The case for legalizing sex work

The world’s oldest profession.
The world’s oldest profession.
Image: Reuters/Nacho Doce
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When people find out I’ve spent time researching brothels, they have many questions. Mostly about why women do the work, but also about the men. They expect the men to be monsters, creeps who are cheating on their wives or acting out dark fantasies. Many are surprised to learn most of the customers I met are just lonely. Some have a hard time connecting yet still crave intimacy, some are elderly widowers or disabled, and, yes, some are just creepy. Seeing it up close, I understand why the demand for sex work exists and why it always has and probably always will. I’d even argue it fills a function in our society, a side most people don’t want to acknowledge exists.

We live in an era when old taboos are being shattered every day. Marijuana, once considered a vice worthy of prison time, is becoming legal or at least decriminalized in certain countries. Gambling, in casinos or online, was once widely prohibited and is now omnipresent. But in most of the world there is no such acceptance for sex work. Quite the opposite. In last year, laws like the US’s Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act  (FOSTA) sought to make sex harder to sell, by cracking down a website were sex workers advertise and screen potential clients.

But every so often a society makes an uneasy peace with with sex work, recognizing its inevitability, and finds ways to manage it. Today there are roughly three ways governments address sex work, making it completely illegal (the standard in the US except certain counties in Nevada), semi-legal (as in the UK and Nordic countries), and fully legal but regulated (Nevada, Netherlands, Germany and 52 other countries).

The case for making sex work illegal

The fewer obstacles there are to sex work, the more it flourishes. The internet made it much easier because sex workers could find clients without street walking, or working for a pimp or escort agency. As a result, more workers entered the market. Permitting sex work leads to its spread, so if the goal is reducing prostitution, criminalizing it makes sense.

But it is not clear that is always the goal.

As long as sex has been sold, which dates to the dawn of commerce, societies have usually considered sex workers lewd or immoral. Today, activists who fight sex work instead argue its providers are victims and that a majority of women who sell sex are victims of human trafficking. But the data supporting this argument is either non-existent or unreliable. And if the goal is to reduce trafficking, it is not clear that making sex work illegal is the best method. The limited evidence suggests countries with more lax prostitution laws do experience more trafficking, but it’s hard to say whether is proof of causation or merely correlation. While wealthy countries often have easier laws, they also attract traffickers because of their wealth and the problems are compounded by poor data and only a few countries to study. More sophisticated research finds the correlation between permissive sex work laws and trafficking is not significant.

It could even be argued that pushing prostitution underground helps traffickers. Before FOSTA, websites where sex work was advertised could work with law enforcement to police the more nefarious elements of the industry. This is why some in law enforcement have argued (anonymously) that shutting down websites made it harder to find trafficking victims.

Meanwhile criminalizing sex work makes the willing adult providers worse off. Selling your body for sex is dangerous because it involves spending time alone with men the providers barely know. Criminalizing sex worker makes providers more vulnerable because they can’t trust police or enforce contracts.

The semi-legal option

Another option is semi-legalization. In the UK prostitution is technically legal, but soliciting, pimping, or street-walking to sell sex is not. The Nordic model is another variation, there sex workers aren’t penalized, but their customers are.

Semi-legalization in many ways brings together the worst qualities of both legalization and criminalization. More permissive sex laws mean more sex work and makes it easier for traffickers. But at the same time if does not offer sex workers the same employment protections available to workers in the legal economy. They can’t band together to demand protections and security nor work fully in the open, and they don’t have access to regular health care that a legal regulated market offers.

The case for making sex work legal and regulated

The best way to guard against the downsides of sex work is to fully legalize it so it can be regulated. In Nevada’s brothels, all the workers must register with the state and undergo thorough background checks to ensure no one has been trafficked. Sex workers are required to work out of a licensed brothel, which can be monitored to ensure it maintains health standards and only employs licensed providers. Brothels also provides other kinds of protections, such as access to medical care, security, and a support network of other sex workers. It offers the best protections for providers.

It is also true that full legalization will normalize sex work and makes it more common. But it is a moral judgement whether that is good or bad for society, and the individuals involved. We may not feel good about sex work—I don’t after seeing it up close—in part because it commodifies the human body. But prostitution won’t disappear because we don’t like it, and a legal, regulated market acknowledges that reality and offers protections for providers.

Criminalizing sex work makes sex workers—many of whom will do the job no matter what—worse off. Yet widespread legalization won’t happen any time soon. As liberated as our modern times may seem, we remain deeply divided about whether sex work should exist, even if it always has.

Allison Schrager’s book, An Economist Walks into a Brothel, will be published April 2.