On the legalization of prostitution
What are you supposed to do if you are asked to chose between two evils? We like to believe the decisions we make correspond to our morality, but there are often problems which arise in our modern world that have no adequate solution. In these circumstances, we must act pragmatically to ensure the consequences of our actions do not exacerbate an already difficult situation.
If we can accept that the choices we make do not always lead to a perfect solution, then we are in the right frame of mind to discuss the issue of prostitution. As many of you readers already know, I am an anti-prohibitionist. I believe legislation to control the individual moral choices of people is ultimately met with failure. Worse still, criminalization creates a black market, and the lack of oversight means individual victims become criminals. This is an over simplification, particularly when concerning the delicate issue of sex workers. Legalization carries with it a number of issues and concerns, and the simple act of decriminalization does not mean prostitutes are no longer exploited.
In countries that have legalized it, a large proportion of sex workers are foreigners. In the Netherlands, there are many reports that these workers have been trafficked, often tricked into entering the country by pimps who entice them with the prospect of other work. The fact it is legal still does not mean coercion is impossible, or a black market does not exist. But the argument this is an inevitable consequence of legalization is unclear. For instance, the current legislation makes women the easy target of pimps. Although they are no longer underground and offered protection, it does not change the fact many of these women can be abused, and have their safety compromised. It’s precisely why many in Amsterdam are calling for legislation to ban pimping rather than prohibit prostitution. The problem is, of course, that the law already makes the exploitation of women illegal. The problem lies more in its enforcement rather than its legality.
Another argument against legalization is it can often lead to an increase in the use of the services. If it is indeed true legalization does not decrease human trafficking, there is the chance demand may actually increase this type of sexual slavery. It would be foolish for me to assume this is not a possible consequence. Many women in the sex trade have no desire to become registered, as there is still a great deal of taboo about this job. In these cases, women are still operating outside the confines and protection of police and law enforcement, and as such have none of the advantages of legalization.
Obviously, there are troubling aspects in the legalization of prostitution, but that does not mean making it illegal is an adequate option either. The truth is regardless of legislation, the demand for sexual services does not significantly change. We can attempt to make this a moral issue, and yet even people of supposed high moral character still use the services of prostitutes. In any case, a person’s private morality is not anything I believe I have the power to change, and it seems as though no institution can, religious or governmental. Considering the size and scope of both, it seems likely moral and civil legislation is doomed to fail, and that worse still, well meaning laws can often exacerbate the issue. If conditions are bad in legalized countries, they are far worse in those countries prohibiting it. Drug abuse among sex workers is far higher in criminalized countries, as pimps use drugs as a way of keeping these women essentially as slaves, paying them very little and providing no protection (and often psychologically and physically abusing them).
From a pragmatic point of view, it is irresponsible to assume the criminalization of something enhances the safety and security of the population. The fact prostitution is rampant in both rich and poor countries, and in legal and illegal ones signifies it is not about to disappear anytime soon. I do not want to sanction whether or not this activity is acceptable. Perhaps the most difficult thing for human beings to control is their sexual impulse. This primitive drive is the main reason why prostitution is such a popular business. It is unlikely we will be able to properly control this impulse. Perhaps we have no real desire to. But just as a biological instinct can benefit us, it can also cause pain and misery.
The difficult thing to accept is that prohibition does nothing to prevent the sexual trafficking of human beings. Worse still, the enterprise becomes so profitable the players involved have every incentive to continue to provide the service. We are therefore stuck in a no win scenario. What choice are we to make?
It’s my belief we must first accept human beings will not always make the right decisions about their lives, and no amount of law will prevent them from doing so. It’s natural for society to want to protect its citizens, but the way of achieving this is not by making something illegal. Marijuana is illegal in the US, but still 1/3 of the adult population consumes the drug. In the end, it seems we have no control over what people choose to do with their own bodies, and why should we? Yes, there are individuals being exploited, and surely those who exploit them must be punished, but what of those who are doing this out of choice? Are we to tell them what they can and cannot do? How presumptuous to assume anyone can know what is best for another human being. I might be repulsed by the idea of stripping (ok, maybe not that repulsed), but there is a demand for it, and making that illegal would not change the habits of its consumers. Does legalizing it make it morally acceptable? Obviously, to those who choose not to go to a strip club, the answer is obvious. But how much darker and sinister would it be if strippers faced the risk of incarceration, or if they were under the manipulation of pimps?
I do not pretend for a second that the legalization of something has no negative consequences. It’s normal to feel as though all of our options are inadequate, and we are powerless to do anything positive in this zero sum game. Prohibitionism does not work, this at least is clear. It is my belief we have to help people make the right decision rather than punish them for making the wrong ones. The legalization of prostitution is an effort to shed a light on a dark world. It’s true we may not end up liking what we see, but I would hate to send these people back into the void. There are some things about human nature that take time and effort to change, and no universal morality guides our actions. In the end, all we can hope is by giving people the option of choice, they may make the right ones.