It’s Time for Legalized Prostitution

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 31 2014 4:19 PM

It’s Time for Legalized Prostitution

There’s no way to end demand for sex work. So why are Sweden and Canada trying?

Prostitution.
The world’s oldest profession isn’t going anywhere.

Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Whom is it safe to hate? One of the reasons the cause of same-sex civil marriage has gained so much ground in recent years is that it is no longer socially acceptable to hold gay couples in contempt. Many if not most opponents of same-sex marriage harbor no ill will toward lesbians and gays, yet opposition to the expansion of civil rights for gay people has long profited from deep-seated prejudice against them. As this prejudice has grown less common and less intense, it isn’t terribly surprising that proponents of same-sex marriage have gained the upper hand. Similarly, opposition to cannabis legalization has long rested on the belief that stoners are losers who can and should be kept on the margins of society. Now that marijuana use is associated in the public mind with cancer-stricken grandmothers and foxy celebrities, there is no going back. The stigma against marijuana use is dying, and support for keeping marijuana illegal has been slowly dying with it.

Sex work is a different story. The stigma associated with selling sex remains strong, as is the stigma against buying it. This is despite the growing evidence that decriminalizing the buying and selling of sex has significant public health benefits. A pair of economists, Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah, recently found that when Rhode Island accidentally decriminalized indoor prostitution due to a quirk of statutory language, cases of female gonorrhea plummeted, as did the number of rape offenses. A recent study drawing on data from Vancouver, British Columbia, found that the decriminalization of sex work has the potential to greatly reduce the spread of HIV. So will Americans soon start clamoring for legalized prostitution? I doubt it, because it’s going to be very hard for people to stop looking down on those who buy and sell sex.

There is relatively little polling on how Americans feel about legalizing the buying and selling of sex. The main reason, presumably, is that outside of a few rural counties in Nevada, the idea seems exotic, strange, and very far off the political radar. Back in 2012, however, YouGov found that legalization was surprisingly popular: While 48 percent of respondents said that prostitution should definitely or probably remain illegal, 38 percent of Americans said it should definitely or probably be legalized, with the remaining 13 percent on the fence. Far more respondents maintained that prostitution should “definitely not” be legalized (31 percent) than that it definitely should (12 percent), and this intensity of opinion does matter, as we’ve learned from the debate over gun rights and other hotly contested issues. Intriguingly, a substantial majority of women (57 percent) opposed legalization, while only 40 percent of men felt the same way.

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There is one important question that the YouGov poll didn’t ask. I wonder whether, for those who believe that sex work should be illegal, it’s more important to protect society from sex workers—on the grounds that they spread moral turpitude—or to protect sex workers from their clients—on the grounds that those clients are dangerous.

The former is more like the traditional view of the prostitute—the woman of loose morals who tempts otherwise upstanding men into betraying their families. The latter is a view that has taken hold in a number of countries that have pursued new strategies for the regulation of sex work. In 1999 Sweden criminalized the purchase of sex while continuing to allow individuals to sell it. The new legislation was justified on the grounds that violence against women is inherent in sex work, and its stated goal was to reduce the prevalence of prostitution by deterring potential clients. (Let’s pause here to note that, of course, not all sex workers are women and not all their clients are men.) Champions of the Swedish approach maintain that their goal is to “end demand,” and the Swedish government has been fairly successful at promoting its approach internationally.

The Swedish model, with its emphasis on discouraging sexual transactions, isn’t all that popular with sex worker advocacy groups. The Global Network of Sex Work Projects and the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform have both warned that the Swedish model has marginalized sex workers without reducing prostitution. No matter the country, and no matter its laws, men and women will buy and sell sex. Given that reality, there is little reason to believe that criminalizing the buying of sex will make prostitutes safer. Rather, it could push the practice further underground, where protections are harder to come by.