Years ago, friends and I were discussing whether we’d ever run for office. I said I’d never get elected because I had too many radical views. For example, I believed in legalizing marijuana and prostitution.
These days, my “radical” views suddenly don’t seem so outrageous.
Marijuana is now legal to use in two states—Colorado and Washington—and regulated much like alcohol and tobacco. In addition, so-called “medical marijuana” is also gaining traction in many states.
So could legalized prostitution throughout the U.S. be next?
Probably not, but it should be.
Prostitution has been called the world’s oldest profession for a reason—it has seemingly existed forever. Even ancient civilizations had some form of prostitution.
And all the legal bans on this activity haven’t done anything to stop it or decrease its prevalence.
Instead, laws making prostitution a crime and barring related activities, such as running a brothel, have driven the profession underground, which endangers prostitutes—who are mostly female—and makes them vulnerable to violence at the hands of both pimps and johns.
The criminal justice system makes matters worse by stigmatizing prostitutes—but rarely the johns who pay for their services, further marginalizing these women.
However, there’s some evidence of changing views on prostitution and how to handle it.
For example, north of the border, the Supreme Court of Canada recently ruled that certain laws barring prostitution-related activities, including running a brothel and living off the profits of prostitution, heightened the risks women faced while engaging in prostitution, which is a legal activity in Canada.
For example, the laws prevented prostitutes from working in safer fixed indoor locations and from hiring people to increase their safety and security, such as drivers or bodyguards.
Zurich, Switzerland, where prostitution has been legal in designated areas since 1942, has also recognized the dangers that prostitutes face on the job.
In an effort to better protect them, the city is setting up a designated area for drive-in prostitution that features “sex boxes,” which include bathrooms, lockers and a laundry. The sex workers, who will be required to obtain a permit and pay a tax to use the facilities, will get panic buttons. Social workers will be available in this area to look after them.
The Swiss sex boxes are modeled after drive-in brothels in several cities in Germany and the Netherlands, which have similarly been created to improve safety for prostitutes.
France, on the other hand, is taking a different approach, following in the steps of Norway and Sweden.
The French Parliament passed a new—and controversial—law that targets solicitation. Rather than focusing on the prostitutes, johns would be fined 1,500 euros, or about $2,000, for soliciting, accepting or obtaining “relations of a sexual nature” from a prostitute in exchange for remuneration.
In April 2012, the New York Times held a “debate” on whether legalized prostitution was safer, presenting well-reasoned arguments by experts on both sides of the issue.
I didn’t participate in the Times debate. So here are my two cents.
Will legalizing prostitution make it safe? No—but it will make it safer.
Although banning prostitution hasn’t eliminated the activity, it has made working conditions for those engaged in the profession unnecessarily dangerous. That’s why some countries as noted above have taken steps to try to improve their safety.
If we really care about the well-being of the women who support themselves as sex workers, legalize prostitution and regulate it like certain cities in Nevada and other jurisdictions currently do.
By doing so, the government could permit prostitutes to work indoors in safer locations than street corners and to take other measures to protect themselves, such as by hiring bodyguards. In short, they could take control over their lives.
Prostitutes would still be vulnerable to violence to some extent. But if their conduct is legal, they may be more willing to come forward if they’re victimized by clients or pimps.
The government could require sex workers to be over a certain age and to be licensed. In addition, it could also address health issues by requiring them to get regular physicals and use condoms.
And if prostitution is a legal profession, it could be taxed!
But I believe that the argument for legalizing prostitution goes beyond safety.
Women are entitled to control over their bodies. Just as they should have the right to decide whether they want to remain pregnant, women should be able to decide for themselves whether they want to engage in sexual acts in exchange for money.
If we’re honest, the line between having sex with someone for cash or in exchange for dinner or jewelry is a thin one.
And participants in other occupations trade the use of their bodies for money, most notably professional athletes. Is being a hooker really that different?
The wonderful “In Death” series of novels by J.D. Robb is set in New York City starting in 2058.
The author envisions a future in which cash is basically obsolete, stay-at-home moms are paid by the state to raise their children and “licensed companions” are legal prostitutes who are trained and regulated by the government. These companions—both male and female—no longer work in the shadows but are out in the open. Although they may not be exalted for their choice of profession, they’re not stigmatized—or endangered—like they are today.
Perhaps it’s time for life to imitate art and for the U.S. to follow an example spelled out in fiction and already in operation in other places around the world.
Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.