In the wake of charges against New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft for soliciting sex, we are seeing renewed calls for legalizing prostitution. Proponents see legalization as a panacea that will bring sex for pay out of the shadows and into a legal light where it can be regulated and the women and men who engage in the business can be protected. In all but a very few cases, this viewpoint is a fantasy.
In Nevada, the only state where prostitution is partially legalized, there is but a handful of legit brothels. The overwhelming majority of “sex work,” as its backers call it, is done in Las Vegas and Reno completely illegally, just like in the rest of the country. The reasons for this are fairly obvious: the regulatory regime in place is constricting and expensive, so most of the activity remains in the black market.
One could argue that Nevada could expand its legalization of prostitution — to cover escort services and individual operators, for example — but under what regulatory framework? Would the work be licensed? Would inspectors ensure that healthy practices were in use, as they would with any other product or service on the market? Would consumer protections exist? If so, what kind?
The irony is that the very regulatory environment that proponents of legalization insist will make the industry safer is the reason so much of it would remain underground. The more regulation, the more incentive there is to run one’s business illegally.
In an op-ed in the New York Daily News, state Sen. Jessica Ramos suggests a radical solution that would seem to simply and fully make charging people money to have sex legal. But this idea is fraught with an awful lot of problems. For example, would it be legal to host johns in one’s own apartment? It is not tenable, or reasonable, for a person to turn her residential apartment, usually in a building with many neighbors, into a sex shop. I mean, that’s not what an apartment is zoned for.
Would street-walking be legal? Should the city tolerate open-air sex markets in its neighborhoods? Should parents have to explain to their kids walking home from school why the lady in the miniskirt keeps leaning into cars? You can’t sell a gyro on the streets of New York City without a license and an approved location, but you should be able to sell yourself sexually anywhere?
Should condom use be enforced? Should prostitutes have to undergo regular health checks? Should we have an age requirement? The age of consent in New York is 17. Should a 17-year-old be able to legally work as a prostitute? “Hey, mom, great news: I got an after-school job!” The questions are endless, and most have no good answers. That is why even in places that allow prostitution in some forms, the black market still thrives.
Being in compliance with the regulations that will obviously be necessary would be expensive and difficult for individual prostitutes. This will inevitably lead to pimps offering space and help coming into compliance — for a price, of course. The result will not be empowering for these women; it will be empowering for their employers, who stack up legal profits on their sexual labor.
There is a very small, but vocal, group of well-educated, bright-eyed and bushy tailed “sex workers” who are poised to do well under legalization. They have ideas like women-owned brothels, with unionization and profit sharing. Yes, a handful of such places would likely exist under legalization. But for the vast majority of women in the business, this will not be the reality.
Most of the women, whether trafficked, coerced, in dire need, or genuinely excited to sell their bodies, will still be working in awful and potentially psychologically damaging environments. And as legalization scrubs away the social disapprobation against a man paying for sex, the industry is likely to become more profitable, widespread, and entrenched.
The idea of legalizing prostitution is a bit like that of treating an addiction without ceasing to take the drug one is addicted to. We can manage it, we tell ourselves. But really, we can’t. Eventually it just keeps getting worse. That we will likely never see a world without prostitution is not a reason to make it legal. Do we want more people to be prostitutes and to be paying for sex, or fewer?
The pie in the sky visions of healthy and happy sex workers frolicking with their respectful johns and checking their 401(k)s is not based in reality. Whatever small amount of good such a plan might result in is not worth the damage it will do to our communities, social values, and norms.
Libertarians tell us that what two people choose to do in their bedrooms is not the state’s business, but commerce is. Prostitution is a form of commerce that society should reject, but more than that, it should be a form of commerce that our laws will not tolerate. Legalizing prostitution will not fix the problems surrounding it; in fact, it could make the problem much, much worse.