Legalized Prostitution is a Failure

In the past decade or so, several countries, including the Netherlands and Germany, have toyed with legalizing prostitution.  They did so because it was argued that legitimizing the industry would lead to greater health regulations and protections for sex workers. It was thought that legalization would lessen the stigma to sex work, reduce human trafficking and result in a win-win-win: prostitutes, customers (“johns” or “punters”) and society would all be better off.

Ten years into the experiment and none of those things have come to pass, according to a detailed (read: lengthy) article in Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine. The article is here and well worth a read. But as it spans five pages, I’ll try to sum it up as best I can.

Take-aways from the article include:

  1. Human trafficking, formerly known as “slavery,” hasn’t decreased. In fact, it’s on the rise. Many of the young women are brought in from places like Romania and Bulgaria that are desperately poor. Of the 200,000 prostitutes estimated to be working in Germany, it’s thought that 65 to 80 percent of them come from abroad. Some of the women think they are taking jobs in hotels or manual labor, but others are aware that they will become prostitutes. But even those who expect prostitution typically have little idea of what is in store. Namely…
  2. Legalization of prostitution has further commoditized sex work. There are now legitimate businesses where men pay a flat fee to access as many women they like for as long as they like. As a result, the women who work there (again, many are simply slaves) have to have sex with as many as 30 men a night and see only a fraction of the earnings they were promised after paying exorbitant fees to their pimps.
  3. Rather than making it easier to police abuses, legalization of prostitution has hampered sex trafficking prosecution. Because it is now legal, brothels are less likely to be raided, and the women held prisoner there can’t easily go to a police station to file a report.
  4. In contrast, Sweden – which has not legalized prostitution and aggressively prosecutes punters – has seen the number of men buying sex fall from one in eight to one in12. The number of prostitutes working the street has fallen in tandem. Meanwhile, in Germany, business is booming, and the business of selling women is becoming normalized through TV shows such as “Pimp my Bordello.”
  5. The Netherlands has rethought legalized prostitution and is walking it back. According to the story, “Both the Dutch justice minister and the police concede that there have been no palpable improvements for prostitutes since then. They are generally in poorer health than before, and increasing numbers are addicted to drugs. The police estimate that 50 to 90 percent of prostitutes do not practice the profession voluntarily.”

My thoughts:

I admit to wavering back and forth on this issue years ago. Ideally, prostitution would be legal and those who work in the sex industry would be respected like people of any other profession. The government would take measures to reduce the risk of abuse and the spread of disease, and taxes collected through prostitution would benefit society.

Some people even say this with a straight face.

But the thing is, we don’t live in that perfect world. Women already aren’t treated with dignity and respect, and women involved in prostitution are treated lower than low. They are shunned, jailed, beaten, drugged, raped, infected and murdered, all at alarming rates. Legalizing the business doesn’t suddenly legitimize the women who work in it. They are still considered “whores.” So there’s that.

Often, the people in the US promoting legalized prostitution are either libertarians or liberal feminists, and both are wrong on this for different reasons.

Libertarians slavishly worship “the market,” which they seem to think will cure all ills. It won’t. Why won’t it? Because their idea of “the market” involves a society populated by people who act rationally and without enculturated habits andvalues. “The market” would be great on a robot planet. On ours, it’s a pipe dream.

Here’s how libertarians think legalized prostitution would work. Free of the threat of arrest, more men would seek out prostitutes, and the demand for services would increase. As demand increases, the price paid for services increases, and more women (or men, I suppose) would enter the market until that magical sweet spot is reached where everyone is satisfied, happy ending included.

But here’s how it actually goes down. It starts the same, with more men wanting to buy sex. But remember how I said above that prostitutes will forever be considered whores? Most women wouldn’t do this work at any price, not once they realize it involves letting 30 strangers huff and puff over you every night and spill their semen on your face and hair – with the added benefits of pregnancy scares, disease scares, violent punters, rape, battery and abusive pimps. Sound like dream job to you? So forget about women lining up to get a job in the hot new sex industry.

But demand is still there. Demand won’t go away. I mean, get real. There are men here with hard-ons and someone had better do something about it. NOW. Don’t get between men and their self-entitled “need” for fucking. Srsly.

What happens next? With not enough women volunteering to do sex work, vulnerable women are trafficked in and made to do it. All the abuses legalization sought to overcome instead become worse. More lives are shattered. True, more men get off. So there’s that. But the women aren’t doing better. In fact, they’re doing worse.

“The market” fails.

And so does liberal feminism. Liberal feminism thinks that all women’s choices are valid and should be honored. Again, this is perfect world thinking. This is the luxury of (yes, I’m gonna say it) privileged women.

A privileged woman – one who is young enough, pretty enough, smart and savvy enough – may be able to hang out her shingle as a Pretty Woman-style escort and do a good business with it. I know there are women who have done this and who have no regrets. And, really, I can’t doubt them when they say that. They tried it, it worked for them, aren’t they lucky?

Most women in prostitution, however, aren’t.

Most women in prostitution would quit now if they had the ability. Most women in prostitution hate their work (and don’t even try to tell me that a burger flipper or janitor hates his work, too, not unless you can find one willing to let 30 strange men that he didn’t get to choose hump and dump him each night). Many women in prostitution are afraid for their safety every day they work, and are scared of the pimps who control them. You simply cannot ignore this reality.

And until sex work becomes safe for the majority (low-end sex workers), the minority (independent call girls) shouldn’t be used as the example to justify their exploitation.

Prostitution has always been a shame, not because of what these women do, but because of what is done to them. Making it legal doesn’t change that.



  1. Bluecat

    This! I’ve flipped back and forth on this issue but have come to agree with you. All respect to women who survive this, some who even do well out of it (I have known one or two) but the reality for most is pretty grim. The tricky thing is how to discourage prostitution without making the situation worse for the prostitutes. I’d be interested to know how it is going in Sweden, and how easy it is, for instance, to exit that work without stigma, and what the outcomes are like for prostituted women.

  2. isme

    I think this depends on whether or not the police are going to target pimps and punters, or sex workers. Where I live, prostitution is legal in some states. In at least some of the states where it isn’t, for example, police will use the possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution, effectively criminalising their use by sex workers.

  3. Reblogged this on babybree808's Blog and commented:
    The Legalization of Prostitution could have many benefits for those of us stuck in this ugly world…but there is a million ways it could go wrong as well. What are your thoughts?

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