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Why Sex Work and Prostitution Should Be Legal

Ryan is a devil's advocate and purveyor of unsolicited opinions.


It took a couple hundred years, but at this point, the majority of Americans have finally come to realize that their long battle against marijuana has been a waste of everyone's time. It has not curbed the behavior, which doesn't seem to be really hurting anyone in the first place, and has caused legions of unintended consequences.

It's going slowly, but that tanker is finally getting turned around.

So it now makes sense to start discussing the next misguided battle against an "undesirable behavior" that must be ended, one that has become equally self-defeating.

It's high time to legalize prostitution.

America vs. Sex

Trying to use the force of law to impose standards of acceptable sexual partners is one of those things that anthropologists of the distant future will have to patiently explain to their contemporaries. They may very well use the first 300 years or so of United States history as the perfect case study.

Interracial sex and marriage, termed 'miscegenation', have been banned by various laws throughout the United States since well before its official founding. These laws were not determined to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court until 1967. The ever-progressive state of Alabama did not officially legalize interracial marriage until the year 2000.

Sodomy laws, meant to prohibit gay sex, were upheld as constitutional by the US Supreme Court as recently as 1986, a decision that was not reversed until 2003. While not still enforced, multiple states still have sodomy laws on their books to this day and gay men were being arrested for agreeing to have sex with male undercover officers in Louisiana up until 2013.


So while general homophobia is still wearing off, it now finally appears that individuals in the US are legally free to have sex with whomever they choose, with one striking exception: if there is money involved.

There are many practical reasons to finish off this war on sex and really just one reason why we haven't done so. Let's first examine the benefits of legalizing this practice.

Battling Sex Traffickers: The Stakes are High

Who Would We Help?

In its current form as a black market trade, the sex industry results in the exploitation of women through trafficking and routine violence.

As "criminals," they are afraid to involve law enforcement when they have information about a crime or need protection. Rape is all too common in their line of work, and they are often forced to have sex without a condom, leading to high rates of STDs and other health concerns.

Neither legalizing paid sex nor any other feasible action would completely eliminate sex trafficking or underground prostitution. However, legal and regulated brothels would give women the option of working in an environment with mandated safeguards and the maximum possible level of security. Condoms would be mandatory, and workers regularly tested for STDs. Local governments and other official bodies would be allowed to research and investigate the industry in an objective manner and determine how to optimize safety conditions for all parties involved.

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Individuals currently willing to exploit women would still be willing to do so where there is a profit to be made. However, the demand for illegal and unregulated prostitution will drop when there is an option to instead visit legal establishments where customers know the risk of contracting disease is much lower, and the women are there of their own free will.

There are some arguments asserting that legalization would actually increase the exploitation of women, but there is little evidence to support this. Nor does the status quo system that labels these women as criminals while perpetuating a vibrant black market trade based on fear and violence seem worthy of our support. It is time to introduce an above-ground industry allocating resources and expertise towards protecting sex workers and stealing away incentives for any of the multiple stakeholders in play to participate in the underground sex trade.

While it is not the case that these reforms would eliminate the violence that women experience in the context of prostitution, they would legitimize the victims and give them a voice while repositioning the legal system against the pimps and traffickers who have been enriching themselves all these years through their monopoly on the demand for paid sex.

What Do We Stand to Gain?

Although prostitution has long been regarded as an act of depravity, the average citizen would actually benefit if it were to be legalized.

Law Enforcement

Law enforcement would free up resources currently spent on sniffing out the turning of tricks to focus on real public safety. Violent pimps and traffickers would find evading justice to be more difficult compared to when police were tasked with combatting the entire sex industry and their victims were too afraid to cooperate with law enforcement against them. The court system would be freed of much of the caseload emanating from attempts to prevent all paid sex and the number of non-violent criminals incarcerated could be reduced.

The Criminal Justice System

Combined with similar benefits that accompany legalizing marijuana, the criminal justice system would stand to be bolstered by increased resources and a narrowed focus towards problems that truly deserve its attention.

State and Local Governments

Another advantage mirroring the legalization of pot would be the windfall to state and local governments when the sex industry is properly regulated and taxed. As it stands, the vast majority of these profits are going into the pockets of criminal elements and the practice of paid sex, which can be highly dangerous in the absence of proper oversight, has no oversight at all.

Legalization Is the Way Forward

Prostitution has been stigmatized for so long that many Americans don't view legalization as a possible option for a civilized society. However, several countries, including New Zealand, Australia, Austria, and the Netherlands, have already taken this step. Results have been mixed, but working conditions for women have been improving, and overall, the early returns are promising. This is a complex industry that will require cooperation and patience to regulate effectively, and these countries have shown the willingness to improve their system through the necessary trial and error process.

Many of the international organizations dedicating research, funds, and qualified minds toward analyzing this issue have also concluded that legalization is the sensible way forward. These include Amnesty International, The World Health Organization, UN Women, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, Human Rights Watch, and the Open Society Foundations.

Our more conservative friends and neighbors would be wrong to assume that this line of thought is modern moral relativism gone wildly out of control. In fact, it is by no means without precedent in human history. Enlightened societies, including Greece, Rome, and China, have been legalizing and regulating prostitution since well before anyone knew that the world wasn't flat. This is a common-sense approach to a universal social issue and has been recognized as such by competent public servants in multiple phases of history.


What Do You Think?

Why Haven't We Legalized Prostitution Already?

So why do we forego these benefits and continue to ban prostitution?

The reason is simple: People just don't like it by virtue of its immorality.

There are certainly many opponents of prostitution who would jump out of their chair to protest against this claim, stating that the primary reasoning is to protect women.

Let's be clear: Laws against prostitution were never meant to protect women. They were made according to and have been perpetuated by moralistic reasoning. There is little point in pretending that they continue to exist for any other reason.

If everyone were to somehow agree tomorrow that paying for sex is an amoral act, the tiresome process of trying to prevent this act would lose public support and interest and disappear in short order.

As far as whether engaging a prostitute is indeed an act of immorality, that is a matter of opinion which should have no bearing on public policy. If there is one thing we should know by now, it is that legislating morality has a very poor record of success. Those so inclined will brave the risks, and the profits will hit the black market.

As everyone knows, prostitution is not going anywhere. Chasing after hookers and johns is not helping anything. Let's give them a safe and legal place to play and get paid.

The trafficking of women and predators willing to pay for unspeakable acts are also a reality of our world. From this point forward, the public resources expended to fight the sex trade should be marshaled exclusively against them.

Further Reading

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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