Legal Prostitution: Is It Time?

In the English town of Sulihull, a man reportedly called the police to report that prostitute was breaching the Sale of Goods Act because he thought her looks were not satisfactory and did not match the description. As you can imagine the police was sure to mention to him that in fact he was breaking the law by soliciting a prostitute, and thanked him for wasting their time.

While this story is above all else the case of a misguided idiot who felt as though this woman was a good, it does touch on the controversial topic of how, if at all, to regulate industries such as prostitution — "the world's oldest profession." Why is it legal to have sex with a stranger for money and film it, but not for a person to chose to use their body to make money? It is above all a question of a woman's rights and safety, and yet both sides of the legalization debate claim their policy will make women safer and healthier.

In rural Nevada, where prostitution is legal, over 500 women work as independent contractors for approximately 30 brothels, and 84% of them feel safe in their workplace. Alternatively, supporters of legalization argue, women are forced into the dangerous situation of having to walk the streets, and are more likely to be abused, without having access to the same sexual health care as a porn actor. Most importantly, legalization would give prostitutes the legal recognition to justify recourse for an abusive client or one who refuses to pay.

Despite these arguments, Anastasia Volkonsky, former executive director of Colorado Lawyers for the arts, says, "Behind the facade of a regulated industry, brothel prostitutes in Nevada are captive in conditions analogous to slavery. Women report working in shifts commonly as long as 12 hours, even when ill, menstruating, or pregnant, with no right to refuse a customer who has requested them or to refuse the sexual act for which he has paid."

A special report by German newspaper Der Spiegel agreed that legalization is less effective than it may appear: When Germany legalized prostitution just over a decade ago, politicians hoped that it would create better conditions and more autonomy for sex workers. It hasn't worked out that way, though. Exploitation and human trafficking remain significant problems." In fact, a London School of Economics study found that, on average, in countries where prostitution is legal human trafficking inflows were greater, although the study’s author warns tha, because of confounding variables and reporting biases the conclusion should be interpreted cautiously.

The U.S. Department of State takes a strong stance against legalized prostitution based on this evidence that prostitution and brothels "fuel the growth of modern-day slavery by providing a façade behind which traffickers for sexual exploitation operate." But should these indirect negative effects of prostitution infringe upon women's rights to their own bodies?

The Prostitutes' Education Network argues, "No person's human or civil rights should be violated on the basis of their trade, occupation, work, calling, or profession."

Both sides of the debate of course agree that non-consenting adults and all children forced into sexual activities deserve the full protection of the law and that the perpetrators of these activities deserve harsh punishment. It is however difficult to disassociate consenting prostitution from abuse and human trafficking. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves whether supporting a woman's right to sell sex if she so chooses can justify the effects of increased non-consenting prostitution and the human trafficking it fuels.