What's Wrong with Legalizing Prostitution?

Our culture markets the Pretty Woman myth of the glamorous prostitute earning big money from handsome johns. That works occasionally -- as long as the girl is young, beautiful, and lucky. Even then, the ravages of prostitution over time are not pretty. Street prostitutes often service as many as ten to fifteen men a night; little wonder that they age rapidly and get tired out and used up. Often they end up drug-addicted, bruised, and battered, often at the hands of their pimps, who take most of their earnings and get rich. Prostitutes call their work "paid rape" and note the friends who "didn't make it out alive." Nearly half of the women in prostitution attempt suicide.

Most (90%) desperately want out.

Any discussion of prostitution must center on a basic fact: Control and exploitation of another person is slavery. Pimps control 80%-95% of all forms of prostitution. Nearly 70% of those in prostitution entered before age 16. In the U.S., the average age of entry is 12. Twelve!

In Amsterdam, 80% of prostituted women reported that they were there by force. In Germany, over 60% of the prostitutes are foreigners; in Spain, it's 80%, many coerced by gangs. In Germany, legalizing prostitution hasn't improved conditions for prostitutes. The women do not want (or are not allowed by their pimps) to register, get health checks, pay taxes, or adhere to rules that might affect business. For example, johns are willing to pay extra for sex without a condom. Further, Germany found that legalization did not increase tax revenues like expected -- mafias don't pay taxes.

One study found that 80% of prostitutes were assaulted by their pimps, and over one-third receive death threats for themselves or their families. Nor does legalization end corruption -- laissez-faire Amsterdam closed one-third of their legal brothels because of ties to organized crime while acknowledging that the illegal brothels are thriving outside the official zone. Neighboring countries call the Netherlands a "failed experiment."

Legalizing prostitution increases sex-trafficking because demand exceeds supply. So traffickers fill the demand with girls and women from other countries -- lured, tricked, or sold, they end up without their passports, assaulted and forced into sex slavery. After legalization in Australia, illegal brothels increased 300%, pulling thousands more vulnerable women into prostitution.

Yet there are those who want to make prostitution legal. What other job requires working naked, subject to the whims another person, with no protection against abuse? Pimps, traffickers, and madams are dictators, usually brutal ones. Even in the legal brothels in Nevada, some prostituted women are there because pimps dumped them for the referral fee, working with no right to refuse any customer. And though some rooms have panic buttons for situations that get out of control, one john explained, "Look, men pay to get what they want. Lots of men go to prostitutes to do things to them that 'real women' would not put up with."

Legalization doesn't mean freedom and dignity; it doesn't eliminate injuries or diseases. In fact, violence is an integral part of the job -- broken bones, burns, vaginal and anal tearing, stabbings, rapes, STDs, HIV/AIDS, sterility, miscarriages, and drug and alcohol addictions. Two years after legalization in Australia, the number of women with HIV infections increased 91%; johns don't undergo medical exams. Prostitutes in regulated brothels may be marginally safer, but the illegal brothels they spawn offer little to no protection.

Many claim that without legalization, prostitutes have no redress for crimes against them, but that's not true. Laws currently exist against battery, assault, coercion, etc. Conventional wisdom argues that police don't take crimes against prostitutes seriously. To the degree that this is true, legalization won't help. Even in countries where prostitution is legal, victims often do not report sex-related crimes because they'd have to register and then live with the prostitution label.

Legalization creates greater demand for younger girls, who the johns think are less likely to have an STD. Those who think that legalizing prostitution ends sex-trafficking are wrong; legalization merely increases demand and throws open the floodgates of child prostitution.  

Clamping down on sex slavery, however, does work. In Sweden, clients are fined from $1,000 to $2,000, with possible jail sentences of up to six months. The results? The number of street prostitutes has dropped 70% in some areas. Areas that prostitution made dangerous are now popular areas full of restaurants.

The war against johns, pimps, and traffickers is the slavery issue of our time. The pimp culture corrupts societies around the world and ruins the lives of countless young people.

After working for over a decade on policy efforts to end sex slavery -- helping write America's Trafficking Victims Protection Act and working on anti-trafficking projects with the U.S. State Department -- I went to Mexico City to help train anti-trafficking volunteers. My host took me out one night to observe the street prostitutes. We were surrounded by bodyguards -- former policemen with radios. Seeing them remove the license tags from our vehicles was my first clue about the danger we faced. Things got very quiet as we drove slowly in the john lane through streets lined with girls. Then, over the walkie-talkies, I heard the choked voice of one of our bodyguards,  "Those little girls are younger than my daughter." After that, nobody had anything to say.

That experience makes prostitution more than an impersonal, academic, policy issue for me; rather, it is a personal fight for human rights, individual freedom, and dignity.