Legalization of prostitution in the United States


The topic I have chosen to discuss is the legalization of prostitution in the United States of America. By prostitution, I refer to an act where money is exchanged for rendering sexual services. Presently, 49 states out of 50 in the United States have banned prostitution withonly some forms of it allowed in a few areas of Nevada. This is not the case in all developed countries. Some places in Europe such as Holland, have legalized itand are regulating it through relevant legislature by the government.

My main stance on the topic is that these countries are not worse off than the U.S.A. In terms of the expected negative societal effects of prostitution such as human trafficking, rape etc.In fact on a closer introspection it may be that this ban is causing more harm to the community rather than benefits. For example, the number of rapes that took place in Netherlands, where prostitution is legal in 2010 is 9.2 per 100000 populations, while USA in which 49 of the 50 States, barring Nevada have criminalized prostitution has an astounding number of 27.3 per 100000 populations.

Thus, I advocate legalizing prostitution because:

a. There is little evidence to support that banning sex workers is reducing prostitution in the society in fact it is creating a black market for it which lies outside the purview of law.

b. Legalization can provide protection to the vulnerable groups by subjecting individuals involved in the trade to the same protection and rights that are available to all citizens.

Prostitution is one of the oldest professions in the world. During wars, prostitutes were allowed to render their services to weary soldiers away from home in order to maintain their spirits.The aristocracy kept mistresses that, though frowned upon in polite society, were considered an accepted way of life. Thus, prostitution has been a part and parcel of our societies irrespective of different laws and legislatures formed to illegalize and consequently diminish its existence. It is so pervasive that even harsh punishments have been unable to completely root it out. The Arab world for example, confers the death penalty over sex trade yet it continues to exist even in those societies. Remarking on this pervasiveness, The Economist (1998)noted that all developed economies had conceded that the business was impossible to stamp out. In the United States alone for example, despite prostitution being illegal 15% of men admitted to having paid for sex in 2004( Langer, 2004). In reality these figures must be even higher asmost men probably didn’t want to admit to a crime to a random person conducting a telephone survey. Similar kinds of survey effects happen with drugs as well.

In light of this reality the state is left with two policy choices. It can either spend millions of dollars trying to monitor and control it with hopes of diminishing it. Or it can choose to accept its existence and make policies to ensure that its negative externalities to the sex workers and the society are minimized. At the end of the day a cost and benefit analysis to the society will determine which policy option is more effective. Some of these are discussed below.

Studies indicate that criminalizing the sex industry has created the ideal conditions for rampant exploitation and abuse of sex workers. These individuals when abused or threatened can hardly appeal to authorities that consider them offenders as well. Many times sex offenders use this very vulnerability to blackmail these workers into performing acts against their will. Women are brutally beaten for pleasure as the customers know there will be little repercussions for their actions, as these women are not protected under the law. It is no surprise than that in the U.S., prostitution as a profession causes 51 times more deaths than the second most dangerous employment I.e. bartending. Thus, there is a strong case to suggest that such exploitation can be stopped if the existence of prostitution is recognized and the legal and social rights of prostitutes are guaranteed.

Regulation rather than prohibition also makes the environment safer for both the sex worker and the customer. One of the biggest arguments against prostitution is the fear of spreading STDs. Opponents propagate that by banning prostitution these diseases can be controlled. As already established there is little evidence that illegalization reduces prostitution. In such a scenario a more effective policy would be to legalize and regulate the environment in which these sex workers operate. In Netherlands’s for example regular medical checks are mandatory for renewal of licenses for an individual sex worker and brothels. Compare this situation with the U.S.A. where the sex workers shirk health visits afraid of being found out by a doctor. The harm of this is that sexually transmitted diseases are rarely caught on time and spread more readily from one prostitute to the next, causing health issues in the population as a whole.

There are also strong arguments made against legalizing prostitution. On the forefront is the belief that legalization will result in greater number of people being involved in this trade due to the ease of earning money. This argument indicates a disregard for human behavior. Man is a social animal and craves for societal acceptance.Thus, the decision to enter a trade that is frowned down upon by society and is an offense in the eyes of law cannot have been taken easily. A report by ILO has shown that most women enter the sex trade due to economic reasons. Thus, should the focus of public policy not be the eradication of the cause (socio-economic difficulties) rather than the symptom (prostitution)? Should our finite tax dollars be spent on punishing these individuals that the society has failed in the first place, by not providing them with the basic necessities of life, or on rehabilitating them with economic opportunities and protecting them from harm sway?

Another popular argument against legalization is its effect on human trafficking. It is assumed that prostitution encourages people to indulge in human trafficking and its legalization would only serve to increase this practice. Firstly, studies have indicated that prostitution is only a tiny fraction of human trafficking and there is zero empirical evidence from peer-reviewed research that smuggling increases when prostitution is legal (Obrien, 2011). Most human trafficking is in the form of labor smuggling (Feingold, 2005).Thus, ignoring the benefits of regulation and banning sex trade on this pretense, that some people smuggle prostitutes is analogous to banning all TV because some people watch too much TV. Rather, focus of the government should be to declare smuggling prostitutes illegal rather than the trade itself. Another important nuance to this argument is the environment of dependency that illegalization of prostitution has created for sex workers. Their close ties with smugglers and gangsters are because in the eyes of the law they are also criminals, and depend on the goodwill of these groups to provide them protection.

In light of this line of arguments, I believe that prostitution should be legalized. The focus of state policy should be to regulate the industry by keeping it safeand provide economic opportunities to individuals so that they refrain from an occupation that is frowned upon in society. A possible policy example could be to follow similar legislation as that on alcoholism, which has been relatively successful in curbing the negative externalities of too much drinking. Regulation and not prohibition should be the way forward.


Feingold, D. (2005). Human Trafficking.Foreign Policy.Retrieved from:

Langer, G. (2004). Poll: American Sex Survey. ABC News Online. Retrieved from:

O’Brien, E. (2011) Fuelling traffic: abolitionist claims of a causal nexus between legalized prostitution and trafficking. Crime, Law and Social Change. Retrieved from:

The Economist. ( 1998, Feb 12). Giving the customer what he wants. Retrieved from:

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