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Posted by publius2point0 on 2010/05/09

Among the left and the Libertarians at least, there seems to be fairly strong, general support for the legalization of prostitution. As such, it seems like an issue worth reviewing and discussing.

The Arguments For

There are essentially two arguments to be used to support the legalization of prostitution:

1) What a person does with their body or with a consenting adult is their own business and is outside the purview of the government. As an addendum or milder version of this view one could alternatively/also say that an unskilled worker should have the right to make money however she wants so long as it affects no one else but her.

2) Legalization of prostitution allows for regulation of prostitution. This allows the government to see to it that sanitary measures are taken, workers well-treated, and so on. Overall, it allows the business to become cleaner and safer.

In the absence of data, I would personally support both of these positions. Beyond not caring about what other people do on their own, I can even imagine people who would fully well enjoy and consider it a legitimate and fulfilling position to work as a high end Geisha-style prostitute. If it’s conceivable that one can make prostitution into an art form with classes and degrees, I can’t say that stamping it out is the first thing on my mind. Nor would I have any compulsion to halt the creation of well-crafted safety and workplace regulations.

But, in spite of that, I must still vote against prostitution because the above arguments are crafted in a bit of a vacuum.

What a Person is Willing to Do is Their Business

Let’s take for example the case of indentured servitude. An indentured servant is someone who has, essentially, guaranteed that he will continue to labor for a particular employer for a specific duration of time (or, in the case of debt bondage, until a monetary value has been worked off). He may not quit and he may not choose to break from laboring outside of granted holidays — if such were part of his contract — most likely on penalty of beating or whatever other coercion the employer might bring to bear. After all, an indentured is of value because service is guaranteed. Firing an indentured servant means that they won’t be recuperating their debt to you. You can’t give them any option to cease service, even if it means forcing them to work via stringent measures.

But at the same time, that this is the case is something that was clearly understood by the person before he signed into indentured servitude. It was his choice to do with his body and his future as he felt to be worth the possible downsides.

The problem was that in a system where a person could not quit and where corporal punishment was part-and-parcel of service, abuse is to some extent encouraged by the system. Foods given to the workers might be more worms, cockroaches, and mold than produce, female servants might be raped, they might be beaten or worked to death (supposedly, only 40% of indentured servants survived to the end of their term), or they might have their contracts extended for misbehavior or by a master who simply ignored the rules. It’s hard to say exactly how bad the conditions were, but the ever increasing number of servants who fled in spite of increasing punishments for doing so makes it seem likely that they were worse than people imagined when they signed on.

Now, I suspect that most servants (of the early American time period) died on the boat ride to the US, creating the high death rate, and that they were were treated more-or-less fairly by their master once they arrived, even if they probably weren’t housed in splendor. Most of them probably worked as they should without needing to be beaten, and beatings were probably mostly undertaken only at need and dispensed according to rules. But, at the same time we have to admit that masters had fairly open license to commit and get away with illegal and immoral behavior. For instance a contract to work in hard conditions is not equivalent to a license to be raped. One might argue that one should be able to write up a contract which, if signed, gives one permission to force himself on a servant regardless of her disposition at that moment in time, but frankly its unlikely that modern US society is going to allow such (which makes the argument pointless) and it’s unlikely that many people would really write up or pass around such a document regardless of their intentions. Point in fact, it’s unlikely that most people intend to commit rape until practically the very moment it happens. This will be true with unearned beatings, or other abusive behavior.

Having worked in Japan, for example, where female workers are often seen as inconsequential and as unable to have proper recourse to authority, within a period of one year I witnessed several cases of stressed out men taking out their anger on some random woman in the office over any slight mistake, going red in the face and screaming at her, calling her the greatest idiot and most worthless human in the planet. I can only imagine that sexual harassment in the office place is widespread and gruesome, though I didn’t witness that (fortunately). And I would still have to imagine that the conditions for abuse in modern day Japan are less open than in the case of indentured servitude.

Ultimately, a system which encourages poor and abusive behavior on the part of your common man doesn’t seem like an institution that should be supported, regardless of whether people voluntarily signed into it, unless mitigating circumstances require overlooking this detail. That is to say, unless there is a need to allow it and no other alternatives — like a rigorous method of giving loans and collecting payments over a course of time, as an alternative to indentured servitude — you are still better off to prohibit the behavior. Closing down a particular market in preference of better alternatives isn’t lessening freedom, it’s simply accepting that sometimes people make silly and uninformed choices and acting to prevent that.

Making Prostitution Clean and Safe

The state of an illegally working prostitute’s life is, generally, grim. She has a high chance of being raped, beaten, or even being murdered. She may very well be robbed from, harassed, or otherwise taken advantage of, and have little to no recourse to law. She is almost certain to emerge from her life as a prostitute, if she survives it, with PTSD and/or sexual addiction.

An overview of some of the statistics of illegal prostitution can be viewed at the following page:

Now, while this is obviously a website which has a political position and could be fairly accused of having a motive to find the surveys that give the most spectacularly negative results, in truth I haven’t found any surveys which give particularly better results.

The mortality rate for prostitutes appears to be something like 39.1 per 10,000 compared to 1.15 per 10,000 for fisherman, the US’s most deadly profession.

Overall, though, that is only an argument for minimizing the amount of illegal prostitution, not against increasing legal prostitution — which would, according to the theory, have means of preventing much of the problems of illegal prostitution.

The Problems of Legalizing Prostitution

Legalized prostitution is not an idea that exists in the mind of social activists, waiting to be tested out in the real world. Several nations, including Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria, have legalized prostitution as has areas of Nevada and England during the 19th century.

But before we look at that data, let’s first consider who becomes a prostitute.

Firstly, roughly 41% of prostitutes become so as minors (which number is probably low, judging by the average age of entry they calculate), for those who start aged 17 or younger, the average age of entry is between 12 and 14. Generally, these children will be either runaways or abandoned/thrown away children. Roughly 1/3rd of street prostitutes are minors, and half of off-street prostitutes are minors. The average age of a prostitute at age of entry is 16.1 years of age.

About 16% of prostitutes entered the profession to support a drug addiction, and somewhere between 48% and 80% are addicted at a snapshot, with 95% having been users at one point.

Roughly 40-80% of prostitutes, at any given moment, have a pimp. About 16% were turned out by a boyfriend/lover via a careful process of seduction and manipulation, and about 12% are sold by a parent/uncle/or other person of authority in the person’s life.

While these aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive groups, it’s a decently good bet that between 50-80% of prostitutes could not work legally, regardless of legal acceptability of prostitution. They are either minors, unlikely to meet the conditions for sanctioned work due to a drug addiction, or are employed as veritable slaves to a pimp who is again unlikely to meet the conditions of a lawful employer nor run his business as a legal entity. His method of business is a regime of using addiction, manipulation, and beatings to guarantee continued service.

From this, it’s no surprise that when prostitution is legalized, the grand majority of prostitution in the country remains illegal. Even if the government established no regulatory requirements like condom use, anti-abuse legislation, or whatever, the one given is that government will ask for tax money, nor will they will ever allow the prostitution of minors. As such, even “legalized” prostitution does not mean that all or even most prostitution will be legal.

Now, looking at the cases of nations which have legalized prostitution, the first thing to note is that after legalization, the number of prostitutes (legal and illegal combined) generally explodes.

The Netherlands as of  approximately1980 had between 2,500 and 8,000 prostitutes. Prostitution was made a legal profession in 1988, and as of 2000 there were between 18,000 and over 30,000 prostitutes. During that same time period, the population of the Netherlands increased by about 114%. The number of prostitutes in 2000, presuming an even growth, should have been between 2850 and 9150, judging by our initial population.

In Australia, when prostitution was initially legalized in 1984, there were 40 legal brothels. By 2004, this number was 184. During that same time period, the population increase was only about 129%, so we would only expect to see 52.

I could continue to look up such data for each nation — and I have in times past — and as of yet the only country which didn’t fit this model of explosive growth after legalization was New Zealand, and that was simply because I was unable to find data.

Which then leads to the question of how a market can have 4-10X growth in a span of a decade or two? And that answer is sex trafficking.

If you look at the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Australia, or other nations, you’ll find that anywhere from half to 80% of their sex workers are immigrants, largely trafficked into the country by organized syndicates.

Adding this to working minors, and other women (and men) who cannot legally work as prostitutes, you end up with 90% of all prostitution in a nation with legalized prostitution being illegal. And again note that this is after expansion of the number of prostitutes by several factors. So if the goal was to prevent abusive behavior towards illegally working prostitutes, then we have severely made the wrong choice.

The question of why the market grows so much, one can only speculate. That legalizing prostitution removes any stigma of patronizing one is almost certainly a given. But I think that more importantly than that is that once a person starts seeing prostitutes, the illegal workers offer more to the client. Condoms are optional, treating the woman carefully is optional, and of course the price is cheaper. I read one report from, I believe, Sweden some years ago where they surveyed the patrons of prostitutes to determine why they came, and the answers were something along the line of machismo: You had a sense of ownership, control, and conquering when you had a prostitute. Most of the men had a girlfriend or spouse, so they were seeking a particular experience more than they were seeking sex, and apparently illegal prostitutes are either the right price or have the right lack of limits to provide that experience. Though, I don’t particularly ask you to by into that view since the reason for market growth isn’t as important as the truth of that growth.


There is practically no sex trafficking into the US at the time being — except of course, Nevada — nearly all prostitutes are American born. If prostitution were to be legalized across the nation, it can be considered a given that Mexican and South American import of women and children will explode massively as the demand for illegal prostitutes grows the total number of prostitutes by several times.

One might argue that this would be to the benefit of these women and children — though I would personally doubt it — but even if you did so, that’s still not an improvement versus direct intervention and investment in Latin America to improve the quality of life. And I can’t say that I would rather encourage American misbehavior, regardless of whether it’s better than foreign misbehavior.

Otherwise, the only argument that prostitution is necessary is to provide an income for minors without a home. At the moment, this may be true, but the solution is almost certainly not going to be to legalize  prostitution, but rather probably to find ways of legitimizing self-supporting minors if the issue is felt large enough to respond to.

Further Reading


2 Responses to “Prostitution”

  1. Roberta said

    Do you think that legalizing marijuana would have the same negative consequences to, not only a state, but a country as legalizing prostitution seems to have?

    • I don’t know. Certainly it suggests that there can be a “gateway drug” effect. But the main issue with prostitution is that it encourages people to take advantage of other people, with drugs there is no other person. Also, like in the case of Switzerland, you can make the state the majority provider of narcotics since legalized drugs don’t have to be more expensive than illegal drugs. Having to go into a government building to get a high would, I imagine, really reduce the coolness factor which is most of what makes people start to begin with.

      And in terms of just marijuana, alcohol and cigarettes are already legal and potentially acting as all the gateway drug you’d ever need. Taking all of those off the table and stamping out use through sheer force would, I think, be something beyond what could be accomplished in the US. I’m also not certain that the illegalization of marijuana would pass the judicial review test, if honestly administered, since it seems likely that (if filtered) smoking marijuana is equivalent to drinking or smoking tobacco in terms of addiction or general harm.

      Basically, I simply haven’t researched it. I think it’s fairly possible that legalized drugs, in whole or in part, could be beneficial or cause little practical change. It’s also possible that it could be bad. Until I have researched it, any possible merit or demerit that I know of is still just as likely as anything else.

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