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Should Prostitution Be Legal in the U.S.?

Updated on February 15, 2013

The legalization of prostitution is not a hotly debated topic in America, but I believe that it should be. In this article I will lay out the issues surrounding legalization and the motives of the groups for and against. I will also cover a legislative approach to prostitution that seems to be working in Europe.

People who advocate for the legalization of prostitution generally do so based on one of two beliefs. First, many people interested in women's rights believe that regulating the industry would provide greater protection for sex workers. Things like condom use and minimum wage could be legislated. Sex workers would be better protected from violence and disease if brothels were run with safety requirements similar to restaurants or health clubs. While this first group may not agree with prostitution on a moral basis, their concern is protecting women in the industry.

Others advocate for legalization on the basis that it is a "vice," similar to alcohol or cigarettes, and as such should be regulated and heavily taxed. Since prostitution is already illegally happening in 49 out of 50 states, the government may as well legalize it and make a profit from taxation. This group tends to believe that prostitution is a choice and that women should be free to choose prostitution as a way to make a living. They generally regard it as a fact of life and aren't terribly concerned about the morality of the issue.

On the other side of the debate, you have the people who believe that prostitution should be illegal because it is either inherently damaging to women or morally wrong. Rather than making concessions and writing it off as a fact of life, the anti-legalization camp argues for stronger penalties for johns and a crackdown on the demand side of the industry. Activists in this group are almost always heavily concerned with women's rights and believe that the sale of women, whether the individual woman chose it or not, is damaging to all women.

The argument over whether or not prostitution should be legal is ultimately an ideological one. Typically the people who adamantly oppose the legalization of prositution do so on the basis that any commodification of women is bad for all women. They assert that men and women will never be equal as long as women are for sale. They believe that the majority of prostitution worldwide is a form of modern-day slavery, where women are forced or coerced into sex work. They believe that the ones who "chose" prostitution did so out of very limited options, usually related to larger social issues such as poverty or lack of education. The commonly held belief among this camp is that sex work is usually thinly veiled human trafficking.

Interestingly though, many pro-woman, anti-prostitution advocates are switching sides and re-thinking their position based on a revolutionary approach that seems to be working in Sweden. In 1999 the Swedish government, in an effort to prevent sex trafficking, legalized prostitution but made it illegal to solicit a prostitute. The Swedish government recognized that many prostitutes were victims of sex trafficking and so decriminalized their activity. To curb the demand for prostitution, the police focused on prosecution of johns.

The fascinating thing about the Swedish legislation is the ideological underpinning. They legalized prostitution to protect victims but also to assert that women have control over their bodies and can do with them as they please. According to the new law, if a woman wants to sell her body, she has that right. The Swedish legislature can't be accused of "protectionism," a term that refers to anyone who would make a determination about what is good for women other than the individual woman herself. (This is a backlash against a tendency in early feminist thought to make sweeping declarations about the good of women when women are not a homogeneous group.) Rather than taking away a woman's right to choose, the Swedish model criminalized men's access to women's bodies in a way that is dominant and often violent.

The logic is simple; men should not have the privilege of purchasing women's bodies because female bodies are not commodities. The Swedish model is progressive and seems to be successful. Prostitution certainly still exists in Sweden on a small scale, but the country has managed to avoid a large scale human trafficking problem because they created an environment that is hostile to johns and favorable to women.

In my opinion, the best thing about the Swedish model is that it attaches the shame and embarassment to the man who seeks to dominate women through the purchase of their bodies. In my view this is much better than shaming women who are, more often than not, victims.

Currently prostitution is illegal in every U.S. state except Nevada. Would the Swedish model work in America? We don't know the answer to that question. The shift in cultural consciousness would have to be monumental. It would take a massive awareness campaign for voters to realize that much of what is called prostitution is actually modern slavery. It would also require a reversal of the commonly held belief that prostitution is a choice made by wayward or drug addicted women.

Additionally, enacting the Swedish model would mean that we as a society have decided that men no longer have the right to purchase women's bodies. With scandals about governors, Congressman and even the State Department purchasing sex, this would be a tough sell. It would mean a progression in American thought away from the "boys will be boys" mindset into something that is, in my opinion, more civilized and morally evolved.

Let me be clear. The ONLY way I would advocate for legalization of prostitution is if the goal were to eradicate it altogether. I don't believe prostitution is good for women and I don't believe men and women will ever be equal as long as women are for sale. I don't believe prostitution is a "vice" or a necessary evil. I would like to see a change in American values that no longer tolerates the sale of women.

Living in the American South, it is hard for me to imagine one of my senators or representatives running on a platform that includes legalization of prostitution, even if it went hand in hand with heavier prosecution of johns. In the religious, conservative South, I have a feeling that it would go over like a lead balloon. If this switch in consciousness is to happen, those of us who are passionate about the issue and consider ourselves neo-abolitionists will have to convince our fellow citizens. Large scale cultural change is certainly possible if we work together.


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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I think it's a crying shame that some women are in such a bad economic position that they would be forced to resort to such degrading behavior. It's a stain on our society.

      However, I am in favor of legalization, as long as it's heavily regulated, like you pointed out in your hub. Legalizing it would take away the criminal aspect, and thus reduce the violence prostitutes often have to fear from their clients.

      I don't morally condone it, but if people are going to do it, let's make it as safe as possible.

    • Cantuhearmescream profile image


      5 years ago from New York

      ib radmasters,

      I don't think throwing money at any problem will solve it. I think that it is a matter of evaluting where we are spending our money and what it is accomplishing, what are our priorities? Yes, our education is a joke and more money isn't going to solve it but maybe implementing other changes will. All improvements or changes do not need to cost money, in fact, some may save money.

      Yes, I guess the government can't stop sex, whether it is illegal/legal, free or paid for, but I don't see the need to make access to it any easier or acceptable.

      Elections are a joke; millions of people don't vote and millions of other people vote under informed and undereducated.

      ...thank you.

    • ib radmasters profile image

      ib radmasters 

      5 years ago from Southern California


      "What about our education?


      Throwing money at a problem doesn't work. The United States spends more money per child than most if not all the other countries, yet the academic results puts us at the bottom of the list.


      Our America has gotten sad and ugly and the family unit is nothing like what it used to be. Families breaking up, divorces, infidelities, violence, lies, murder, deceit? Let's add legal sex with strangers into the mix and see if that helps some families?


      Legal or illegal sex for business, rather than social is going to continue, and the government cannot stop it.


      That is not directed toward you, but to the thought process in general. It's just sad and discouraging that we have to sit back and settle for less than mediocre."


      When the morality of the people that we elect to office is so low, then the only way to make it better is to vet out the candidates, and remove the incombetnts that aren't doing their job. That is the role of the voters, and they have failed to do it, and it appears that they don't even try.



    • Cantuhearmescream profile image


      5 years ago from New York

      ib radmasters,

      I appreciate that you even responded to my earlier comment and value your knowledge in political matters and such. I am probably an "emotional, biased debater". Sometimes the obvious facts are unattractive so I look for less likely but more pleasant alternatives. Numbers, numbers, numbers. Why is it that to do anything productive it has to be "expensive"? Why do we foolishly throw money in areas that don't hardly affect the common person? Why do we spend billions of dollars outside of America? Our country is falling apart but we feel the need to worry about everyone else. What about the starving or neglected kids that die here each day? What about the people who cannot receive any medical attention? What about our education? Our America has gotten sad and ugly and the family unit is nothing like what it used to be. Families breaking up, divorces, infidelities, violence, lies, murder, deceit? Let's add legal sex with strangers into the mix and see if that helps some families? That is not directed toward you, but to the thought process in general. It's just sad and discouraging that we have to sit back and settle for less than mediocre.

    • ib radmasters profile image

      ib radmasters 

      5 years ago from Southern California


      I based my opinion on the saying that it is the world's oldest profession.

      It is like alcohol and tobacco.

      It would have to be low key, no advertising at all, otherwise they will become like the lawyers advertisements.

      Marijuana, illegal drugs, and prostitution are three of the major businesses of the gangs, and we spend a lot of money trying to police them, while the gangs are making billions.

      I am not for any of these things, and I blame the people that use them for making it a problem. There would be no illegal business without the customers. We have limited police, resources, and budgets and these three things absorb a lot of it.

      What is the difference between a man going on a dinner date and dropping two hundred dollars trying to impress for sex, or spending a thousand dollars to a prostitute for a sure thing?


      I hope you took that one lightly.


    • Cantuhearmescream profile image


      5 years ago from New York

      I absolutely love your educated approach; you didn't just post some long-winded article on how you think legalizing prostitution would be good or bad. I was immediately tight-chested and found myself preparing to become defensive because I assumed you would be pro-legalizing prostitution and was preparing myself for a debate. I have a very good friend that recently moved here from Australia and he spoke of legal prostitution like a trip to the grocery store. He grew up around it and it is not foreign to him. Though he is a family man and happily married and explained that he has never sought prostitution but his response to my appauled reaction of prostitution was "why not?" He does not see prostitution as a bad thing and many of the issues you addressed, he addressed as well.

      My stance, America has enough problems, lack of morals, values and principles, infidelity, broken homes and ruined marriages. Why would we create circumstances that would make it easier and legal to have random sex? As much as I respect Ib radmasters' opinion, saying that there no way to stop it from being done is irresponsible thinking. There are thousands of child molesters and pedophiles that just won't stop either, should we legalize their vices? Thumbs up and interesting.

    • TurtleDog profile image


      5 years ago

      @phoebepike and ib radmasters great points and I fully agree. You can't stop it, you can control 95% (just a ball-park figure I threw out there ;-) of the criminal activity by legalizing it and, what the heck, let's tax it just like we get taxed. Great points

      Nice post juliaeverheart!!! voted up awesome

    • ib radmasters profile image

      ib radmasters 

      5 years ago from Southern California


      I think that it should be legalized.

      The most important reason is that there is no way to stop it from being done. It is like the prohibition on alcohol, it couldn't work.

      As for the women's rights issue, how are beauty contests any different than prostitution. Women are using their gender to gain from it.

      When legalized it should be protected from being sleazy, like the topless and bottomless bars. The object would try to remove the criminal element.

      Paying taxes like any other provided service is not capitalizing on the women, it is just what government does when you earn a dollar.

      Licensing would insure that the women, and or men that are working as sex providers are healthy and not transmitting disease. It would also include a legal age requirement, no minors.

      Advertising the services would be tasteful and minimal.

      Just a few thoughts.

    • profile image

      Phoebe Pike 

      5 years ago

      I agree, it should be legalized and regulated. It's not a job most people actively seek out, but slavery still exists today and by legalizing it, it would force many pimps to free up the hookers... both male and female. Thousands are sold into sex trade and there are countless diseases and health risks (even death) when dealing with such a market. By setting up guidelines and monitoring it regularly we have a chance of saving lives and controlling the spread of STDs and STIs.


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