Is it time to legalize prostitution?

In February, Sen. Harry Reid visited his constituents and called for an end to legal brothels in his home state. Nevada is the only state in the union that has legalized prostitution, confining the sex trade to about 1,000 women in two dozen brothels.

“When the nation thinks about Nevada,” Reid said, “it should think about the world’s newest ideas, not about its oldest profession. If we want to attract business to Nevada that puts people back to work, the time has come to outlaw prostitution.”

I thought about prostitution in Nevada when I read a story on Wednesday about a fifth body that was discovered at Gilgo Beach on Long Island. Four female bodies had been found in the same stretch of remote dunes in December. It will take about a month before the age and sex of the latest victim will be determined. The Gilbert family fears, though, that the latest remains will be that of Shannan Gilbert, last seen in the area nearly a year ago. The four women found in the dunes—and now presumably a fifth— had been working as prostitutes.

Despite the stigma attached to selling sex for money, the threat of legal punishment and the moral condemnation by religious authorities and other moralists, the reality is that prostitution is ever-present and widespread. However, in addition to Nevada, there are a few places where it is legal, notably Holland and Germany.

As I think about the dead women on Long Island and those who are legal sex workers, I do wonder if, on balance, legalizing and regulating prostitution would do more good than harm. There are no easy answers to this question and I know of no study that definitively sheds light on whether legalizing or banning prostitution is beneficial either to society or to sex workers.

The major argument against prostitution is that it is demeaning to sell one’s body for money. Of course, many not called prostitutes do this every day, when they go to work in industries that are inherently risky, where they put their bodies on the line for a paycheck. But skin-to-skin contact, sex, is different, or so it seems to me. Sex is intimate the way, say, being a coal miner is not.

However, testimony from legalized sex workers presents a different picture. Brooke Taylor, who works at Nevada’s Bunny Ranch and refers to herself as a professional who sets her own wages, says that working in a brothel is safe. “This is what I choose to do,” she says “and there is nothing wrong with it.” She sees no harm in her activity. “We are entrepreneurs; we’re in business for ourselves.” One consequence of legalizing prostitution, it seems, is that women can find some dignity in what they do, they can take pride in their work, and, more importantly, they can be freed from the physical and psychological violence of pimps.

Prostitution may be like other traditional vices, such as alcohol, drugs and gambling. Some would like to ban them all, but life is generally poorer and tyranny a little tighter when such prohibitions are instituted So we have learned how to live with alcohol but still struggle to keep it out of the hands of teenagers and drivers; we ban many drugs but some that are illegal are widely used and few people care any longer to impose serious penalties; gambling, once condemned as wrecking families is now a major source of revenue for many state governments, a development that I find troubling.

It is difficult to have a rational discussion about prostitution, for many see sex for money as self-evidently immoral. But I find that position difficult to defend. There are many things that people do that I wouldn’t recommend and being a sex worker is one of them. However, a student of mine from Nevada told me that a good friend of hers worked in a brothel to pay her way through college. She is now debt free while my student will take years to pay off her student loans. She wouldn’t do it herself, but neither could she condemn her friend. She also wondered who had made the better choice. Her friend hadn’t suffered in any way that my student could tell from the experience, while my student had materially and might well have to take work that wasn’t her first choice in order to pay off the debt she had accumulated over four years.

Would legalized prostitution make the lives of sex workers safer? Would they be healthier if the health department monitored the profession? Would sex workers be self-employed and no different than others who work in what were once forbidden vices?

Or would legalized prostitution simply mean more prostitutes, many of whom would still remain in the shadows, just as unsafe as before? Would the allure of good money be so great that some women would be attracted to it who otherwise would shun such activities? Would they demean themselves in order to make quick money? Would more teenagers find the money too alluring to resist?

I can’t help thinking about the five victims found on the Long Island beach and wonder if they would still be alive if they had lived in Nevada, Holland or Germany instead.


One thought on “Is it time to legalize prostitution?

  1. Prostitution was legal in the US until all the other “vices” also came under attack in the early 20th century. At least in the case of alcohol (and I would argue, drugs), prohibition led to more violent crime, not less, for obvious reasons.
    Decriminalization I think at the very least (versus legalization) would be a step up from what we have–at least those prostitutes in dangerous situations would be able to go to the police with less fear.

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