Legalizing Prostitution

Kenneth Cauthen

Copyright © 1999. All rights reserved. The original essay was published as a part of a chapter in my The Ethics of Belief: A Bio-Historical Approach, 2 vols. (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., 2001).
About a decade ago I put an essay on my web site that advocated the decriminalizing of prostitution and treating it as a public health problem. The goal primarily would be to assist women, especially young ones, to find a better way of life. Force, violence, and sex trafficking of all kinds would still be prohibited and punished severely.

I just learned that in 1999 Sweden, which long before had legalized prostitution, became convinced that this was not working. A new approach was tried in which it is illegal to buy sexual services but legal to sell them -- regardless of gender. The assumption is that prostitution is primarily a form of violence against women. Men become the offenders liable to prosecution, and women are regarded as victims who need to be helped.

Some evaluations are quiet positive. See:

Some Swedish sex workers have protested vigorously that this hurts them and is discriminatory.
See also:

I have not done enough research to form an opinion, but this novel approach is intriguing and deserves investigation. I am reconsidering my own previous view.

I think one original proposition I offered a decade ago still holds. There is no good solution to the problem of prostitution, only bad and worse. Perhaps there is something to be said for Aquinas who wrote that prostitution was a necessary evil needed for the same reason we need sewers. Well, I actually I do have in mind something, but I have not found a way to implement it. The most nearly perfect answer would be that every time a man paid for sexual services with money, one testicle would disappear immediately while angels in heaven cheered. The original essay follows

If Ann Landers is for legalizing prostitution, then how far out can the notion be? (1) In 1949, the United Nations adopted a resolution in favor of the decriminalization of prostitution, which has been ratified by fifty countries but not by the United States. Eleanor Roosevelt was among those who approved. Compared to the United States, European countries are generally more permissive, exhibiting a wide variety of practices including licensing individuals and brothels. Several counties in Nevada have legal prostitution with licensing, required medical exams, and careful supervision. In 1973 the National Organization for Women passed a resolution supporting the decriminalization of prostitution. The issue has divided feminists. (2) Anti-prostitution feminists like Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, and Melissa Farley see it as a vicious form of male domination and oppression. Sex-radical feminists like Susie Bright and Pat Califia, along with Prostitutes's Rights Organizations, consider prostitutes to be liberated women boldly taking charge of their own lives. (3) Many feminists take more nuanced and complex positions that fit into neither extreme. (4)

People have strong feelings about this issue. It is also a problem that has no satisfactory solution. Commercial sex can be a sordid enterprise hard to defend. Yet it has always been with us and will always be as long as clients, usually men, can find providers, usually women, willing to offer their services for money. The very notion offends many people - and for good reason. Separating sexual activity from personal relationships of caring and responsibility is an enterprise hazardous to moral health. Yet as bad as legalizing sex for hire would be, the result overall is not likely to be a worse situation than we have now. The same arguments for and against legalization keep coming up all the time and can be easily stated. It is a matter of how we evaluate them in the light of our total orientation to morality, legality, and the weight to be given to individual freedom in relation to the responsibility of the state to promote a decent society. Finally, it hangs on which option on hard-headed pragmatic grounds we think would be relatively better, or at least the lesser of evils.

Prostitution is practiced in a wide variety of settings, ranging from cheap, squalid street deals consummated in alleys, cars, and run-down hotels to expensive call girls procured for wealthy clients in fancy suites in the high-rent district. Other encounters take place in brothels, saunas, and massage parlors. The suppliers may be depressed, diseased, abused, desperate, drug-using teenagers thrown out of their homes by disgusted parents or happy, beautiful, prosperous, healthy, glamorous hookers who gladly chose their profession. Everything else between can also be found. The National Task Force on Prostitution suggests that over one million people in the US have worked as prostitutes in the United States, or about 1% of American women. According to the Kinsey report on sexual behavior, 69% of males admit to buying sex at least one time in their lives.

Average prostitution arrests include 70% females, 20% percent male prostitutes, and 10% customers. Although a minority of prostitutes are women of color, a disproportionate number of prostitutes arrested and sentenced to jail are. 85-90% of those arrested work on the street, although street work accounts for approximately 20% of prostitutes. Percentages of male and female prostitutes varies from city to city. Estimates in some larger cities suggest 20-30% of prostitutes are male. Incidence of substance use and addiction varies widely, amounting to about 50% among street prostitutes, but is rare among women who work off the street.

Violence is one of the major problems for women and prostitutes. Reports differ with one claiming that 60% of the abuse against street prostitutes is perpetrated by clients, 20% by police, and 20% occurs in domestic relationships. Between 35 and 85% of prostitutes are survivors of incest or early sexual abuse. (Figures vary widely for different populations.) A study of 130 street workers (primarily homeless) who engaged in prostitution or survival sex found that 80% had been physically assaulted. Although violence and the threat of violence is a serious problem, some populations of prostitutes show no higher incidence of violence and abuse than women in general. (5)

A strong relationship exists between the past and current life conditions of street prostitutes. Physical and sexual victimization, poverty, substance abuse, limited education and lack of marketable work skills characterize their lives. Some are gays who have been thrown out of their homes. all of these are factors influencing young women and men to find work and a source of income in prostitution. (6) Melissa Farley claims that the number of prostitutes who have been sexually assaulted, tortured, or endured childhood sexual abuse is over 90%, usually with multiple perpetrators, although her critics claim this high figure is not representative of most populations, especially those who work in the best surroundings and with high incomes. (7)

Arguments Against Decriminalization

1. It is immoral. Sex for money is inherently degrading. Legalizing it would not change its intrinsically debasing character for both partners.

2. Legally sanctioning the sex trade would inevitably give the impression of societal approval. Given its easy availability, licit sex for money would compete with sex in normal, romantic relationships. Promiscuity and adultery would be encouraged. It would endorse and promote the view of women as sex objects, an unhealthy aspect of much of our culture.

3. Legalizing the sex trade would not eliminate street prostitutes, since they can offer lower prices. They don't have the expense of licensing, medical exams, facilities, and all the other overhead. Children too young for licensed brothels would be attracted. Working the streets while hiding from the law helps prostitutes avoid the discovery of their addictions and diseases. In short, we would still have all the worst problems we have now, including the victims that now in desperation ply the trade - young runaways, drug addicts, refugees from bad homes, sexual abuse, violence, traumatic experiences, cruel or neglectful parents, and so on.

Arguments For Decriminalization

1. Voluntary acts by consenting adults are of no concern of the state. Criminalizing sexual activity is an unnecessary, oppressive restriction of individual liberty. It is a denial of freedom especially to women to pursue sex work if they want to in a controlled, safe, healthy environment. The idea that a woman can terminate a pregnancy, destroying a potential human being, but not have the freedom to use her body sexually for profit does not make sense.

2. Like the failed effort to prohibit the manufacture and sale of alcohol and the ineffective war against illegal drugs, treating prostitution as a crime has not worked. It is costly, takes time, resources, and personnel that could be used with greater effectiveness elsewhere. It involves police in sordid work against a lot of people with limited personal resources in desperate circumstances many of whom are children and victims of bad homes, sad life histories, and an neglectful society.

3. Licensing would eliminate criminals and locate addicts, the diseased, and the underaged. Medical checks and health education would reduce disease and curb its spread. It would get many prostitutes off the street and into a controlled environment.

4. Legalization would reduce or eliminate the widespread victimization of prostitutes by pimps, johns and the whole unsavory assortment of criminal elements now associated with it. It would take away the impetus to get young women and men hooked on drugs in order to turn them into prostitutes and profit. 5. It would free more of our limited law enforcement resources to fighting serious crimes and violence.

6. It would eliminate a significant source of income for organized crime.

7. Taxation of the incomes could provide funds for homeless shelters, drug and health education, and regulatory agencies.

8. The exchange of money is immaterial. The only conspicuous difference between casual sex and prostitution is that one involves payment. That fact is morally irrelevant. Since casual sex cannot be regulated by the state, sex for hire should not be either. It is ridiculous that a woman can have sex with multiple partners if she does it for free, but can go to jail for charging money for it.

9. The current system violates the principle of comparative justice whenever prostitutes are punished and customers are not treated as severely.


Ideally, all sexual acts would occur between consenting, mature people who care for each other. Such is not the case, but not all those that fall short of the ideal are alike morally or otherwise. They can even be positive on the whole. Not all casual sex, even if it involves money, is necessarily harmful to character or personality. Some encounters with prostitutes may provide acceptance, warm intimacy, and loving care the clients have not found elsewhere. The range of meanings and consequences associated with sexual activity is so great that all generalizations are hazardous. All sex for hire is certainly less than exemplary and can be crude, demeaning, impersonal, and destructive. The worst practices are those that involve sexual slavery, coercion, and violence to force males and females into acts that profit others. (8) Not all sex for hire is equally bad even when the provider enters voluntarily into a contact. The most degrading and reprehensible form of prostitution is practiced as a survival technique by desperate people with few marketable skills, many of them teenagers, with few options and who come from a background of victimization. At the other end are the highly-paid practitioners of sex for profit engaged in by talented people with plenty of options who claim they are happy with the work they have gladly chosen. It should not be assumed that all prostitutes are emotionally or morally sick, victims of sexual abuse, violence, or neglect, or oppressed by male-dominated society. (9) They may simply enjoy the work, as many of them say they do. Human sexuality is too complicated, ambiguous, and multifarious to put all its expressions into one category. Sexual practices, whether commercial or done freely, cannot be classified simply as good or bad. In every case we have to ask about the context, the meaning, and the consequences involved. The notion that any policy - legal prohibition or decriminalization - can produce only beneficial results with no bad side effects is vain. The best we can hope to find in this case is the lesser of evils. I can only confess to my own way of finding my way through this thicket of bad options.

American culture has a strange combination of values and some mixed up morality. We are too afraid of sex, too tolerant of guns and violence. We have baffling notions of what ought to be legal and illegal. Tobacco kills about 400,000 people a year, but cigarettes can be bought in most any grocery store. Yet consensual sex if it involves the exchange of money is punishable by law. One sex worker said, "I could have sex with a hundred men if I did it for free, and nobody would bother me. But if one of them gave me a nickel for my services, I could be put in jail." Prostitute Heather Smith said: "It's legal for two men to go into a boxing ring and beat each other bloody for money, but it's not legal for me to go in and give someone sexual pleasure for money. What kind of sense does that make?" (10) In this morass of complexities, ambiguities, ironies, contradictions, and folly, finding a sensible policy that honors morality, decency, and the total well-being of individuals and society while being pragmatically realistic about what actually occurs in the real world is a formidable challenge indeed.

The options are three: keep prostitution criminal, decriminalize it, and legalize it. Decriminalizing it means taking the laws off the books that make it a crime. Prostitution would no longer be a criminal offense. Legalization means permitting prostitution with under regulated conditions. This usually includes licensing, zoning restrictions, requiring medical examinations, mandating use of condoms, protecting minors, and other measures to protect the safety, freedom, and health of the practitioners. My tentative suggestion would be that localities experiment with various forms of legalization and decriminalization to see what would happen, learning from cities in Europe who have tried both. If in time, the situation is worse despite all efforts, recriminalization could occur. I am not knowledgeable or wise enough to prescribe specific legislation. I will only attempt a few guiding principles.

1. Sex for hire should be treated as a public health and social welfare problem not a criminal one, even if we regard it as immoral. Accepting the reality and inevitability of prostitution and dealing with it in a non-punitive fashion does not mean approving of it. It would be better if it never occurred. I wish it could be totally abolished, but until we reach that goal, we need wise, realistic, and workable ways of dealing with it.

2. We should decriminalize all sex for pay. Those who practice prostitution should not be fined or put in jail. Punishment or its threat does not prevent its future occurrence or do anybody any good. In some ways licensing of individuals and some minimal regulation in the interests of protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the sex workers would be desirable. I would like to make it unlawful for anyone to procure prostitutes or for any third party to profit from prostitution. But I fear that any efforts along that line would simply reproduce the sordid business of undercover work, trickery, and corruption that is that bane of all efforts any efforts at enforcement of laws against the sex trade.

3. The most important goal of any policies should be to assist those who resort to prostitution out of desperation and for lack of skills. The aim should be to deal with the problems that drive them to the streets and to open up better options. Shelter, counseling, treatment for drug addiction, job training, employment assistance, and anything else that would provide alternatives for those tempted to sell their bodies. We need safe, non-threatening, non-judgmental, caring, welcoming environments that would attract people who need help in finding their way toward healthy, gratifying lives. Those who genuinely choose to be sex workers should be guided toward forms of practice that are healthy and safe. The money currently used for enforcement of criminal laws against prostitution should be used help those who are tempted by sex work. Police should be used to direct street prostitutes looking for any way to make money to survive to places where they can be helped. They, of course, should also do what they can to protect everyone from violence, exploitation, and coercion. Many of those who find themselves in desperate circumstances situation are damaged personalities, lost souls, who need love, compassion, treatment, guidance, and all the care that be given to salvage precious lives. Here is where our money and concern should be. A larger societal work of prevention and treatment of the personal and social ills that destroy children in their homes and communities is the great need, not more policemen on the streets to harass the human consequences of our neglect and cruelty.

4. We should consider licensing establishments that have several sex providers in the interest of health and safety. The Dutch law of 1996 could be examined as a model. (11) Reasonable zoning for both individuals and brothels is legitimate for the sake of those who abhor prostitution and do not wish to be around it. Regulation should be kept at a minimum and have as its goal maximizing the economic status, safety, health, personal welfare, and jurisdiction of the prostitutes. If feasible, all profit should go to the providers of service, none to third-party entrepreneurs. Ideally, licensed establishments should be owned by the workers or managed for them with no outsiders making a profit. Violence, coercion, and any practice that is non-voluntary, unhealthy, or dangerous would be prohibited.

Sex is a powerful drive not easily channeled into orderly, fully moral, healthy, meaningful, and constructive expressions. Neither family, church, government, or any other human agency has been able to master fully its wild tendencies and keep it within the bounds of its norms. Sex is the occasion and source of much pleasure, happiness and joyous union of body and spirit when accompanied by love and managed wisely. It can also be associated with disappointment, misery, oppression, violence, despair, degradation, subjugation, exploitation, and all that is rude, crude, vulgar, and reprehensible. The work of morality, religion, government, and culture is never done in curbing its worst excesses and guiding it toward more noble and sublime forms of expression. Prostitution is one of the oldest and most stubborn practices known to the human race. Until we reach that unlikely day when no one wants to or has to resort to sex for hire, the government should at least try to do no harm to the desperate and to find reasonable ways of letting those who don't have to but want to use their bodies as they please. The criminal justice system does not offer the appropriate means to avoid harm or to do any good. It is time we experimented with some other more promising options.

I invite comments, refutation, and suggestions.
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(Note: After eleven years, some of the web addresses given below no longer work.)

1. For Ann Landers' opinion and for many other Internet sites on the subject see the following:

Some useful definitions of terms such as decriminalization and legalization can be found at:

Prostitutes' rights organization usually prefer decriminalization. They just want the government to leave them alone to purse the economic interests as individuals without any kind of governmentt interference.

For a site devoted to showing how dehumanizing prostitution is and working to end it, see

For an impassioned argument in favoring of legalizing prostitution, drugs, and for extending the rights of individuals to engage in a variety of consensual acts, see Peter McWilliams and Jean Sedillos, Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do : The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in Our Free Country ( Santa Monica: Prelude Press, 1996). I am indebted to these sources for many of the points I make. See also, Frederique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander, Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1987).

2. Wendy McElroy, "Prostitutes, Feminists, and Economic Associates" details the conflict among feminists on the issue of prostitution:

3. Yvonne Abraham with Sarah McNaught, "Prostitution Theory 101." See:

4. Wendy Chapkis, professor of sociology and women's studies at the University of Southern Maine, who wrote Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor (New York: Routledge, 1997), is one of them.

5. Most of the statistics in the preceding section from a report entitled "Prostitution in the United States - the Statistics" found at Used by permission.

6. See the Internet site at this address:

7. See the Internet site as this address:

8. Experts disagree about whether legalizing prostitution would reducing trafficking in women. See the Internet site at:

9. "Not all prostitutes are victims and not all prostitution involves coercion: the majority of prostitutes work for themselves and do not necessarily have less education or more abusive backgrounds than others. More importantly, the differences between female and male prostitutes regarding job hazards and earning power suggest that the most undesirable aspects of prostitution are linked to broader social problems rather than the commercialization of sex. These findings should challenge us to reevaluate our thinking about prostitutes and prostitution. If we hope to improve the working conditions, reduce the injustice related to the service, and provide acceptable alternatives to street prostitution, we must do so with an accurate view of the situation." Fran Shaver, "When Sex Works," presented at The International Conference on Prostitution and Other Sex Work, University of Quebec at Montreal, September 27-29, 1996.

10. See

This comes from a site said to be run by "liberated Christians" who are campaigning to decriminalize sex work.

11. See 
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