Why It's Time to Legalize Prostitution
by Cathy Reisenwitz
Evidence shows that it would protect sex workers, reduce violence, cut down on sex trafficking, and more. There’s no good reason not to. A prostitute has a 45 percent to 75 percent chance of experiencing workplace violence at some point, according to recent research indicates, and a 32 percent to 55 percent likelihood that she or he was victimized the past year. Worker safety, along with concerns about exploitation and objectification, are behind much of the continued support for keeping prostitution illegal. But there’s a movement afoot to challenge conventional wisdom about prohibition. Or, rather, to incorporate what we already know about black markets into our thinking about sex workers and their rights. As with the drug trade, much of the violence associated with sex work is exacerbated by its illegality. Violent people are more likely to prey on sex workers, confident that they won’t be reported to police. This leaves workers dependent on pimps and madams for protection, which often leads to more violence. And then there’s abuse from police. In Ireland, where prostitution is still criminalized, one study estimates that 30 percent of the abuse that sex workers report comes from police. Some estimate that police actually abuse American sex workers more often than clients do. Illegality also forces sex work outdoors. Craigslist and Backpage should be havens for workers to connect with and vet clients from the safety of their homes. Instead, cops monitor such sites to ensnare workers and their clients. Sex workers traded safety tips and rated clients on My Redbook until the FBI seized the site, destroying the data and forcing sex workers onto other sites, or the streets. After Germany and New Zealand legalized sex work, violence against sex workers decreased, while workers’ quality of life improved. There, occupational health and safety laws protect sex workers. And the ability to screen clients and take credit card numbers has reduced violence. “It’s been just fantastic, really,” said Catherine Healey, national coordinator for the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective. Some worry about legalized sex work leading to more widespread sexually transmitted infections. But in reality, after testing began post-legalization in Germany, researchers discovered no difference in sexually transmitted infection rates between sex workers and the general population. In fact, the data are pretty clearly in favor of legalizing sex work to improve public health. The World Health Organization recommends that countries decriminalize sex work. According to a recent WHO report, “Violence against sex workers is associated with inconsistent condom use or lack of condom use, and with increased risk of STI and HIV infection. Violence also prevents sex workers from accessing HIV information and services.” It’s not just the WHO. Editors of the top medical journal The Lancet wrote that there is “no alternative” to decriminalizing sex work in order to protect sex workers from HIV. In 1980, Rhode Island effectively legalized prostitution by accident when lawmakers deemed the state statute on prostitution to be overly broad. They accidentally removed the section defining the act itself as a crime while attempting to revise it, though lawmakers didn’t realize the error until 2003. Over the next six years new cases of gonorrhea among women statewide declined by 39 percent. Interestingly, reported rapes also declined by 31 percent. As far as worker exploitation goes, working conditions in black markets are nearly always worse. In Germany, sex workers get to avail themselves of the same social-welfare infrastructure as all other German workers. Perhaps it makes sense that a country that has always taken workers’ rights seriously would choose that it should no longer exempt sex workers. There, they are represented by a union and are afforded full police protection when something goes wrong....
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