Prostitution: Should it be legalized?
February 17, 2014
Legalized Prostitution: A Public Health Nightmare
Peter Chutcharavan is an LSA senior from Portage Michigan who is studying Geological Science. In his free time, Peter enjoys playing piano, long walks in the Arb, and spending time exploring the wonders of optical mineralogy.
Those in favor of legalizing prostitution may argue that sex workers would yield both moral and economic benefits. Government oversight could reduce the effects of exploitation and job-related violence for prostitutes while greater transparency and cooperation with law enforcement agencies might help to stop a large portion of human trafficking in the United States. Financially, the government could tax sex workers and houses of prostitution, providing additional revenue to help pay off the federal deficit. The idea is not new; it was one of the deciding factors when prohibition was repealed in the 1930’s and is one of the most common arguments for proponents of legalized marijuana.
If a movement to legitimize prostitution developed, it is entirely possible that the benefit of increased tax revenues would also be championed by the movement’s supporters. However, the health risks associated with institutionalized prostitution are too great to ignore. Legalizing prostitution could increase exposure to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) across the country and, therefore, greatly outweigh any moral or economic incentives.
One of the most serious STIs in existence today is the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV. According to the CDC, roughly 50,000 people are infected with HIV each year and, as of 2010, 1.1 million people in the US are living with the disease. While it is extremely unlikely for a person to acquire HIV through casual contact, the disease is easily transmitted through blood and sexual intercourse. While there is little data on HIV prevalence in the sex industry, sex workers are considered at high risk of infection for several reasons. First of all, prostitution usually involves a large number of sex partners, which increases the chance of acquiring the disease. Additionally, existing data suggests that prostitutes do not use condoms consistently. For example, sex workers could potentially be paid more for unprotected sex versus sex with a condom. Also, prostitutes tend to use condoms less with regular partners, further increasing the risk of infection. It is important to note that all of these high-risk factors are independent of the legal status of prostitution. If prostitution were legalized, it is likely that these unsafe practices would still continue.
Finally, there is always the possibility that healthcare costs from legalized prostitution could greatly exceed any possible gains from tax revenue. Legalization legitimizes prostitution and opens the profession up to the entire adult population. With legal prostitution, it is likely that the amount of people soliciting sex workers would increase dramatically. Even if regulations were set in place which required condom use, the financial and personal motivations behind inconsistent condom use would not be fundamentally altered. As a result, the number of people infected with STIs such as HIV would increase, placing a greater burden on our healthcare system. If STI infection rates skyrocketed, then the benefits of tax revenue would be greatly overshadowed by a new public health crisis.
Do not get me wrong, sex workers are human beings just like everyone else and deserve protection from exploitation and sexual violence. As a society, we should do everything in our power to reduce human trafficking and ensure that the legal status of prostitution does not compromise the safety of sex workers. Even with illegal prostitution, sex workers who report these activities should not be prosecuted, for when a person’s life and well-being is at stake, that takes precedence. However, the health risks to the population from legalized prostitution are most likely too high to be acceptable and it would be irresponsible for the US government to indirectly sanction a public health crisis. Therefore, prostitution should remain illegal.
Sonya Kotov is a junior at U of M studying Women’s Studies and German. An Ann Arbor native, she is passionate about feminism, reproductive rights and advocating for survivors of sexual assault.
Why is the oldest profession illegal and stigmatized, especially in a culture that is so obsessed with sex? Sex is all around us, yet it is only acceptable in the form of a euphemism. When it comes to prostitution and sex work in general (like stripping and porn) there is a tendency to follow circular logic. We justify the stigma surrounding prostitution and other forms of sex work by saying these occupations are bad. But if these fields remain illegal and stigmatized, the problems associated with them will not disappear. For these reasons, decriminalization is vital to the safety of sex workers.
Something that is often overlooked when discussing the decriminalization of prostitution is that sex work is exactly that – work that has to do with sex. At its core, it is the exchange of physical, bodily acts for money, which is not unique to that field. Loads of other workers get paid for what their bodies can do: waitresses, construction workers, and actors, to name just a few. The main difference between these “legitimate”, non-stigmatized jobs and sex work is the way these jobs are viewed and the fact that one is illegal. Prostitution is considered a disgrace or tragedy, waitress a part of the normal teenage experience, and acting a huge privilege. Moreover, waitress and acting cannot get you arrested.
The effects of perception are evident when comparing prostitution to waitress. Few people go into foodservice because they are passionate about it and most see the job as a temporary position. Many even want to get out as soon as possible because of the high levels of sexual harassment. But there is rarely mention of waitresses as working against their will or as being sexually exploited, nor can they be arrested. Because there is minimal stigma surrounding work in foodservice, people in these jobs have access to more job security, benefits, and resources to deal with misconduct. I support decriminalization because I do not believe sex work is unilaterally and inherently oppressive. It is the vulnerability, not the sex work itself, which leads to abuse and victimization. The current circumstances, particularly the threat of arrest, are problematic and oppressive. But there is nothing inherently harmful in the consensual exchange of sexual acts for money.
That being said, I believe that being against sex work is hurtful to people who participate in it. Denying a person the option to participate in the sex industry is hurtful. Ostracizing her for a choice she makes, one that is not hurting anyone, is problematic. Negating any sense of empowerment she may feel participating in this line of work is oppressive. And these beliefs – that there must be something wrong with a woman if she decides to be a prostitute, stripper, or porn star – only reinforce the patriarchal notion that a sexual woman is a fallen woman.
The sex industry is obviously not perfect, considering people choose to work in this field because other options are not available – when even working as a waitress, for example, is not a possibility. What this means, though, is that in some cases prostitution is a symptom of greater problems in our society – high income inequality, lack of social mobility, discrimination against the LGBTQ and trans* communities, and fewer opportunities for women. People are being forced into prostitution – not by pimps, employers, or partners, but by our culture – by the institutions that do not take care of the most disadvantaged in our society, by the increasing impossibility of social mobility, by a culture in which young people get thrown out of their homes for being gay.
Whether prostitution is legal or illegal, these things are still going to happen. The government and our culture as a whole need to reform how they support marginalized groups – and this is a very tall order to fill. Until then, decriminalization would make it safer to engage in sex work, easier to prosecute misconduct, and provide help to drug addicted workers. Keeping prostitution completely illegal and criminal, thereby perpetuating stigma, will not solve any problems in the field; it will just brush them under the rug and push the industry further into the shadows.