Should Prostitution Be Legal in the U.S.?
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.