Few people grow up dreaming of being a prostitute. In most countries, there is little respect for the “world’s oldest profession.” Today many countries still ban the practice, while others allow it in specific locations or only under certain circumstances.
In the United States prostitution is legal only in parts of Nevada. Elsewhere, paying or receiving money for sex could land you jail. Despite the ban on prostitution, an estimated 1 million people engage in sex work in the United States. Worldwide the figure is 42 million. The internet makes it easier than ever for prostitutes and their clients to set up “dates,” haggle over prices and avoid the authorities.
Street prostitutes in America earn approximately $18,000 annually for their services. Those working as high-end escorts can earn upward of $200,000 a year. The price of a trick ranges anywhere from $15 to more than $1,000.
People argue for continued prohibition of sex work on grounds of exploitation, human trafficking and the general degradation of women. (Most but not all sex workers are women.) Prohibitionists look at sex workers’ rates of disease and likelihood of being sexually assaulted — and, understandably, want to help.
As a woman, such issues are close to my heart. As an economist I look to the economic way of thinking and the data when analyzing government policy. It’s with these two things in mind I suggest it’s time to consider legalizing sex work.
While that suggestion may sound radical, consider that organizations including the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International call for the same. Like me, these groups suggest this would make prostitution safer, improve health and decrease the exploitation of women.
By making prostitution illegal, governments, of course, attempt to reduce or eliminate the market for sex work. But as the prohibition of alcohol, drugs and gambling has taught us, banning something doesn’t make it disappear. Instead, buyers and sellers simply go into the black market.
Thus in at least three ways governments undermine their own goals.
First, since those engaged in sex work are criminals, they cannot use legal channels to resolve disputes or report crimes without incriminating themselves. This discourages the reporting of wrongdoing and encourages violent conflict resolution.
Second, black-market prostitutes are less likely to get screened for sexually transmitted infections lest they alert doctors to their illegal professional activities.
Third, criminalizing prostitution makes sex trafficking more likely. One widely recognized consequence of prohibition is the formation of cartels, which in a black market are more likely to use violence. This violence drives some producers out of the market, leading to higher prices and large criminal enterprises with monopoly power. Instead of breaking apart sex-trafficking rings, prohibition increases their profitability, making trafficking more appealing to criminal enterprises.
By decriminalizing the sex trade, governments could make serious gains in all these areas. In a legal market sex workers would have the same protections as any other worker. Prostitutes could report abuse, seek damages and call for help without risking their own freedom. Sex workers would be more likely to seek medical care and less likely to be trafficked by violent cartels.
These claims are supported by the data. After legalizing prostitution in 2003, New Zealand found “no incidence of human trafficking.” Moreover, legalization made it easier for sex workers to report abuse and for police to prosecute sex crimes. Researchers studying prostitutes in Canada, India and Kenya found that legalizing sex work could decrease HIV infections by 33 percent to 46 percent.
We should respect people’s choices. While we may have moral or other objections to prostitution, that is not a valid argument for criminalization. Opponents of legalized sex work often correctly note that many sex workers are poor. But this should make no difference. It can hardly be said that criminalization helps poor women. If caught, they face fines or even prison. Prohibition does nothing to help them exit the industry or provide them with education or other skills.
It may also be true that many who work in the sex trade would prefer not to. But even if this is the case, individuals who choose prostitution as a livelihood should be allowed to practice it in the safest environment possible: a legal market for sex.