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The Case for Legalized Prostitution

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Prostitution may be the world’s oldest profession, and laws prohibiting prostitution may well be the oldest example of government regulation and government (sex) discrimination. In a free society, however, all such laws are inappropriate because they violate the basic rights and liberties of the individuals involved.

Recent research indicates that over one million women in the United States earn their living by full-time prostitution. Furthermore, roughly one in every six American men has been a willing client of a prostitute within the past five years. Even more interesting and alarming is the fact that engaging in sex with a prostitute is now the third most common way for an American male to contract the AIDS virus.

Ironically perhaps, the rising threat of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases has become one of the most compelling arguments for the complete legalization of prostitution. According to current evidence, roughly half of the street prostitutes in Washington, D.C., and New York City are HIV-positive. In Newark, New Jersey, the estimate is that close to 60% of all prostitutes carry the AIDS virus. Yet, in the relatively “free market” of Nevada, where prostitution is legal, not one (as of 1989) of the state-licensed prostitutes has ever tested positive for AIDS.

It is true that Nevada’s licensed bordellos require monthly blood tests, but such precautions would likely occur in the absence of state regulation. The reason is economic: the bordellos compete with each other, and the suppliers have strong incentives to ensure that the “service” that their customers receive is safe. Clearly, the spread of AIDS would be reduced by the decriminalization of prostitution services.

Furthermore, like the all-too-publicized war on drugs, the war on prostitution is yet another battle being waged with tax dollars rather than common sense. Let’s look at the price tag for a moment. It is estimated that one in every ten police officers works on vice-related activities. Currently, it is assumed that as much as one-half of a typical urban city’s prison female population are prostitutes. In fact, the city of Los Angeles alone spends close to 100 million dollars annually dealing with illegal prostitution. The real cost, of course, is that these public resources could have been used to protect law-abiding citizens from real criminals.

And sadly, also like the war on drugs, the war on prostitution is futile and forever doomed to fail. There is no effective way to close down a market between willing buyers and sellers. At best, stringent local harassment may affect where prostitutes work, but it will never stop them altogether. According to a study done by the Rand Corporation, for instance, the city of Los Angeles’ policy of “shooing away streetwalkers has done nothing except push them across the city’s boundaries.”

Of course, the most important argument for the legalization of prostitution services is that such prohibitions violate one’s most basic and inherent rights. Prostitution is the voluntary sale (or rental) of a labor service. Individuals own their own bodies and their own labor services and have the absolute right to decide how those labor services should be used. As long as the prostitution transaction is voluntary, there is no justification for governmental interference. Indeed, such interference constitutes an infringement of the privacy and personal liberty of the individuals involved.

The government does have a legitimate role to play in the prostitution market. As with all markets, it should ensure that all exchanges are truly voluntary. In short, it should protect individual rights to property, especially the right not to be coerced.

Currently, since prostitution is illegal outside of Nevada, most prostitutes are in a “no-man’s-land” as far as physical protection is concerned. They are often beaten and brutalized, with no real legal recourse. In a free market for prostitution services, suppliers of labor services that are physically harmed would have the same rights to police protection and to legal recourse as the rest of us.

The moral and economic case for the legalization of prostitution is overwhelming. Government prohibition and regulation blatantly violate the rights of the individual and are economically expensive. Therefore, America’s views and strategies on the topic of prostitution must undergo an immediate and radical change. The time has come to abandon the nation’s archaic attempts to legislate personal morality. The time has come to face up to the facts and to implement the only policy that can truly make a positive difference. The time has come for the legalization of prostitution.

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    Paul Armentano is the senior policy analyst for NORML and the NORML Foundation in Washington, D.C.