Legalized Prostitution is a Failed Social Experiment
In a study of prostituted persons in the United States, 78 percent reported being threatened by a weapon during prostitution. 82 percent have been physically assaulted. 73 percent have been raped—and 59 percent have been raped five or more times. Some argue that a simple stroke of the legislative pen could eliminate this abuse and suffering by legalizing “the world’s oldest profession.” Such an argument is naïve at best.
One need only briefly review the facts to recognize the plight of prostituted women throughout the world. Many suffer grievous injustice; all are put at risk by the very nature of the trade. Even in jurisdictions where prostitution has been legalized, the welfare of prostituted persons has not improved. Moreover, the general welfare suffers.
Legalizing prostitution hurts those prostituted. Research suggests as many as 9 out of 10 prostituted women self-report a desire to escape the industry. A nine-country study found that 95% of prostitutes experienced sexual harassment on the job that would have been prosecuted under U.S. laws in any other circumstance. In Germany, 59% of prostituted individuals believe that their legal status does not increase their safety from sexual assault. Likewise, in Nevada’s legal brothels, prostitutes are not protected against physical, verbal, and emotional abuse. By definition, prostitution involves the purchase of sexual power over another—a practice that is inherently exploitative and naturally fosters sexual violence.
Legalization instantly legitimizes the pimps’ and traffickers’ system of manipulation and emotional dependence. Although many hoped that legalizing prostitution would eliminate the abusive role of pimps, over half of the prostitutes in Nevada’s legal brothels are controlled by outside pimps. Instead of bringing justice, legalization implicitly endorses their actions. In addition, ex-prostitute Jody Williams has explained that as the government fills its coffers with tax revenue from this abusive industry, the state becomes a hidden third pimp.
Legalizing prostitution also hurts the general public. In regions where prostitution has been legalized, the demand for commercial sex has increased. Increased demand has led to an increase in sex trafficking into these regions, the growing specialty of national and international organized crime groups. The best known example of legalized prostitution—Amsterdam’s red-light district—has been identified by Dutch police as the center of some of the world’s largest human trafficking and money-laundering rings. In addition, the normalization of prostitution in places like Nevada increases the occurrence of rape. In Las Vegas, women are three times more likely to be raped than in New York City. Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that legalized prostitution sends a message to the community that individuals can be bought and dominated for personal pleasure.
The results of Sweden’s recent approach to the issue of prostitution demonstrate a compelling alternative to the bankrupt idea of legalizing “sex work,” which even Amsterdam officials acknowledge has failed. Recognizing that prostitution victimizes those in the system, Sweden has shifted the focus of felony charges onto the buyers of sex, while directing social services to those prostituted. This policy has nearly eliminated sex trafficking into the country, and domestic prostitution has not increased. Nevada’s policy of legalization has had precisely the opposite effect.
Legalized prostitution is a failed social experiment. Research suggests that for every woman who might actually choose “sex work” over other available forms of employment, untold numbers are being driven into prostitution through force, fraud, coercion, or the ravaging effects of poverty, discrimination, and previous abuse. To legitimize the commodification of human beings is not only ineffective policy, it is an unconscionable abdication of the state’s responsibility to protect its citizens and promote the value of human life.