How Do We Justify the Many Laws against Prostitution?
Editor’s Note: This is the fifth article in a series that discusses the necessity of crafting laws that have both solid moral underpinnings and reasonable methods of enactment in order to gain public compliance. Start the series here.
By Dr. Gary Deel, Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University
Criminal prostitution laws are a clear example of laws that consistently fail to change social behavior.
Prostitution has been called the “world’s oldest profession.” Despite widespread criminalization for more than a century, prostitution remains alive and well in the United States. There are an estimated 1 million prostitutes working in America, making the U.S. one of the highest per capita concentrations of prostitution in the world.
Prostitution has been illegal in every state except for Nevada since 1915. It was still the subject of many legal battles in Nevada for most of the 20th century until the state changed the law to allow for regulated brothels in the 1970s. “Street prostitution,” or pandering outside a licensed brothel, is still illegal.
However, Nevada state law restricts prostitution to counties with fewer than 400,000 residents. As a result, currently only 10 of Nevada’s 17 counties qualify for legal brothels. This means that the Nevada counties that contain the biggest cities—including Las Vegas, Reno, and Carson City—are all prohibited from permitting legal prostitution.
This is surprising to many people who have watched sexually titillating movies set in Las Vegas and assumed that prostitution was legal there. In fact, if you’ve ever visited Las Vegas you’d be forgiven for thinking that prostitution is legal. Sex is everywhere. Nude reviews are a constant entertainment attraction on “the strip.” And on every corner street peddlers hand out flyers with pictures of naked women and phone numbers to call “for a good time.”
But it is not legal. Prostitutes are regularly prosecuted in Las Vegas and in other major U.S. cities in an unsuccessful effort to curb what is viewed by some as disreputable behavior.
What States Have the Highest Arrests for Prostitution?
Every year, approximately 70,000 to 80,000 people are arrested nationwide on charges in connection with prostitution. Female sex workers account for the majority of arrests at about 70 percent, while 20 percent are male prostitutes and/or pimps, and the remaining 10 percent are clients (aka “Johns”).
On a state-by-state basis, one might be tempted to think that Nevada would experience the most criminal prostitution activity due to its mix of permissive and non-permissive counties. Actually, however, California and Texas regularly have the most arrests. In 2016, California arrested 7,601 suspected prostitutes, Texas arrested 4,506, and Nevada arrested 2,892.
It should be clear from these numbers that the prohibition of prostitution has not worked.
What’s the Moral Reasoning Supporting the Criminalization of Prostitution?
Proponents of criminalizing prostitution argue that it necessarily promotes coercive, violent, and abusive acts between sex workers and their clients. They also argue that prostitution can lead to the increased spread of sexually transmitted diseases and that it invariably destroys the psychological and psychosocial health of women and men involved.
However, as ProCon Inc., points out, many of the morality arguments surrounding prostitution, and the harms that it visits on those involved, are debatable. For example, there is evidence that prostitution can lead to unhealthy psychological states such as depression and anxiety. These problems can snowball into substance abuse and other self-destructive habits.
However, proponents of prostitution argue that the psychological damage of prostitution stems not from the prostitution itself, but rather from the social stigma associated with the work. In other words, if society didn’t look upon prostitution with such disdain, perhaps prostitutes wouldn’t suffer mental anguish the way many of them do. Think about it. If the rest of the world thought you were an amoral heathen for the career you chose, you might feel anxious and depressed too.
To be fair, it should be acknowledged that some prostitutes enter this line of work out of coercion or desperation. This pressure can come from a number of sources, including abusive personal relationships or economic factors. Regardless of the source, this forced entry into prostitution is morally indefensible. No one should ever be forced to sell their body out of fear of harm or desperation to put food on the table for his or her family.
Having said that, what about individuals who freely choose—absent any coercion or pressure—to become prostitutes? Some might doubt that ever happens. But a ScienceNordic survey in Denmark found that half of respondent prostitutes acknowledged sexual curiosity was a key reason why they became prostitutes. Also, 68 percent of the women surveyed said they consider their line of work as part of their sexuality.
Even if we doubt the sincerity of these respondents, we must at least acknowledge that it’s possible for a human being to make a free decision, without coercion, to market himself or herself sexually.
Addressing the Hypocrisy of Prostitution Laws
We must also acknowledge that it’s possible to legalize prostitution in a way that preserves the physical and mental well-being of those directly involved as well as the communities in which these practices take place. So, invoking the generally accepted libertarian premise that people should be free to do as they please as long as they are not hurting others, it’s understandable that so many people would struggle to see the rationality in an absolute prohibition on prostitution.
The struggle is amplified by the cognitive dissonance involved in the method of criminal prostitution laws, when one considers the context in which prostitution is illegal. We live in a society in which it is perfectly legal to pay a man or woman to strip naked, dance around and make all manner of physical contact with a paying customer, so long as intercourse or other actual sex acts do not occur.
We also live in a society in which we can legally pay a man or woman to have sex with us, as long as we record the act on video and publish it as pornography for others to view. But remove the camera, and suddenly this behavior is somehow morally reprehensible. The hypocrisy at work here seems entirely untenable.
In the next installment of this series, I will discuss the outcomes of criminalized prostitution, as well as potential change on the horizon within the United States.
About the Author: Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others. To contact the author, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.