Kenneth Cauthen Copyright © 1999. All rights reserved.
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 Decriminalization1. 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 Decriminalization1. 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.ConclusionsIdeally, 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 . 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.
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