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Prostitution Why Not Legalize It
One of the oldest legal debates comes from one of the worlds’ oldest profession, prostitution, there is no denying that the sex industry has taken international dimensions and is recognized as an economic motor for many countries. As countries around the world debate the merits of legalizing or at least decriminalizing prostitution. The following questions should be addressed. Would legalization reduce some of the inequalities and abuse suffered by the women involved? On the other hand, by legitimizing prostitution, would society reverse decades of work to promote human rights and improve the status of women? On the surface, this looks like a rehashing of a timeless debate. However, it is not. The question is no longer about morality – is prostitution a vice and are those involved evil or somehow lacking in judgement? Now the question should be asked: is prostitution a form of exploitation to be abolished or an occupation to be regulated? To get a feel for what is going on and how opinions are changing, one should look to the headlines. In the Christian Science Monitor, an ex-call girl is challenging Florida State laws on prostitution. In Amsterdam, the “First World Whore’s Congress” takes place. Prostitutes from around the world came together to make a statement of solidarity. In the Times Higher Education Supplement, John Taylor, Chief executive of Sheffield Britain ‘s Chamber of Trade, says, “You can’t eradicate it. All you can do is drive it underground. I am a realist. It’s better that it should be controlled.” These are all separate incidences where some kind of regulation, decriminalization, or legalization of prostitution is being debated. By decriminalizing prostitution, laws would protect prostitutes, enable prostitutes to prosecute for abuses, and finally, health concerns would be regulated.

For decades, scholars have speculated why women would go freely into prostitution. Latent lesbianism, low intelligence, a home life of abuse, and desperate poverty head the list of possible reasons. Nevertheless, no one has been able to isolate a specific set of social factors that leads to prostitution. Current books by prostitutes and new scientific studies have prompted Vern and Bonnie Burlough, from the book The First Sex, to conclude that prostitution is, largely, “simply another occupation”(Fisher 208). If in fact, prostitution is looked upon as another occupation, then why not create a win-win situation. Prostitutes would contribute monetarily to society and would have in return rights to health benefits and retirement would be ensured. According to the “World Charter For Prostitutes’ Rights,” prostitutes themselves believe that they should “pay regular taxes on the same basis as other independent contractors and employees, and should receive the same benefits.”

As well as being able to contribute to society, prostitutes will be safer under the umbrella of the law. One argument against prostitution is that women and children are forced into the sex trade. Although this can be true, especially in Asia and other third world countries, it should be noted, however, that most prostitutes do not consider themselves to be victims and claim to freely choose prostitution as their occupation. One prostitute, in the book Vindication of the Rights of Whores insists, “They get hysterical about us! I am tired of all these people who lie all the time. It is not right to call prostitution a threat to humanity. It is ridiculous to mix up child prostitution, and slavery, and exploitation with us: I am a free and conscious adult”(Pheterson 14). Serious crimes, such as child prostitution, are harder to monitor in the general climate of criminality. A town hall official states, from article, “The Oldest Profession Turns Kosher”, “If an industry is unregulated and criminalized then it’s going to be run by criminals”(Sassons 1). The same town hall official on the legalization of prostitution in Holland, states that this “will provide the authorities with a potent weapon in their fight against crime in Holland’s red-light district: red tape of bureaucracy”(Sassons 2). Legalization of prostitution will bring more safety, legitimacy and autonomy to the industry as a whole. Laws would distinguish between voluntary and forced prostitution.

The pimp or brothel owner would be open to prosecution for abuses. Examples of violence, from the book A Vindication of Rights of Whores, tells of police providing no protection to prostitutes. Even when reports came to the police in Sydney, Australia, of “women being lassoed and dragged behind a car,” and of women disappearing, police did nothing (Pheterson 60). When these men finally killed a nurse who was an ex-beauty queen, the men were arrested in a matter of days. When prostitutes saw the three men accused in the paper, the women said “That’s the guy, those are the men who have been committing violence against us”(Pheterson 60). The Australian Prostitutes’ Collective went to police and told them these men were responsible for the violence against them in the last few months. The attitude from the police was “Look, if these women weren’t here in the first place, this sort of thing wouldn’t happen”(Pheterson 60). It is easy to see the contrast between the attitude of the police toward violence on all the street women and the murder of the one single woman. In a matter of days, after the murder of a beauty queen, the police had three men in custody. There is a good deal of evidence to show that the amount of victimization prostitutes experience in the course of their work is very high. For example, according to The International Handbook on Trends, Problems and Policies, “Mimi Silbert’s survey of 200 prostitutes in the San Francisco area indicates 70 percent of her sample were victimized by customers” who raped them or who went beyond the work contract. The majority of women have been victims of robbery, physical and verbal violence, and theft of service; “two–thirds of them claimed to have been beaten regularly by their pimps”. “Seventy-eight percent reported being victimized by perversion an average of seventeen times each”(Davis 320). Prostitutes can also be abused in similar ways by police officers and other officers of the court. In all these cases, prostitutes find it almost impossible to press their cases because of their vulnerability to prosecution and because of their lack of resources. If they do press their case, it is doubtful that they will be believed. For instance, it is often said a prostitute cannot be raped. Legalization would also allow officials to give up the farce of upholding anti-prostitution laws. According to a counsel person in New York, quoted in Whores in History: Prostitution in Western Society, “ the actual situation in this city is that prostitution is accepted by everyone – police, judges, clerks, and lawyers. Arrest and prosecution are purely gestures that have to be made to keep up the façade of public morality”(Roberts 291).

The first prostitute in the United States to speak publicly for rights of sex workers, Margo St James, states in A Vindication of the Rights of Whores, “By legalizing pornography and keeping prostitution illegal, the government legitimizes white men selling women’s sexuality while criminalizing women for selling sex on their own terms”(Pheterson 35). Except for a few counties in Nevada, prostitution is illegal in the United States. However, there is a growing movement across the country to bring to this old profession certain rights and privileges that are already afforded the rest of the country. Following in the steps of Margo St James, a Palm Beach county woman is launching her own such crusade challenging the constitutionality of Florida’s laws against prostitution. The woman, whose identity is confidential, is trying to follow in the path of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. “Government just has to get out of the bedroom,” says Jane Roe II. She continues, “If Roe v. Wade gave women the right to privacy and the right to do with her body as she chooses, why isn’t prostitution legal?”(Decker 3). Of course, this is a sensitive issue with the feminists in Florida sharply divided. “Prostitution, whether by choice or not degrades women,” says Shena Moss, president of the South Florida chapter of the National Organization for Women (Decker 3). However, Siobhan McLaughlin, the Florida State Director of NOW, supports Jane Roe II’s arguments. In the same article, “Ex-Call Girl Tries to Legalize Prostitution” in the Christian Science Monitor, Ms.McLaughlin says, “Certainly if a woman decides on this career of engaging in the sex industry, that is essentially her business. If she’s not being coerced, and if she has other options, then maybe in some ways she does find that empowering”(Decker 3).

In fact, empowerment of prostitutes holds the greatest promise of the prevention of the spread of AIDS and venereal diseases. From the health point of view, it is surely self-evident that an open and above-board sex industry, in which workers are not stigmatized and outlawed, would be to the benefit of all concerned, prostitutes and clients alike. The state could and should provide health facilities for sex workers. Health advocates, quoted in Politics of Prostitution, argue that legalization allows prostitutes to work without fear and implement safety measures. Studies from the same source have shown that since the requirement for legal prostitutes in Nevada to use condoms, the cases of venereal disease have dramatically decreased to the point of being nearly nonexistent (Bastado 3). In Nevada, prostitutes are required to register with the state. These prostitutes are required to appear twice a week at a special clinic to be examined for venereal diseases. This health supervision and care of prostitutes, including hospitalization when necessary, is borne entirely by the state. Although some rules the prostitutes have to endure are excessive, such as not being able to go into town during the week and not being allowed to have relationships with anyone outside of the brothel, Nevada has managed to control the prostitution issue (Bastedo 3). The current system, where prostitution is repressed but not substantially punished, is clearly not working. Society should learn from other countries that have decriminalized adult sex work, yet resist street prostitution. Other countries, such as Germany, have shown that decriminalization and even legitimized prostitution can work under specific circumstances. State regulation has reduced prostitution-related crime and venereal diseases, and it has even increased state revenues, as prostitutes and brothels have to pay income taxes.

An experiment of decriminalization is worth the risk, however regulation would be necessary. It is important to stress that prostitution legislation reform needs to go hand and hand with other social policy reforms, including the female poverty problem and child welfare. Unfortunately, the fact remains that a politician’s support for the decriminalization of prostitution would be political suicide. Public opinion does not bode well for any politician who is perceived to be soft on crime, much less someone that is a supporter of prostitution. One can only hope that political courage and public education will allow reform to occur. The benefits to both the prostitute and society are hard to ignore. By the decriminalization of prostitution, the life of sex workers will be greatly improved because legal workers are more able to resist exploitation and to report offenses committed against them. They will be able to access health, welfare and legal resources. Society will have greater say in their health habits and regulation will be possible. Society as a whole will be safer, just as a restaurant will lose its reputation and eventually its license if the food isn’t fresh and health codes aren’t met so will the free market regulate health standards of working women.


Annotated Bibliography

Black, Allida M., ed. Courage in a Dangerous World: The Political Writings of Eleanor Roosevelt.

New York: Columbia University Press, 1999 This book talks about Eleanor Roosevelt’s push for Women’s rights.

”Safety in legality.” New Scientist 6 (1993): 12 “Reports on the legalization of prostitution sought

by Australian health minister Graham Richardson. Launching of a three-year HIV-AIDS program; Funding for scientific research; Streamlining of the national epidemiology, virology and social research centers.”

Decker, Jonathan P.,”Ex-call girl tries to legalize prostitution ”Christian Science Monitor

25 (1995): 3 “Reports on the lawsuit filed by a ex-prostitute, who calls herself Jane Roe II, for legalization of prostitution. Brief on the life of Roe II, whose circumstances led her to prostitution; Views of Irwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles; Various other for and against opinions over the issue.”

Sissons, Siskia. , ”The Oldest profession turns kosher” , New Statesman 26(1999): 27

“Looks at the legalization of prostitution in Holland. How the move of the government to legalize prostitution will affect the brothel industry; Concerns of the government that lead to its legalization; Percentage of prostitutes in Holland that are illegal.”

“It’s their business.” , Economist 6(2001): 18 “Presents reasons that Great Britain should legalize

the prostitution trade. Legal status in other countries; Specific details on related British laws; Dangers associated with the trade; Need for regulation; Different proposals for how the trade might be tolerated without becoming a social nuisance.”

Bastedo, Michael. “The Politics of Prostitution: Feminists, Conservatives and Civil Libertarians”.

12 May 1993 Presents both views on legalizing prostitution; gives views of economic need of the prostitute; gives the view of prostitutes as interviewed by Mr.Bastedo; tells of the every day life of living in a brothel.

“Crime Rates by Region, Geographic Division, and State. “, FBI, Uniform Crime Reports 1999 ed.

This is gives the statistics of Crime Rates by region then by state; giving the statistics on total rate of crime per 100,000 population; broken down by total incidents; violent crime; property crime, murder; rape; robbery; aggravated assault; burglary; larceny; Motor vehicle theft

Pheterson, Gail. , A Vindication of the Rights of Whores Seattle, WA 1989.“This anthology is a

chronicle of the international movement for prostitutes rights.”

Fine, Philip. ”Shining a Red Light on the World’s Oldest Profession”, Times Higher Education

Supplement 1451(2000): 2/5“ Expounds on research findings of laws governing prostitution in Canada. Formulation of laws based on crisis situations; Effect of government policies on the health and well-being of sex workers;Support for the decriminalization of prostitution ;Possible changing of public perceptions of street prostitution.

“Parlour Games.”, Economist 8126 (1999): 2,3 “Discusses Sheffield, England’s consideration of

legalizing prostitution. Police interest in licensing of so-called massage parlors and registration of employees; Legality; Reasons for the move; Supporters of legalization.”

Sullivan, Barbara. “Prostitution law reform in Australia. A preliminary evaluation” Social

Alternatives 3,July 1999:6,9 “Explores the significant changes that have occurred to prostitution laws in several Australian states and territories. Conditions attached to the legal operation of brothels; Impact of decriminalization on working conditions in the sex industry; Problems and possibilities posed by decriminalization.”

“World charter for prostitutes’ rights.”, Social Alternatives18 (1999): 31” Features the World

Charter for Prostitutes’ Rights, published in the book ‘Vindication of the Rights of Whores,’ by Gail Peterson. Human rights; Decriminalization of all aspects of adult prostitution and ex-prostitutes.”

Douglas, Carol Anne.” Janice Raymond: Befriending women” Off Our Backs 29,(1999):1,3

“Presents an interview with Janice Raymond, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW). Goals and activities of CATW; Responsibilities in the organizations; Assessment of sex tourism in countries such as Thailand and the legalization of prostitution in the Netherlands”

Otchet, Amy. ”Should prostitution be legal?” UNESCO Courier December 1998:37 “Addresses

the issue of whether prostitution is a form of exploitation or an occupation to be regulated. Information on the book ’International Sex and Red-Light Guide’; Distinctions between free and forced prostitution; Agreement of opponents of prostitution and prostitutes’ rights groups to decriminalization; Position of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women on the role of the state.”

Zatz, Noah D. ”Sex work/sex act; Law, labor, and desire in constructions of prostitution.” Signs:

Journal of Women in Culture & Society 2 Winter 1997:277 “ Argues female prostitution as a form of work, the laws against it and the cry for political organization in favor of the trade. Prostitution as a sexual act in exchange for money; State regulations against prostitution; Differentiation of prostitution from other kinds of work; Decriminalization of prostitution; Arrangements to protect sex workers.”

Stanley, Alessandra. “With prostitution booming, legalization tempts Russia” New York Times

March 1998,natl.ed.:A1 “Looks at support for the legalization of prostitution in Saratov, Russia. support from the police force, the local governor and other officials; Impact of the ailing economy on the number of women who turn to prostitution; Impact of the prostitution no organized crime and disease rates; Advantages of legalizing the practice.”

Frost, H Gordon. The Gentlemen’s Club: The Story of Prostitution in El Paso. El Paso: Magnan

Books, 1983. This book is a history of prostitution in El Paso, TX; It provides interviews of prostitutes, and the history of one particular house of ill repute the Gentlemen’s Club.

Shutter Marion D, et al. The Prostitute and The Social Reformer: Commercial Vice in the

Progressive Era. Ed Charles Rosenberg and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg. New York: Arno Press, 1974. A report of the Vice Commission of Minneapolis to His Honor, James C. Haynes and of a report on existing conditions with recommendations to the Honorable Rudolph Blankenburg, mayor of Philadelphia, 1974.

Davis, Nanette J. Prostitution: An International Handbook Trends, Problems, and Policies.

Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1993 “This handbook fills a significant gap in understanding prostitution in multicultural terms.”

Roberts, Nickie. Whores in History: Prostitution in Western Society London, HarperCollins, 1992

This book gives the history of prostitution dating back to Ancient Greece and continues through to the Twentieth century and the new movement to legalize prostitution and gain rights for the prostitutes.
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