When prostitution is illegal, we all get screwed

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Looking over the recent Spitzer mess, it seems that there are two basic issues at hand. The first is the hypocrisy that Governor Spitzer displayed; just like everybody else, I agree that it was completely unforgivable and certainly warrants his humiliation and (hopefully) prosecution. Simply speaking, there is no way to justify the fact that he so flagrantly broke the same laws that he aggressively defended. At the end of the day, rectitude cuts both ways and if you want to be a self-righteous ass about defending the law, then you should be equally strict about upholding it.

The trouble is, though, that Spitzer's disaster points toward a bigger problem in American society. To put it bluntly, the United States' position toward prostitution is inefficient, expensive, and, frankly, misogynistic. In fact, while the Spitzer disaster has been unfolding, I've been struck by the sheer volume of prostitution stories that I've seen in the newspapers. Over the past couple of days, I've stumbled across articles about sex trafficking, pimping, sexual imprisonment, the arrest of prostitutes, and assorted other scandals. Rather than being an aberration, it seems that Eliot's embarrassment is just one example of an all too common blight on the American social landscape.

It doesn't have to be like this. When I was younger, I once wandered through the sex districts in Amsterdam and spoke with people in the city's Prostitution Information Center, I have seen how a city could, potentially, make prostitution safe, both for the customers and for the sex workers. I have a few problems with Amsterdam's sex industry, but I think that it is infinitely preferable to America's approach, largely because it enables the Dutch authorities to directly address many of the dangers of prostitution.

Here, then, are a few reasons that the U.S. should seriously change its perspective on the sex industry:

Legal or not, prostitution is here to stay: In addition to being the world's oldest profession, prostitution is also its most resilient. Almost every society in human history has a record of some form of prostitution, legal or otherwise. In fact, even those societies that refused to acknowledge the existence of prostitution, such as the Soviet Union, still had a flourishing sex industry; as the Andrei Chikatilo case demonstrated. The question, then, is obvious: if this practice has been a part of every human society since the beginning of recorded history, why do lawmakers think that they can make it go away? Prostitution, like earwax, balding, and heart disease, appears to be a part of the human animal and no amount of enforcement will ever make it go away.

Illegal prostitution is dangerous: By making prostitution illegal, lawmakers place the industry squarely in the hands of pimps, hustlers, and other criminal groups. A study of the effects of criminalizing the sex industry in Sweden showed that, by making prostitution illegal, the country put its prostitutes at risk and encouraged dangerous sex practices. Also, by doing so, lawmakers take sex acts out of brothels and other relatively safe enclosures and force them into the streets. Finally, illegal prostitution, ironically, benefits the criminals involved in sex trafficking: by making it dangerous for sex workers to approach the police, these laws actually protect the men who kidnap or otherwise endanger them.

Criminalized prostitution undermines women: One of the standard rejoinders against legalized prostitution is that it puts women at a disadvantage. However, an analysis of the sex industry in Mexico, New Zealand, and the Netherlands suggests that legalized prostitution is safer, healthier, and more lucrative for women. While legalized prostitution will not eliminate abusive pimps and sex trafficking it seems to make these problems easier to address and thus easier to prosecute. Moreover, by strictly regulating prostitution, authorities makes it possible to extend health care to an endangered segment of the population; this, in turn, gives communities the opportunity to reduce STDs.

Criminalization of prostitution is expensive: Every year, the United States spends billions of dollars catching, prosecuting, and imprisoning men and women who are involved in the sex trade. This ties up the legal system, crowds prisons, and unfairly targets sex workers while often allowing their employers to go free. As some writers have noted, housing prostitutes would be far less expensive than imprisoning them. A well-regulated and taxed prostitution industry could fill America's coffers, rather than empty them out.

Given the fact that conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, all seem to agree that prostitution is a blight on the human landscape, it seems unlikely that America's position on the sex industry will shift any time soon. This means, of course, that public spectacles like the Spitzer humiliation will remain a part of the national scenery, being constantly re-enacted every couple of years in a spectacular waste of money, time, and energy. This ensures that, in the end, the taxpayer is the one who gets screwed.

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He wishes to point out, in the strongest possible terms, that legalized prostitution wouldn't personally benefit him in the slightest


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