The Need For Legalization And Proper Regulation Of Prostitution In The United States
Prostitution, or sex work, can be defined as the practice or occupation of engaging in consensual sexual activity with someone in exchange of payment, in the form of money, favors, goods, or any other benefit agreed upon by the consenting parties before the activity. It is considered a huge social problem in most countries, and there has been little consensus towards a solution. Among other issues, prostitution is often linked to gender issues, violence, exploitation, trafficking, and immorality. The overall approach to solving this problem has been to try and repress these activities, often by completely or partially banning them. I strongly insist that policies surrounding prostitution must be centered around voices of the sex workers who are directly affected by these laws, and argue that these policies must focus more on the freedom and integration of these workers, and that voluntary sex work be strongly detached from sex trafficking. In the United States of America, this must be done to ensure that sex workers are treated as equals as they try to make a living, while also assuring adequate protection for everyone involved.
Sex work has been around for millennia; ever since people had sexual desires, and ever since people knew those desires could be exploited for money and favors, sex work has existed. In American history, sex work became comercialized in the early 19th century, when young men experienced independent life as soldiers and laborers. Incapable of getting married, they found sexual comfort in women who sold access to their bodies. These women found economic opportunity and freedom, and despite its obvious flaws, prostitution was often the most lucrative line of work available to them. Although prostitution is now seen as a taboo in American society, this was not always the case. In fact, entire towns in the Wild West were centered around brothels, and the women who worked in and owned these brothels usually made more money than their clients. Economic freedom allowed these women to be the leaders of their communities, and many of them used their influence to better the lives of the townspeople. Among these women were Madam Millie, of New Mexico, who sent local children to college using her own money and Madam Diamond Jessie Hayman, who sponsored food and clothing to the victims of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Many of these women were pioneers and incredibly intelligent businesswomen, and soon their success resulted in the West inaugurating political equality and influence between the sexes. In fact, their influence grew so much that by 1869, Wyoming became the first territory to give women the right to vote, and actually refused to join the Union unless women kept that right, “We may stay out of the Union 100 years, but we will come in with our women”.
Why, then, did America become so intolerant of the idea of prostitution? Well, as more and more cities featured brothels as a part of their thriving urban culture, fears of white women being coerced into the practice led to the “white slavery scare of the 1910s”. Progressive reformers used the idea that prostitution was inherently oppressive, immoral, and sinful to pass the Mann Act, a federal law that criminalized the transport of women across state lines for “prostitution or debauchery, or any other immoral purpose”. With time, this and the sanctity of marriage forced many brothels to close down, as many states passed laws to restrict, and eventually ban sex work. Although it was claimed that these actions had been taken to protect women, the results of these laws has proved otherwise.
Criminalization has caused a great deal of harm to sex workers. Since criminalization means sex workers don’t get workplace protection from the law, it has allowed for these workplaces to be increasingly hostile and unsafe. Conditions have progressively gotten worse, and sex workers are raped, abused, beaten, murdered, and even hunted, every single day. Studies have shown that in areas where sex work is criminalised, workers are 7xs as likely to get abused, and “active prostitutes were almost 18 times more likely to be murdered than women of similar age and race”. A study of San Francisco sex workers found that 82% had been assaulted, and 68% had been raped while working as prostitutes. A higher risk of HIV and STI transmission was calculated among sex workers with criminalization related experiences. Done right, it is estimated that decriminalization could deter approximately 33-46% of HIV infections in the next 10 years. In areas where sex work is heavily criminalised, state oppression of these workers is often found in violation of basic human rights. These may include “assault and harassment by police officers, naming and shaming, being outed by third parties (such as landlords), extortion and blackmail, arbitrary arrest and detention … exploitation and bribery, confiscation of property, child custody disallowance …”. The reason these conditions are so abominable is because sex workers are unable to report any crime, effectively making them easy targets for incels and bullies. Reports show that upto 30% of sex workers have either been threatened with violence, or have experienced actual violence by the police. Criminalization further discourages sex workers from reporting crimes they are likely privy to, including trafficking, money laundering and drug dealing. Sex workers not only fear incrimination, which could result in arrests, deportation, or worse, they also fear their future and the safety of their families who are seldom given adequate protection.
Many use these vile conditions to support the idea that women should just stop indulging in sex work and find a new profession. This is easier said than done, however, since most of these workers join the industry in search of economic stability and are living under the poverty line. Additionally, there are scarcely any resources and support groups set up by the government for sex workers to get themselves out of the profession without incriminating themselves. One of the key aspects of criminalization is that it fuels stigma, not only against active sex workers, but also against those who have found the means to leave the profession behind. By declaring the commercialization of sex immoral, and illegal, the law dehumanises these workers and strips them of their human rights. Stigmatized people have also been considered especially vulnerable to harassment, discrimination, social exclusion, etc.
While the initial laws claimed to champion women’s rights and vowed to protect them against pimps and clients, the records prove otherwise. There are approximately 70,000 to 80,000 people arrested for prostitution every year in the United States. Out of these, roughly 70 percent are madams and female sex workers, 20 percent are male prostitutes and pimps, and only 10 percent are the clients. This equates to nine prostitutes/pimps being arrested for every one customer. The evidence clearly proves that these laws are not helping women, in fact they are steadily empowering violent men and giving them an entire class of women to abuse and harm without fear of repercussions. Additionally, these arrests cost the American taxpayers almost $200 million every single year. If we legalize this trade, that money could be used to provide safe working conditions to these workers, while allowing them to become legally employed, tax-paying citizens. This would not only boost the economy, but will also allow these workers to help themselves get out from under the poverty line.
It would be a grave injustice to ignore the plight of trafficking victims. Therefore we must focus on how to help them. I recognize that hat human trafficking is a problem that must be solved as soon as possible, however, I reject the idea that a blanket ban on sex work is the solution. Uniting trafficking victims with consensual sex workers, and looking for a solution that treats both the same not only harms sex workers, it sabotage’s a victim’s chance at freedom. Take, for example, the case of Tina Frundt. Frundt was only 13 years old when a man known as “Tiger” began grooming her for exploitation. He was roughly 15 years older than her, and easily manipulated her out of the state. Tina was forced into prostitution and was subject to physical and mental abuse. He constantly intimidated her with violence and prevented her from escaping by isolating her from help and threatening her with jail. When Frundt finally managed to escape Tiger, his threats proved to be true. Tina Frundt was jailed and criminalized, even though she was a victim of child sex trafficking.
Tina Frundt is just one example of so many more. Thankfully, Frundt’s case helped pass laws to protect children who were sex trafficked, but there are still no such protections for adults or those who cannot definitively prove they were trafficked as a minor. Therefore, it is of great importance that sex work and sex trafficking not be synonomized, and that we as a society tell victims of trafficking that there are resources and help available to them, without the fear of arrests. We must create a different conversation centered around trafficking victims, without overshadowing the dialogue with voices of consensual sex workers. Focusing on sex workers to best protect them in their profession of choice, and making sure that trafficking victims are rescued and rehabilitated into society are problems with different solutions. The idea that both can be equated, by claiming that consensual prostitution is an oxymoron, or by claiming that sex workers are brainwashed and giving in to the patriarchy, is not only flawed logic, it is also extremely harmful to both groups. If we look at it objectively, the more time we spend criminalizing sex work and enforcing our ideals of how people should use their bodies, is more time we spend not looking for trafficking victims. It is more resources used restricting personal freedoms, and not protecting the vulnerable. We must disconnect there two topics to find a way to give both groups the justice they need.
On account of these attestations, I stress that prostitution and sex work be legalized in the United States. Presently, out of all of America, only a few counties in Nevada give people the freedom to engage in consensual sex work. I propose that states follow in Nevada’s footsteps to legalize sex work. Nevada’s sex work reforms state that it is illegal to “induce, force, or arrange for another person to unlawfully engage in prostitution”. This is called pandering and is punishable by imprisonment for between one and five years, and/or a fine of up to $10,000. This means that although it is legal for people to seek and provide sex for money, it is still illegal to recruit sex workers. Additionally, only select counties can host licensed brothels, and each of those brothels must follow certain rules. Among those rules are: workers must be at least 18 years of age, and employed of their own free will. They must use condoms, and submit to regular HIV and STD testing. There are certain laws regarding where these brothels can be located; at least 400 yards away from a school or place of worship, not on principal streets, etc. Brothels are regulated through local licences issued by counties and districts, and a brothel cannot receive a licence if the owner or operator has been convicted of a felony or has ties to illegal businesses. While this model has clearly been personalized for the state of Nevada, I believe it can serve as an appropriate foundation for other states to build their policies upon.
Another successful model is that of New Zealand. Before implementing new reforms to decriminalise prostitution, the New Zealand government aimed to directly tackle the issues that affect sex workers. These included “decreasing victimization, enhancing labour rights and the empowerment of women, reducing crimes associated with prostitution, decreasing the number of illegal immigrants in the sex trade, and diminishing the rate of sex trafficking”. Focusing on these issues candidly allowed the New Zealand government to successfully increase control over the sex trade. Although Nevada and New Zealand deal with the repercussions in different ways, both require brothels to maintain health and safety standards for their employees and clients. These brothels must have permits and licences that allow the government regulate and monitor the profession, and are subject to health and safety inspections to ensure that government standards are met. New Zealand prescribes criminal charges against clients that engage in unsafe sexual practices, for example those that engage in sex with no protection. The police in New Zealand has special instructions to ensure the safety of the workers and managers in brothels.
Therefore, I recommend that the United States to legalize and regulate sex work. All existing federal laws prohibiting consensual sex work and its solicitation must be abolished, and state legislatures must be encouraged to legalize sex work in their respective states. Some general restrictions must be placed by the federal government, to ensure the protection of all those involved, but the specifics should predominantly be determined by the states. This is to ensure that laws are in accordance with the 10th Amendment, and that states’ rights are not infringed upon. This also allows state legislatures to make the best rules for their constituents based upon a state’s needs. However, one general rules must be mandated by the federal government. Since United States law considers an 18 year old to be an adult who can make their own choices and do what they want with their body, 18 year olds should be allowed to engage in any employment opportunity they deem fit. Federal law must require sex workers to be employed of their own free will, and ensure that anybody guilty of coercing, compelling, or persuading someone else to engage in sexual activities shall be penalized. This is essential to protect women and children from trafficking and exploitation. Since they would not fear self-incrimination nor the bias in the police force, victims of trafficking will be able to come forward and seek protection. To emphasize the importance of consent, consensual sex workers must have the freedom to refuse service to a client without being reprimanded. Workers who face abuse, bigotry, or any violation of law will also be able to freely report it to the police without fear. To ensure the safety of the workers as well as the clients, sex workers must submit to regular HIV and STD testing, provided by the brothels. Workers testing positive for sexually transmitted diseases shall not be allowed to provide their services. To make sure that workers are protected, brothels must ensure adequate measures to protect sex workers from violence and abuse, and may not be run by, nor employ, people previously convicted of human trafficking, abuse, or violent crimes. Currently only New York and Ohio explicitly exclude prostitution to be used as character evidence against rape victims. Judges in states without explicit exclusion of sex work often allow prostitution to be brought up. Not only does this promote rape culture, it is unnecessarily cruel and traumatic to the victims. This must be rectified, and it must be declared that one’s profession as a sex worker must not be used as character evidence in these trials. Lastly, to help their surrounding communities thrive, all income as a result of these laws must be reported and taxed.
This is not to claim that these policies alone will fix the dilemma of sex work in our society. In fact, it is of utmost importance to recognise that any and all legislative policies must be implemented with strong social change in mind. If we ever hope to progress as a country, Americans must change their mindset to fight the stigma attached to the profession. Only then will we be able to prevent discrimination and allow these workers a chance at a fair life, and an equal standing in front of their peers. Sex work is often looked at in disdain due to personal beliefs and social perceptions. However, it is in times like these that we must be reminded that although people may disagree with each other’s lifestyles and choices, as long as those choices are harmless and consensual, they should not be meddled with. Changing the perception of these workers, as well as focusing on the individual problems they face is as important as general policy. Many argue the morality of such a profession and how permitting sex work could potentially impact the youth. As morally conscious citizens, we must not allow these workers to be mistreated, abused, raped and murdered without justice. I would also like to direct the conversation to other morally ambiguous commerce: gambling, alcohol, tobacco, lap-dancing, and pornography. These are just some things that are considered immoral and controversial, however, as a developed nation we can recognize that legalizing and regulating these commodities is the way forward.
It is true that even amongst seemingly progressive circles, sex work is often a divisive topic. Many feminists believe that sexualizing and commodifying the female body is an inherently unfeminist act. I contend this idea by asking such observers why they must regulate a woman’s body. A core tenet of feminism is allowing women the right to choose what to do with their own body without fear of judgement, intervention, or compulsion. This includes the right to choose to engage in any consensual sexual acts the owner of the body deems fit. Commodifying the human body is often seen through the narrow lense of sex work. Yet other professions, like construction workers, also commodify their bodies, but that use is never objected against in this context.
On the other hand, some argue that there should be no restrictions imposed on these workers, and that sex work should be decriminalised without being regulated. They often cite the success of decriminalization in New Zealand, and I must admit, this accounts for a very compelling argument. However, it would be unwise to follow the steps of a country whose social climate is so different than ours. American sex workers are still heavily stigmatized and discriminated against. They still face abuse and heinous conditions from their clients and pimps, and we must make sure our decisions do not end up harming them even more. No regulations would mean trusting that their employers and clients will protect and respect workers of their own volition, but we know this to be an optimistic outlook. In a perfect world, or in a more progressive society, decriminalization would be the safest solution. However, we live in a society where sex trafficking is a thriving industry, where workers are exploited without shame and without resources, and where they are discriminated against and stigmatized. And decriminalization may end up causing more harm than good. We need to ensure that these workers are protected, and aren’t exploited against. In the present climate, decriminalization with no regulations cannot achieve that. We have to regulate the trade to protect everyone involved.
Sex work is often called the “oldest profession in the world. ” Many countries, including the United States, have tried to eradicate it by implementing a blanket ban on the practice.
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