Prostitution: Should it Be Decriminalized?

It is estimated that there are approximately 40 million prostitutes in the world. The United States alone is home to at least one to two million of them, surpassed only by India and China. The practice of prostitution is known as “the oldest profession,” and dates back to Biblical times. The debate over whether prostitution should be decriminalized or not is one that, in some countries, has lessened due to their leniency. Sweden, for example, made it legal for a woman to sell her own body for sex in 1999, followed by the Netherlands in 2000, New Zealand in 2003, and Canada in 2014. In Germany, prostitution has been legal for, at least, the past 100 years. In the United States, however, it remains a crime to be a prostitute or to participate in the selling or buying of one. According to an article by Erin Fuchs, titled 7 Reasons Why America Should Legalize Prostitution, the positive effects of decriminalizing prostitution would include: violence reduction toward women, lower crime rates, utilization of law enforcement resources, healthier practices, labor rights for sex workers, and potential tax revenue for the government. Additionally, Fuchs states that “prostitution isn’t going away anytime soon and is [essentially] a victimless crime” in an effort to further justify decriminalization. Contrarily, Janice Raymond states in her article, 10 Reasons for Not Legalizing Prostitution, that prostitution being decriminalized would lead to the promotion of sex trafficking, or the action or practice of illegally transporting people from one country or area to another for the purpose of sexual exploitation, which is often done against the will of the person being trafficked. Raymond also states that prostitution decriminalization would act as a “gift” to pimps and traffickers, expand the sex industry rather than control it, increase other illegal activities (such as child prostitution and pornography), and increase overall demand, while not actually promoting women’s health or choice as is often believed. While it seems very unclear as to what should done about it, prostitution and whether or not it should be decriminalized is a rather polarizing concern.

           Perhaps the most popular argument made in favor of decriminalizing prostitution, is the ability for it to become a regulated profession. If prostitution is legal, the government can set health and safety standards that would protect the sex workers from abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, discrimination, and would provide them with a suitable workplace environment, a minimum wage, and access to resources they wouldn’t normally receive (Fuchs). If a sex worker is afraid of getting in trouble, they are less likely to seek medical or law enforcement assistance when they are abused, require STD testing, or feel generally unsafe or unhealthy.  A study by the Urban Justice Center found that New York City cops were actually using condoms as evidence in criminal prostitution cases against sex workers. Knowing this, sex workers might choose to forgo the use of condoms, making them extremely susceptible to diseases and pregnancy (Fuchs). So far, the only place in the United States that prostitution is legal in any capacity is Nevada, and it has shown that legalized prostitution can, according to Business Insider’s Dylan Love, “be both safe and profitable.” It is believed that this is due to the brothel’s desire to maintain a good reputation with not only its customers, but its community and local law enforcement. The desire to be known as a law-abiding establishment results in the sex worker’s employers and co-workers supporting them when dealing with uncomfortable or potentially dangerous situations (Fuchs). Harpers Bazzar writer, Jennifer Wright, reports 84% of the sex workers employed at Nevada brothels claimed they feel safe due to the law enforcement, employers, and co-workers being there to protect them. In 2003, New Zealand decriminalized prostitution and established the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA). The PRA resulted in sex workers not only feeling much safer, but 90% of them believe it provided them with legal, health, and employment rights. Furthermore, 64% found it easier to refuse undesirable clients, and 57% felt that law enforcement attitudes and support changed positively (Christchurch School of Medicine, Crichton).

           Prostitution’s role in sex trafficking is one that cannot seem to be agreed upon one way or another. Sex trafficking is defined as someone being taken by force or manipulation and sold against their will from one person to another, often across countries. On one hand, it is believed that decriminalization of prostitution will encourage, and even aid in, the practice of sex trafficking. Jennifer Wright explains this by indicating that the continued decriminalization of prostitution will only cause the transactions to be pushed “further underground.” Consequently, this makes it more difficult to find and stop the transactions of trafficking, and often causes more danger to both trafficked victims and willing sex workers, due to the pimp’s and John’s efforts to conceal their crimes. Additionally, the fear of being prosecuted for being a prostitute will prevent victims of trafficking, or prostitutes who were abused, from coming forward to seek help from law enforcement. Wright explains, “countries like New Zealand, which have decriminalized all acts of prostitution, seem to have better luck in terms of the well being of sex workers, perhaps because their focus was on creating legislation that safeguards the human rights of sex workers and protects them from exploitation… reforms in countries like New Zealand seem to show no increase in trafficking, and research suggests that decriminalization has had little impact on the sex worker population at all, apart from providing it with protection.” On the other hand, countries like Germany show an increase in sex trafficking since its decriminalization of prostitution over 100 years ago. Wright supposes this is due to the increase in sex trafficking acts being reported, rather than the trafficking itself being increased, stating “…people finally started seeing trafficking and began reporting it in greater numbers.” While prostitution’s exact effect on sex trafficking is not completely clear, researchers at Harvard Law School state, “…on average, countries with legalized prostitution report a greater incidence of human trafficking inflows.” Example countries, like New Zealand and Germany, have very different outcomes since their legalization of prostitution, and the infinite number of variable factors that contribute to the countries’ respective results make it hard to conclude definitively whether decriminalizing prostitution would, in fact, contribute and aid in the practice of human trafficking. 

           Inevitably, morality is something that is most often considered when deciding for or against decriminalizing prostitution. There is little debate about whether prostitution is morally questionable or not. The debate lies in whether a “morally questionable” profession should be illegal. Jennifer Wright explains, “people are allowed to enter professions that seem morally questionable. The only time that isn’t the case is when a woman is having sex as her profession.” Car salesmen and lawyers, for instance, often rely on dishonesty and manipulation to make their money, yet these professions are not only legal, but often sought after. Gambling, drinking alcohol, watching porn, and smoking are all very morally questionable acts as well, but are perfectly legal (Fuchs). It can be argued that these acts are just as dangerous as prostitution and, in some cases, more dangerous. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2017, roughly 10,874 people died in car accidents caused by drunk driving and, in 2018, the Center for Disease Control reported that approximately 480,000 people die every year due to smoking, including 41,000 deaths caused by second-hand smoke. Statistics show that there were only 573 deaths caused by prostitution in the year 2016. Granted, these are only the reported and proven deaths, but it is believed that the decriminalizing of the act itself, will result in more reports of the strictly illegal crimes that can result from it, such as assault, rape, child pornography, and murder, will begin to come out of the woodwork. Contradictory to this, is the argument that decriminalizing prostitution and allowing the sale of a woman’s body will only cause a spike in immoral actions. It is believed that once it is made legal, the pimps and Johns will get carried away and will no longer be as careful with the prostitutes as they may be while it remains illegal, creating an even more violent and degrading “niche.” The fear is that the appetite and desires of the consumers will change dangerously, similarly to the idea of someone “wanting what they can’t have.” Once they are legally given what they previously wanted, they will only seek a more “thrilling” encounter.

            Another largely influential argument in favor of the decriminalization of prostitution, is the impact it could have on the government and law enforcement, as well as the question of victimhood. Alan Dershowitz, a former Harvard Law School professor, stated in an article titled, Why we should legalize prostitution, in which MSNBC’s Michael Smerconish interviewed him, that, “every hour spent on going after prostitution is an hour that could have been spent on going after terrorists and going after people who victimize.” Smerconish also stated, “[the] government [can] share in the revenue, but otherwise stay out of the private affairs of consenting adults. Beyond the role of the taxman, prostitution doesn’t warrant the involvement of federal authorities.” By re-routing current resources used to prosecute prostitution, it is believed that crime rates will be significantly lowered (especially in cities with dense populations), and that other, more serious, crimes will receive the attention they warrant. Often, it is said that prostitution, not sex trafficking, is a victimless crime. If done by one’s own free will, it is unclear how someone can be victim of themselves, or how they can be victims of the John’s and pimps if they are willingly participating in interactions with them. Within this argument, they do, however, become victims, when that willing interaction becomes unsafe and they are unable to come forward to seek medical or legal assistance out of fear of being prosecuted themselves (Fuchs). Sherry Colb, a Cornell law professor argues, “prostitutes are not committing an inherently harmful act. While the spread of disease and other detriments are possible in the practice of prostitution, criminalization is a sure way of exacerbating rather than addressing such effects.” (Business Insider).

           Personally, I would like to see the Nordic model implemented in the United States. The Nordic model is defined by New York Times author, Rachel Moran as, “making selling sex legal but buying it illegal — so that women can get help without being arrested, harassed or worse, and the criminal law is used to deter the buyers, because they fuel the market.” This concept originated in Sweden, but was adopted by other countries, such as: Norway, France, Israel, Iceland, Canada, Northern Ireland, and Finland. This allows the women to seek necessary resources without being fearful of prosecution. The phrase “my body, my choice” is one that is thrown around out of context, and with little thought, in the United States.  A woman can legally kill another human being, but an action that is actually a woman making a choice, for her own body and what to do with it, remains illegal. Morality of another’s action is hardly our concern, unless it hurts someone else. By continuing to criminalize prostitution, we ensure that people are getting hurt by preventing prostitutes from receiving the help they need. True victims of sex trafficking, child pornography, or a prostitute whose job went wrong are also not receiving the resources and help they need. Unfortunately, Patty Kelly, a writer for the Los Angeles Times, said it best, “prostitution has become a part of our culture in the United States,” and we will have no better luck decreasing it, by way of criminalization, than we did with alcohol. All we can do at this point, to lessen the negative effects, is to regulate it so women can be safer and healthier, while freeing up law enforcement resources to focus more on the awful crimes of sex trafficking, child pornography, rape, and assault. Doing this will help the women who need it and leave the ones who don’t to be accountable for what they do with their body. Is prostitution a morally deplorable “profession?” I believe so, but I also believe that not many women dreamt of being a prostitute when they were little girls. Unfortunate circumstances happen, and they have to do what they have to do to get by and, while that breaks my heart and makes me wish they had other opportunities offered to them, we do live in the United States after all. We are capitalists and, if we make every unsatisfactory profession illegal, many of us would be out of a job. I truly think that, by implementing the Nordic model here in the United States, we will allow women the freedom to do what they wish with their body, while allowing them access to the care and help they need without fear of prosecution. I believe that decriminalizing prostitution by way of the Nordic Model would make room for undeniable benefits and improvements for women and true victims, without encouraging prostitution itself. Unless they or someone else is being hurt, it should not be a crime. What should be considered very wrong, however, is denying them basic human rights and respect based on our personal moral objections.

Works Cited

Fuchs, Erin. “7 Reasons Why America Should Legalize Prostitution,” Business Insider, November

13, 2013., Accessed February 20th, 2019

Raymond, Janice. “10 Reasons for Not Legalizing Prostitution by Janice G. Raymond,” Coalition

Against Trafficking in Women International, March 25, 2003. , Accessed February 20th, 2019

Wright, Jennifer. “Why Prostitution Should Be Legal.” Harpers Bazzar, April 26, 2018. , Accessed February 20th, 2019

Crichton, Fraser. “Decriminalizing sex work in New Zealand: its history and impact.” Open

Democracy, August 21st, 2015. . Accessed February 20th, 2019

“Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking?” Harvard Law School, June 12, 2014. Accessed February 20th, 2019

Smerconish, Michael. “Why we should legalize prostitution.” MSNBC, July 9th, 2013. Accessed February 20th, 2019

Moran, Rachel. “Buying Sex Should Not Be Legal.” The New York Times, August 28th, 2015. Accessed February 20th, 2019

Kelly, Patty. “Legalize prostitution.” Los Angeles Times, March 13th, 2008. Accessed February 20th, 2019