Prostitution is a sensitive subject in the United States. Frequently, arguments against prostitution center around concern for the health and safety of women, and those concerns are not unfounded. Prostitution is an incredibly dangerous profession for the (mostly) women involved; sexual assault, forced drug addiction, physical abuse, and death are common in the industry. For the women who work in this field, it is often very difficult to get help or get out. Many sex workers were sold into sex trafficking at a very young age and have no resources with which to escape their forced prostitution, or started out as sex workers by choice only to fall victim to sex trafficking later on. Moreover, since prostitution is illegal in most places in the United States, there are few legal protections in place for prostitutes; many fear that seeking help will only lead to arrest, and many who do seek help are arrested and then have to battle the stigma of a criminal record while they try to reintegrate into society.
So why is the response to such a dangerous industry to drive it further underground, away from societal resources and legal protections?
When people argue prostitution should be illegal, in many cases their concern comes from a place of morality, presented as concern for the health and safety of women. People believe that legalizing prostitution will only lead to the abuse of more women, will make it harder for prostitutes to get out of the industry, or will teach young women that their bodies exist for the sole purpose of sexual exploitation by men.
However, legalizing prostitution has had positive benefits for sex workers across Europe. The most well-known country to have legalized prostitution is the Netherlands, where sex work has been legal for almost twenty years. Bringing the industry out of the black market and imposing strict regulations has improved the safety of sex workers. Brothels are required to obtain and renew safety and hygiene licenses in order to operate, and street prostitution is legal and heavily regulated in places like the Red Light District. Not only does sex work become safer when it is regulated, but legalization also works to weed out the black market that exists for prostitution, thereby making women safer overall. Also, sex workers are not branded as criminals, so they have better access to the legal system and are encouraged to report behaviors that are a danger to themselves and other women in the industry. Finally, legalizing sex work will provide many other positive externalities, including tax revenue, reduction in sexually transmitted diseases, and reallocation of law enforcement resources.
It’s true that current efforts by various European countries to legalize prostitution have been far from perfect. In the Netherlands, certain components of the legislation, such as requiring sex workers to register and setting the minimum age for prostitution at 21, could drive more sex workers to illegal markets. Not only that, but studies indicate that legalizing prostitution can increase human trafficking. However, even those who are critical about legalizing prostitution can recognize the benefits that legislation can have on working conditions for sex workers. If countries with legislation in place spend more time listening to current sex workers, the results of decriminalizing prostitution include bringing safety, security, and respect to a demographic that has traditionally been denied such things.
The underlying reason that people are uncomfortable listening to sex workers about legalizing prostitution has nothing to do with concern for the health and safety of women. If that were the genuine concern, prostitution would be legal in the United States by now. The underlying reason people disagree with legalizing prostitution is that prostitution is viewed as amoral because it involves (mostly) women selling their bodies for financial gain. However, telling women what they can and cannot do with their bodies does not come from a place of morality: that comes from a place of control.
People, especially women, sell their bodies for financial gain in legalized fashions on a daily basis. Pornography is legal, and so is exotic dancing. It’s common for people to have sexual relationships with richer partners so as to benefit from their wealth, whether this is through seeking out wealthy life partners or through the less formal but increasingly prevalent phenomenon known as sugar-dating. It’s also common for people to remain in unhappy relationships because they do not want to lose financial stability or spend money on a divorce.
So, what’s the difference? Why are these examples socially acceptable, even encouraged, but prostitution is seen as so appalling?
The difference is that in all of these other situations, it is easy for people to pretend that the women involved are not actually selling their bodies directly. It’s easy to pretend that the pornography actors are just people having consensual sex that the viewing public just happens to be privy to observing. It’s easy to pretend that exotic dancers are not actually selling their bodies because they are not directly engaging in the act of sex. It’s easy to pretend that people who enter into or remain in sexual relationships with wealthy partners could be there for reasons other than financial gain or security.
Prostitution does not allow the general public to have the benefit of these pretenses. Rather, the industry is honest about how sex and money are directly related. And for many individuals, this is an uncomfortable notion. It is even more uncomfortable for some people to believe that women should be allowed to have the control over their bodies that would permit them to engage in prostitution voluntarily; they cannot allow themselves to believe that women would choose such a profession. Yet rather than recognize this reality, those who oppose the legalization of prostitution march forth with arguments about concern for the safety of women. They fail to realize that criminalizing prostitution does not help sex workers, and their arguments lead to legislation that harms women while operating under the morally-driven guise of wanting to protect them.
Instead of forcing sex workers to conduct their business in unregulated black markets where their lives are in danger, all for a mislabeled purpose of “saving” women, take actual action to save women. Legalize prostitution, impose strict regulations, and construct comprehensive support systems that allow sex workers to do their jobs safely.
The desire to protect women from sexual abuse will always be valid, and if anything is a desire that should be more widespread in the United States. What is disingenuous is opposing legalized sex work for reasons that purport to be women’s safety, but that are actually coming from a place of discomfort over women openly engaging in sexual interactions for financial gain. If you are uncomfortable with the idea of women having sex for money, then you should also have a problem with pornography, exotic dancing, and people dating for money. If you do not have a problem with all of these socially accepted practices but have a problem with prostitution because it is “morally questionable,” then you have lost your right to any forum where decisions about the safety and rights of women are being made.