would have. Some would argue that even forcing women to have health checks is a punitive action, as it does not help protect prostitutes themselves but is another way for government to regulate a marginalized and rejected section of society. In this it is important to note that even the World Charter of Prostitutes Rights says that, “All women and men should be educated to periodical health screening for sexually transmitted diseases. Since health checks have historically been used to control and stigmatize prostitutes, and since adult prostitutes are generally even more aware of sexual health than others, mandatory checks for prostitutes are unacceptable unless they are mandatory for all sexually active people.” (Sanders, O’Neill, Pitcher 97). This appears to entail a disjunctive stance, since there is clearly an increased health risk associated with prostitution, in regards to the contraction and spread of disease, due to the higher number of sexual partners and lack of consistent protection. Evidence shows prostitutes have an excess of sexual partners, with an average of 347 a year, this is far, far more than the average number of sexual partners among the general populace, with an estimate of 9 for men and 4 for women (Brewer et al Vol 97) It is, however, important to take these numbers as an extremely rough estimate, as often times people will lie about the number of sexual partners they have.
The fact remains that, on average, prostitutes will have a higher risk factor of sexually transmitted diseases and infections. The population of sex workers, for reasons of survival or monetary–trading for food, shelter, and basic necessities vs. monetary exchange–are more likely to face high risk factors, obviously more sexual partners, but also higher instances of drug use and unprotected sex. Often times people who engage in sexual activity for money will insist on condoms, though prostitutes may receive more money for sex without a condom. Prostitutes will also be more likely to use condoms less often with regular clients and partners than with one-time clients. The unequal power structure in prostitution can make it hard to negotiate condom use.
Despite the overall non consistent condom the idea that prostitutes can significantly change the occurrence rate of STDs and STIs in a population is, with the information we have, unfounded. One of the more complete scientific studies of Brazilian prostitution, with 50,000 sexual encounters between 16,000 people, found that the system did not facilitate sexually transmitted diseases and infections, especially HIV, due to the rather small viral loads and the tendency to use protection (Rocha, Liljeros, Holme Patterns of Prostitution Captured in Social Network). It is also important to note that studies both show an increase and decrease of sexually transmitted diseases and infections–increases in areas already with high STD rates, decreases in areas with lower STD rates and better education–so it is difficult to completely say one way or another how legalization or decriminalization would affect disease transmission. That being said, I agree more with the viewpoint that it would cut down on transmission, as the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing says, “Most U.S. street prostitutes persuade their customers to use condoms, which reduce the risk of infection. In addition most sex acts performed by street prostitutes are oral rather than vaginal or anal. This also cuts the risk of infection. In some parts of the world, however, the situation is different. In South Africa, for example, women who work as street prostitutes are often particularly impoverished, and their clients are extremely reluctant to use condoms. Many men will pay more to have sex without protection, and women sex workers desperately need this additional money.” (Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection Opposing Viewpoints in Context).
In the larger picture, however, it is essential to examine the diverse societies in which prostitution is practiced to determine the best policy of action and/or treatment. Most Americans are generally aware of the unintended consequences of having sexual intercourse, be that pregnancy or infection, and so it stands to reason that we would see a decrease of disease transmission if prostitution were legalized. If the prostitutes were able to legally work and “bargain” for prices fairly, it follows that they would make enough money that they would not have to accept a client not wearing a condom for just a little more money.
On another very important front, prostitution in brothels or other institutional arrangements can be dangerous, yet the alternative can be much worse. Without a place that prostitutes can conduct their business under some kind of protective umbrella, many are forced onto the streets. This is an extremely dangerous position to be in, as the prostitutes have very little ability to vet their clients (which can lead to them being abused or even murdered); they lack protection from exposure to the elements as well as to people who would hurt or rob them. They are also more likely to become drug addicted (if not already) and they usually do not have families or a support group who could report them missing if something happened to them. They generally lack basic medical care, which could pose a twofold problem: they cannot get taken care of for any wounds they have and they cannot get help for STDs that they might have. In essence, the broader position of the “everyday” prostitute is that she (mainly) is exposed and vulnerable in many ways, including having to be subject to her “client’s” often unhealthy and dangerous demands, for either economic or personal safety reasons. She is in a weaker bargaining position because she is in such a desperate position she has to charge less for her services, go along with more dangerous requests, and has a hard time refusing someone due to her inability to go to the police or defend herself.
So, as referenced, street prostitution is a huge problem, not just for how dangerous it is for prostitutes themselves, but also for the neighborhoods they work among. The library’s Gale “Opposing Viewpoints” database notes: “Though street prostitution accounts for only about 10 to 20 percent of all prostitution, its negative impact is disproportionately high. Residents and business owners in areas where street prostitution occurs complain that the practice makes their neighborhoods unpleasant, contributes to crime, and creates public health problems. Prostitutes who work in clients’ cars, for example, may not have access to toilet facilities and may urinate on the street or throw used condoms in the gutter. Prostitutes who are drug addicts may discard used needles and other paraphernalia in public areas.” This is a point that most people do not consider when arguing about prostitution–that it affects not only the women and clients but also the communities at large.
Women and men are understandably leery of turning to the streets to sell sex due to the danger they face, and turn to “safer” websites like Backpage. A woman named Maria, who works as a prostitute to supplement her income as a hairdresser and an artist, said in an article for the Daily Beast that Backpage.com is a safe way for her to work. “If Backpage and the many other adult services sites were to be removed as an option for [men and women like me],’ she said, ‘I fear we will be forced to the streets, where the most abuse occurs.” Another woman, a single mother named Zoe, said in the same article that if Backpage.com were shut down, she would be at risk of being homeless: “I’ve never been a streetwalker, but to have to go to that as an option puts me at much greater risk of harm than having the control over who my clients are when I post on such sites.” (Petro) However, as noted in the first article, sites like these can be a haven for sex trafficking and child prostitution actors. While it is important to allow men and women to stay off the streets it is also important that we do not just trade one bad situation for another.
The heated debate continues about the difference between sex trafficking and prostitution. To allow for even the argument of legal prostitution to be entertained there has to be an extremely clear differentiation between child sexual trafficking and exploitation, a difference between a woman or man sold into sexual slavery and forced to perform sexual activities against her or his will and someone who freely chooses a pay-for-sex profession, this does not mean that economic factors do not influence his/ her decision but that they have other options available. Obviously, the abhorrent activities of child trafficking and sexual slavery do not fall under the category of prostitution. The argument for prostitution only has validity if the person freely chooses to engage in sexual activity in exchange for monetary, material or other gain and is also able to give consent.
Sex trafficking and child prostitution are abhorrent practices that need to to be stopped and the perpetrators brought to justice. It is my hope that if the practice of prostitution in general was decriminalized and regulated this would reduce sex trafficking, child prostitution and other horrible immoral crimes. Sex work is a constant throughout all history and all regions, though it cries out in all regards for regulation and toleration. As Simon Hedlin says in the University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, “Simply put, prostitution can be seen as a market: the demand side comprises individuals who purchase sex, while the supply side includes both voluntary prostitutes and sex-trafficking victims.“ In some ways, I can see the argument that legalizing prostitution might lead to a decrease in sex trafficking, but there are those who argue that legalization actually leads to more sex trafficking.
One of the strongest opponents to the legalization of prostitution is Melissa Farley, a clinical psychologist who studies prostitution. I was initially drawn to her work due to the extensive research she had done on the topic of prostitution and her bold claim that the legalization of prostitution led to an increase of sex trafficking. However, in the review of her study I found an excess of ridiculous and biased claims. She makes the bold assertion that men who buy sex should be put in the same category as “rapists, pedophiles and other social undesirables,” (Jan Macleod, Melissa Farley, Lynn Anderson, Jacqueline Golding 27 )which is an extremely strong statement that implies that the men who pay for sex even where it is legal are meant to be grouped with criminals. She also has highly questionable problems with her credibility in the studies she conducted. In one study she said that due to the decriminalization of prostitution in New Zealand there was a “200-400% increase in street-based sex workers, a 300% increase in illegal brothels,” yet this is refuted by studies done in New Zealand recently by Able, Fitzgerald and Brunton from the Department of Health and General Practice that show “there has been little impact on the number of people entering the industry post-decriminalization”. Though the overall legalization of prostitution may not bring the number of sex trafficking victims down to zero, due to the larger financial “cut” that pimps can take from women who are exploited and the illegal sex industry for child prostitutes and other covert enterprises, it is, however, not unreasonable to think that the legalization of prostitution will lead to a decrease of all these, allowing for the supply of sex to meet the demand in a legal way, so to speak, while protecting both women and men.
In a system where prostitution is illegal there is a disincentive for voluntary participation and no difference in the risk versus reward for sex traffickers, because selling someone into the sex industry remains illegal regardless of the other laws for prostitution. I am, however, unsure of the system that could facilitate safe and profitable prostitution for the workers themselves, and not just the pimps and brothel owners.
Of the major 100 countries, 49 have legalized prostitution, 39 have it as illegal and 12 have prostitution legalized but only in specific cases. In almost all of the countries the creation of brothels and the “profession” of pimping is illegal. This is due to the exploitative nature of some of these practices, with someone taking the money from the prostitute and at other times the prostitutes are required to service anyone their pimp or madam orders them to. This clearly crosses the line of exploitation and trafficking for it to be an acceptable practice. That being said, it is reasonable to have places where prostitutes can meet and have relations with their clients that are safe and clean. These places would need to charge to the prostitute for the space and security, while not interfering with the process of picking clients for a specific prostitute.
If America is not yet ready to fully legalize prostitution and keep pimping and buying sex illegal, then at least, perhaps, we need to decriminalize solicitation. The current laws are too focused on punishing people who have very few options and are discriminated against already. If we want women and men to stop being prostitutes then we should not make it harder for them to get out of prostitution. Almost all legal, and especially decent paying jobs, are not given to people who have solicitation arrests. Even if the prostitutes were never arrested, they still have huge gaps in their work history and many never finished high school, let alone college. We also need to expand services that help prostitutes get access to birth control, condoms, addiction help centers, GEDs, other jobs, and places to live–the whole range of social services.
If we are prepared to legalize prostitution we should put laws in place to protect the prostitutes themselves, with regulations to make sure they are in a position to bargain and receive fair compensation for their services. Due to the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases and infections, both the clients and the prostitutes need to be checked for infection and disease. It is understandable that most people would not be willing to do this, but it may be the best way to ensure that everyone stays healthy. As for the use of condoms, many people against prostitution will say, rightly, that there is no good way to make sure that the client is using a condom unless there is a video camera inside the room and a security guard just outside. This is why I believe that the prostitutes need to have some sort of camera inside the room or perhaps some sort of call button at hand. Providing a safe environment for prostitutes to work is of paramount importance, as well, and that they have the free will to choose their partners. Even with this we need to provide support to them to make clear decisions, i.e., avoiding drugs and being of a minimum adult age (18 or 21). If the men and women decide that they don’t want to work as prostitutes or want to “retire,” there again there should be some social services in place to help them. Further, there should be equal opportunity employment policies in place to protect them from possible future employer discrimination.
Whether we make prostitution legal or keep the laws as they are we need to recognize that the real culprits after all are the clients, the pimps, the traffickers and the abusers, and that we aggressively prosecute those who are involved in dealing in child prostitution. These efforts would perhaps be a much better use of that 200 million dollars spent on enforcement against prostitutes themselves–pursue the exploiters, not the victims.
Abel, Gillian M., Lisa J. Fitzgerald, and Cheryl Brunton. “The Impact of Decriminalisation on the Number of Sex Workers in New Zealand.” Journal of Social Policy 38.03 (2009): 515. Web.
Brewer†, Devon D., John J. Potterat‡, Sharon B. Garrett, Stephen Q. Muth‡, Jr.§ John M. Roberts, Danuta Kasprzyk¶, and And Daniel E. Montano¶. “Devon D. Brewer.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. National Acad Sciences, n.d. Web. 06 Mar. 2017.
Fitzgerald, Lisa. “The Impact of Decriminalisation on the Number of Sex Workers in New Zealand.” Journal of Social Policy. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2017.
Hedlin, Simon. N.p., n.d. Web.
“Jan Macleod and Melissa Farley and Lynn Anderson and and Jacqueline Golding.” Prostitution Research & Education. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2017.
“NAC: CHAPTER 441A – INFECTIOUS DISEASES; TOXIC AGENTS.” NAC: CHAPTER 441A – INFECTIOUS DISEASES; TOXIC AGENTS. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Mar. 2017.
Petro, Melissa. “Former Sex Worker Melissa Petro Defends Adult Ad Site Backpage.Com.” The Daily Beast. The Daily Beast Company, 10 Apr. 2012. Web. 08 Mar. 2017.
“Prostitution.” Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection, Gale, 2014. Opposing Viewpoints in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/PC3021900139/OVIC?u=salt89600&xid=bcd365fb. Accessed 7 Mar. 2017.
Rocha, Luis E C, Fredrik Liljeros, and Petter Holme. “Information Dynamics Shape the Networks of Internet-mediated Prostitution.” [1003.3089] Information Dynamics Shape the Networks of Internet-mediated Prostitution. 16 Mar. 2010. Web. 07 Mar. 2017
“Turning out the Red Lights.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 03 Dec. 2013. Web. 06 Mar. 2017.
Wilson, Michael. “Runaway Teenager Slowly Reveals Tale of Horrors While Away.” The New York Times. 15 Jan. 2017. Web. 06 Mar. 2017.
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