Commonly referred to as "the world's oldest profession," prostitution, which is the voluntary trade of sexual services in exchange for financial compensation, has such stigma attached to it that it has become illegal in many countries. Why is there such stigma in the first place? Does the prostitute do something so outrageous that there should be no legal market? While assessing the arguments for and against prostitution, I would like to state what I am trying not to do here. This is not me expressing my personal opinions on prostitution, this is not me trying to present a discussion on prostitution from the lens of Jewish law, and this is not a blog post about the wrongs of human trafficking because trading human beings and forcing them into sexual slavery is a different topic than the one presented here. What I am attempting to do is determine whether a voluntary economic transaction involving sexual favors should be legalized.
To understand why prostitution is illegal in many places, one has to understand the arguments behind its illegality because its current legal status expresses moral outrage towards prostitution. What I find interesting is that amongst the naysayers, you neither find the prostitute nor the client as clamoring to prohibit prostitution. The naysayers are not even involved within the transaction, and are those who don't have a stake or standing in the result of said transaction. In spite of all that, prostitution is illegal in many parts of the world. So what are the arguments used to prohibit prostitution?
Sex should not be commoditized: I agree that there is a qualitative difference between mechanical, emotionless sex and making love with someone whom you know and care about. In the latter, there are emotional bonds, commitment, and loyalty that elevate the value of having a sexual rapport with a spouse or partner. However, this does not mean that there is zero value in paying for sex. Otherwise, why would history teach us that there has always been a high demand for such services? Also, sex has multiple functions, including stress relief, sensual pleasure, or dealing with boredom or loneliness. Considering the declining marriage rate and the number of single people, sex for pay can become an acceptable substitute for those who cannot or do not want to have a [long-term] relationship.
One can claim that a good has infinite value and that it shouldn't be commoditized, whether that is art and music or selling human organs. Even so, the truth is we commoditize goods and services all the time. Even if listening to music at a concert can be considered "priceless," there are still ticket prices one has to pay in order to see a concert. The teacher or the fireman does altruistic work, but they are nevertheless provided a salary to compensate for the work done. More to the point, one pays for sex in some way or another, whether it's taking someone to dinner and a movie, listening to the other partner's woes, or dealing with the ups and downs of marriage. Every voluntary transaction has tradeoffs, and guess what? Sex is no different.
"Sex for money" is degrading: A voluntary action between two consenting adults should not be prohibited simply because it violates somebody else's sense of morality or personal preferences. Aside from using something as subjective as "it's degrading" for the basis of determining policy, I find it amusing that if you film two individuals having sex, pay them for their services, and call it pornography, it's covered under the First Amendment, but if two consenting adults have sex for pay and it's not filmed, it's somehow so much worse that it is rendered illegal. Furthermore, a prostitute works few hours for good pay. Especially given the higher relative wages, how is it any less degrading than something mundane like being a housekeeper or flipping burgers at McDonald's?
Addressing other negative factors: One can argue that I am glorifying sex for pay and that I am ignoring other negative features associated with prostitution, whether that is harassment by policemen, exploitation by the pimp, or degrading work conditions. Harassment by policemen exists because prostitution is illegal. With an estimated average of approximately 79,000 arrests per annum from 2001-2009, you'd think that law enforcement would be able to better utilize their time and resources on something else, such as fighting human trafficking or sex abuse, rather than pursuing legal action for adults having consensual sex. The pimp is not inherently an unscrupulous career choice. Functionally speaking, the pimp is a broker between the prostitute and the client. A broker brings two parties to a transaction in a way that would be cheaper than without the broker's services. In this case, the prostitute saves time and money looking for clients, and the clients have better assurances regarding the quality of the prostitute. Every career field has perfidious and corrupt individuals. If you judged a career choice based on a few bad apples, then you would have to legally prohibit most professions. The reason why the pimp is disproportionately able to get away with worker abuse is because the market has been driven to the underground market. If a pimp abuses a prostitute, the prostitute does not go to the police and have the crime reported not only because the prostitute would be arrested for prostitution, but also because of the societal stigma attached to prostitution. If the markets were made legal, prostitutes would have legal recourse and pimps would have greater incentive to not abuse prostitutes because they would be subject to implementing workers' rights. As for the appalling working conditions, they are made more appalling due to the fact that prostitutes are being forced into the underground market, which is categorically unsavory. Legalizing prostitution would mean overall better working conditions and a safer working environment.
Health factors: An important aspect of the working conditions is with regards to health issues. The argument used by those who are against prostitution is that legalizing prostitution will lead to more prostitution. I agree with that much. Regardless of whether legalized prostitution causes an increased demand or supply [or both], there will be an increased quantity in the services consumed. This is a problem for those who are anti-prostitution because it means the further spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). When the market is underground, prostitutes are much more likely to be threatened to perform their services without any safeguards to their personal health (e.g., lack of condom usage; Nevada study with Albert and Warner, 1998). When the markets are made legal, the prostitute can demand health care benefits. There are regulations that can be enacted to require prostitutes to undergo STD testing on a regular basis, as can be observed with the state of Nevada. Additionally, with the power of societal pressures and market forces, customers are going to have higher standards for the transaction, e.g., nicer facilities, prostitutes without STDs, all of which is to say that the transmission of STDs is less likely to occur when prostitution is legalized. As an additional point, much like any other health care decision, sexually active individuals need to be informed about the decisions that they make regarding their health. That is why sexual education, condom and birth control usage, and regular STD testing are all important.
Economic factors: If people are going to engage in commercial sex, there might as well be some economic benefit. Legalizing prostitution would mean a larger GDP, and it would translate into more government revenue from licensing fees and taxes, as is illustrated with the Netherlands and Germany. Since the prohibition would be lifted, it also would translate into more jobs.
Conclusion: In this country, we are supposed to have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and when put into practice, that means, amongst other things, the right to pay for sex. Even with an underground market, 15-20% of American men have engaged in commercial sex at least once in their lives (NCJRS, p. 10). Why prohibit such a voluntary transaction between two consenting adults? When prostitution is prohibited by the law, not only does the government compound the issues already involved with prostitution, but prohibition couples the headache by throwing on the unintended consequences involved. Instead of punishing consenting adults for a victimless crime, we should follow the examples of Italy, Canada, Nevada, and the Netherlands and create a regulatory system for prostitution. The World Health Organization recently released a publication illustrating the benefits of decriminalization to sex workers. If we are to "think of the children," the government can create red light districts to confine the business to a certain area that families can avoid. The government can also enact licensing fees and sin taxes (much to my dismay), force brothels to undergo inspections, or require prostitutes to undergo regular STD testing. While legalized prostitution has its risks, if it's between better working conditions for prostitutes, economic stimulus, and more freedom versus the status quo, I'll take the former any day.
8-13-2015 Addendum: The Institute of Economic Affairs released its report on the benefits of decriminalizing the sex industry. I was particularly intrigued by the argument that the economic independence of women and the subsequent withdrawal from the sex market will only increase demand for the sex industry.
8-21-2015 Addendum: Vox just put out a good article examining the merits of the studies of banning prostitution, and it looks like heading towards liberalization of the sex workers market is the way to go.