Why prostitution should be legal

by Ronald Weitzer — Special to CNN

[Note: This post originally appeared on CNN’s Global Public Square blog. Read it here.]

Prostitution is in the news because it is legal in Colombia, where U.S. Secret Service and military personnel have been implicated in a sex-for-pay scandal. And just a few weeks ago, a Canadian court threw out two of Canada’s three prostitution laws – laws that criminalize brothel owners and individuals who “live off the avails” of someone else’s prostitution (see my earlier piece in GPS on this ruling). The court ruled these laws unconstitutional, thus raising the possibility that Canada might legalize prostitution in the future.

What many people do not know is that prostitution is legal in many nations. According to ProCon.org’s review of laws in 100 countries, 61% have legalized at least some kind of prostitution. Since 1971, it has been legal in rural counties in Nevada, where about 300 women work in brothels regulated by local ordinances.

My new book, Legalizing Prostitution: From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business, examines several societies where prostitution has been decriminalized and is now subject to regulation. The notion of “legal prostitution” is by no means monolithic, however. It varies considerably from place to place.

First, nations differ in the kinds of prostitution that they permit. Some allow brothels only, others restrict it to escort services, while others allow only independent operators (i.e., those who self-employed and have no connections to a third-party manager or business establishment). A few, such as New Zealand, permit all types of consensual, adult prostitution, but most places continue to criminalize street prostitution because it is considered more risky and more of a public nuisance than indoor prostitution.

At least some types of individuals remain illegal, however, in places where the trade has been decriminalized. I know of no place that allows minors to work legally, and some societies prohibit migrants or persons infected with HIV from working legally.

Similarly outlawed virtually everywhere are situations where individuals are coerced or deceived into selling sex, exploited and abused by pimps or traffickers, and where they lack the right to refuse certain customers or to perform certain sex acts. In each of these cases, the key principle of consent would be lacking, and governments that allow prostitution typically put a premium on it being consensual and confined to adults.

Second, nations differ in the kinds of regulations imposed on legal actors. Some restrict it to designated parts of the city, while others allow it to be more dispersed. Some mandate regular health examinations to check for STDs. Some require condom use, while others simply encourage it. Some require sex workers to be registered with the authorities, though is widely opposed by the workers, who fear that this information may become publicly available. Most require business owners (of brothels, escort agencies, saunas) to be licensed, and the authorities conduct periodic site visits to ensure that the regulations are being complied with. Where such licensing exists, officials often screen applicants to make sure that they have no criminal record or connections to organized crime.

What kinds of regulations are most sensible? Which ones are most likely to gain public support, to reduce harms, and to preserve public order? There is much room for debate here, and each nation that has legalized prostitution has had to grapple with these difficult questions.

In my book, I advocate about 30 “best practices” that I think should be taken into account by any nation considering legalizing prostitution. The first step, I write, is that “consensual adult prostitution be officially recognized as work and that participants be accorded the rights and protections available to those involved in other occupations.”

The book also evaluates existing legal systems. While no system is problem-free, I find that several have registered a good measure of success. New Zealand scores well, as does Queensland, Australia, where a government assessment concluded: “There is no doubt that licensed brothels provide the safest working environment for sex workers in Queensland.” The legal brothels “provide a sustainable model for a healthy, crime-free, and safe legal licensed brothel industry” and are a “state of the art model for the sex industry in Australia.” While positive outcomes are by no means automatic or guaranteed, I find that legal, well-regulated prostitution can be superior to blanket criminalization.

Ronald Weitzer is Professor of Sociology at George Washington University and author of Legalizing Prostitution: From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business


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