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Prostitution: Should it be legal?

Published: January 20, 2012
Section: Opinions


Legalizing prostitution is one of those ideas that sounds ridiculous to people and at first it sounded that way to me too. It’s one of those things that immediately evokes a visceral reaction in people. It’s gross and therefore should not be allowed. It’s subjugation and is therefore bad. It’s shameful exploitation.

A recent experience, however, led me to question this viewpoint. During a trip to the Netherlands, I spent a day in Amsterdam with friends. Our day was filled with gawking at the “coffee” shops, drinking beer and, of course, strolling through the Red Light District, the well-known area of the city where one goes to find prostitutes, pornography, sex toys and just about anything else relating to sex.

After walking through some alleys, my friends and I passed by a group of girls standing next to a sign which read—if I recall correctly—“Free Prayers.” We discovered that these girls were from the United States.

After one of the guys—whose girlfriend was also present—explained that we had been walking through the Red Light District, one of the girls asked her, “How did that make you feel as a woman, seeing your boyfriend looking at other women?”

As the conversation progressed, we learned that the girls were speaking with the prostitutes, singing to them and handing out bibles. The girls were kind, and certainly seemed to have nothing but the best intentions. I was soon plagued, however, by a basic question I hadn’t considered before: Why do we consider prostitution to be wrong at all? Why is it that those girls from the United States felt that the condition of the workers in the Red Light District was so pitiable and immoral that it was necessary to visit them at all?

While I wasn’t interested in getting into a debate right then, I couldn’t help but wonder what I would say to one of those girls were I to argue with them about the ethics of prostitution and whether or not it should be legal.

There are, of course, the pragmatic arguments that we often hear. In a state where prostitution is legal, it is no longer a black market industry, and therefore it becomes subject to governmental regulations just like any other occupation. This opens the door for taxation, which could lead to increased revenue. In an economy with slow growth, that does not sound like a bad idea.

Furthermore, there is the argument that the legalization of prostitution can lead to better health care for the prostitutes. In countries where prostitution is legal, the government can conduct health inspections to ensure that the prostitutes are healthy. This can help decrease the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases both by prostitutes and members of the general population.

While these pragmatic benefits suggest that prostitution should be legalized, people still feel uncomfortable. People see prostitution, pornography and any other industry that exploits sexuality for profit as wrong, demoralizing and dehumanizing. This brings me to the core of

my argument.

Upon thinking about the argument that prostitutes are exploited in an unfair way, I realized that people exploit their bodies all the time for profit.

Consider football. Imagine that I am Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. While I have other skills, I am of the opinion that football is my best—and therefore my most profitable—skill. While playing football, however, I use resources I’m given as a human being. Humans are endowed with a brain that makes decisions, in this case the decisions that Brady needs to make before throwing the football. Furthermore, humans are endowed with arms that are used for actual throwing. While these things are obviously cultivated through practice and training, they are pieces of human capital being exploited for profit. Without Brady’s mind and arms—parts of his body—Brady would not be rich.

Why is it OK for laborers to exploit every part of their body except for their sexual organs? I really do not feel that there is an adequate answer. It’s OK for Tom Brady to use his biceps to make money, yet what prostitutes in the Red Light District is not OK, at least according to many in society.

The arguments against legalization are pretty clear. People argue that individuals could essentially be forced into the field if prostitution were legalized. I believe this argument, however, is flawed as people are already forced into prostitution under the status quo. In fact, if prostitution were legalized, the market demand for labor would go down. If government intervention resulted from legalization, it would be an incredible burden to employers of prostitutes. If these employers had to pay minimum wage and provide health benefits, then fewer prostitutes would be hired. Most likely, fewer people would wind up as prostitutes.

Other critics of legalization argue that sex is distinct from other types of labor-based exploitation because sex is viewed as a more meaningful act and should not be conducted in such a cavalier fashion. I do not deny that there’s great meaning ascribed to sex by many in society, yet I argue that it is up to every person to decide how they ascribe meaning to private acts. Perhaps a person finds playing baseball with his best friend far more meaningful than sex. Are we to dictate that no, sex should be considered more meaningful? No, that is not our responsibility.

What it comes down to is that we, as a society, accept things such as prostitution as bad without thinking enough about what the act is in its most mundane form. While throwing a touchdown pass or operating heavy machinery are obviously different from sex, they all exploit human resources in one way or another for profit. Coupled with the pragmatic benefits that could come for both the prostitutes and society on the whole, there seems to be a pretty compelling argument that we should rethink our policies.