A prostitute in a short skirt leaning against a building.

Photo courtesy of Charles LeBlanc at Flickr Creative Commons.

The ongoing debate about whether or not prostitution should be legalized calls to our attention a lot of big issues—feminism, body politics, economics, violence, choice. There are no easy answers here because all of these elements have an effect on the legalization versus non-legalization issue. It’s not just a matter of protecting the vulnerable from sex trafficking. It’s not just the importance of allowing women to choose their own vocation (which implies, incidentally, that prostitutes are only women—but that’s an argument for a different blog article).

Anyway, here’s a look at some of the most common arguments for why prostitution should be legalized—and why they’re dangerously wrong.

Legalization of prostitution will empower/legitimize women.

The legalization of prostitution isn’t about the women performing the acts so much as it is about making it easier for the pimps, traffickers, and customers in the sex industry. Prostitution becomes a legitimate home for third party businessmen, allowing them to broaden their activities in brothels, sex clubs, and massage parlors without any real oversight or restraint.

Legalization of prostitution will decrease sex trafficking.

A report from the Budapest Group in 1999 noted that 80% of women in brothels in the Netherlands were trafficked from other countries. When a country such as the Netherlands legalizes prostitution, it only increases the flow of sex trafficking. Within a year of legalizing prostitution, local NGOs noted that there had been an increase in the number of victims of sex trafficking into the country—or, in other cases, the number of victims had remained the same.

The numbers in Germany are troubling, too. As the country began to legalize prostitution in 1993, they noted that 75% of the prostitutes in the country were foreigners from Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay, and other South American countries (Altink 1993).

No matter what country we’re talking about, it’s quite common for the majority of working prostitutes to be of foreign descent. Are there really that many immigrants interested in prostitution of their own free will? Isn’t it more likely that many are victims of sex trafficking?

Legalization of prostitution will protect women.

Making prostitution legal doesn’t do anything to protect women; in fact, it might even put them in more danger. In two studies by the Coalition Against Trafficking Women International (CATW), 200 victims noted that the prostitution establishments where they worked did very little to protect them, whether or not prostitution was legal in the area. In one study, 80% of women had experienced physical violence from pimps and customers.

Protection from STDs isn’t guaranteed, either. Even if an establishment has a policy regarding condoms, many customers refuse to wear them—or offer prostitutes more money if they will have sex without them. A 2001 study by Raymond and Hughes found that 47% of men using prostitutes expected sex without a condom; 73% offered to pay more if they didn’t have to use one; and 45% of the women interviewed for the study said they were abused if they insisted on condom use.

Legalization of prostitution will enhance women’s choices about their work and their own bodies.

This one’s a bit tricky. Sure, there are some women who actively choose prostitution. But often that “choice” comes from a place of poverty—a woman feels she has no other option if she wants to eat or provide for her family. Is that really a choice, then?

“The ILO [International Labour Organization] report admits that most women ‘choose’ prostitution for economic reasons,” said Diane Post, JD, Attorney and Human Rights Activist. “Surely no one can argue that this is free choice any more than the cattle in the squeeze chute choose to go to their death.”

And if selling one’s body is indeed a legitimate solution to poverty, why is it that we rarely hear the suggestion that men use it as a way to make a living?

Are there prostitutes who have actively chosen their profession and are looking to legitimize it? Of course. But when the majority of those involved can easily be linked to human trafficking and abuse, it calls into question the idea that legalization is the best course of action.