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Posted by on Sep 11, 2007 in At TMV | 13 comments

Should Prostitution be Legalized?

Bob Herbert writes for the New York Times:

I must have hit a nerve. While in Las Vegas last week, I interviewed the mayor, Oscar Goodman, who enthusiastically explained how legalizing prostitution and creating a series of “magnificent brothels” could be a boon to his city’s development.

Vegas is already a paradise for pimps, johns and perverts, and I accused the mayor in a column of setting the tone “for the systematic, institutionalized degradation” of women.

Mr. Goodman was not pleased. He snarled to the local press that he had no use for me, and added, “I’ll take a baseball bat and break his head if he ever comes here.”

The mayor, who made a name for himself as a defense lawyer for mobsters, loves to slip into a clownish, tough-guy persona. (He never lets anyone forget that he had a walk-on as himself in the movie “Casino.”) But behind his bluster is a serious issue that should be addressed.

A lot of people more thoughtful than Oscar Goodman believe that prostitution should be legalized as a way of protecting and empowering the women who go into the sex trade. I’ve lost patience with those arguments, however well meaning. Real-world prostitution, in whatever guise, bears no resemblance at all to the empowerment fantasies of prostitution proponents. I have never seen such vulnerable, powerless women as those in the sex trade, legal or illegal.

If you haven’t signed up for Times Select I suggest you do so now. I realize that many people refuse to pay for the columns, archives, and other features of Times Select (and frankly I think it was a mistake for the Times to ask people to pay for this), but it’s well worth it. If you don’t sign up for it you’ll miss out on some great columns, written by very smart and informed people.

Back to the subject at hand, prostitution. In this regard, I’m quite libertarian. It seems to me that the government has no business telling people that they can or can’t pay for sex. Sex is something extremely private, the government should stay out of it. That is, at least, my initial and automatic response. When I was reading the rest of Herbert’s column I understood his point of view better and realized that, once again, it might not be as simple as I’d like to think it is.
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  • Bill Wilson

    I largely agree with you and Herbert, so this is more of a devil’s advocate type question.

    Herbert said:

    I have never seen such vulnerable, powerless women as those in the sex trade, legal or illegal.

    I suspect this is true, and there are also millions of the working poor women who aren’t giving blow jobs but who are working 60 hour weeks on minimum wage while trying to raise children on her own. I am not saying they are as vulnerable and powerless as women in the sex trade, but they are pretty close, in my opinion. And there are millions and millions and millions of them.

    SO: if we make prostitution illegal based on Bob’s arguments of powerlessness and vulnerability, should we not also make the plight of the working poor illegal for the same reasons? Or does “sex” somehow make this different? If so, why?

  • Sam

    I put prostitution in the same category as drugs. Making it illegal is silly, folks do it anyways and now you’ve got the crime that goes with it. There are few forms of life I can think of that are lower than a street pimp. Yea, legal prostitues aren’t going to be pillars of the community, but they will be safer and better off than the 16 year old strung out on crack, beaten and sexually abused by a man whose only ability is to keep her marginally safer than she’d be on her own.

    If its going to happen anyways, regulate it for safety and tax the hell out of the vice. It’s still not pretty, but ultimately you end up serving the community better.

  • Lynx

    A war on prostitution is about as silly and worthless as our current War on Drugs. Prostitution has existed since ancient history and will continue to exist for the foreseeable future. I agree that many (and probably even most) prostitutes are victims of abuse and neglect, but I fail to see how keeping their trade illegal makes any of it better. In addition, I UTTERLY fail to see the difference between porn and prostitution in the strictly moral sense. Both are sex for money, one is just in front of a camera and with someone also economically motivated.

    Frankly, a lot of the prohibition of prostitution has to do with legislating morality and the “sex is a bad thing” mentality. This is (to me) ridiculous. If you think paying for sex is disgusting or selling your body is then don’t do it. I actually agree, but I don’t think it’s my business to decide for others in that regard.

    Now there is the other aspect; the undeniable fact that the sex trade is one that victimizes women, and often even enslaves them entirely. This certainly must be stopped, I just think it would be easier to do with a regulated trade than by pretending that it simply must not exist at all. Regulation could give women recourse for lots of things. For starters their rates could be fixed, they could have contracts (and therefore Social Security) be given health benefits, unionize, the whole host of things that only a LEGAL worker can do.

  • Rudi

    In Europe the sex trade is legal and above board. I know the “morality crowd” in the US won’t except that legal prostitution is better than what goes down [ 😉 ] over here. But the “racist crowd” sees US prostitution as streetwalkers and pimps. But much of it goes on in phone books, alternative newspapers and on the Internet as escort services. Paige Birgfeld used an escort business and prostitution to maintain a 6 figure home she couldn’t afford. Her greed and her lifestyle probably caused her death. Escorts in the US are used by corporations and businessmen to entertain clients. While street walkers are seen as immoral, the soccer mom next door as an escort is given little notice untill they turn up dead in a field. Years ago in Southfield Michigan, a college student was caught up in the escort service while doing research for a class. She became enamored with the lifestyle and a regular customer murdered her, this became a big local story, while the “dead common streetwalker” is ignored. Finally, if prostitution degrades the women who service men, what about the men who patronize these women, they’re even more guilty than the female victims.

  • Sam

    “Finally, if prostitution degrades the women who service men, what about the men who patronize these women, they’re even more guilty than the female victims.”

    Men don’t get degraded by sex, didn’t anyone tell you?

  • casualobserver

    Vegas is already a paradise for pimps, johns and perverts,

    What Las Vegas did this guy go to? Vegas cops keep the streets clean as a whistle relative to “the old business model.” If there’s some back alley business going on, it is certainly not prolific.

    What the mayor may be thinking about is the high-end escort business there where the women are security savvy, well-educated and earning very comfortable livings working independently. Put those ladies “on the city payroll” and your doing better than your parking meters real fast.

    In the bigger picture, this area would be a great area to exploit federalism. You don’t have to go anywhere near the religious conservatives. Prostitution is state law, not Federal. Take advantage of all those libertarian west states.

  • Ro

    Sam’s comment “legal prostitues aren’t going to be pillars of the community, but they will be safer and better off than the 16 year old strung out on crack, beaten and sexually abused by a man whose only ability is to keep her marginally safer than she’d be on her own” did not ring true to me a couple days after reading about the reality of legalized prostitution in Nevada. I’ll put the site here and let you guys decide if it makes any difference in the argument — it did for me.

  • Ro

    Erg… not sure if the link showed up. Here’s the site:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,2164107,00.html

  • I wrote about this back in August from a social justice stand point. Many of the women are not voluntarily “employed” in the sex trade. Many of the pimps beat and force the women to submit to their authority, similar to little kings running around demanding payment for brokering services.

  • domajot

    Abolishing prostitution laws will not make everything to do with prostitution pretty. So. the strung out 16 yr old may still show up. This can’t be decided on the exception, however, but on the general effects.

    Just like drugs, legailize and regulate is a much better approach than throwing people in jail for what can’t be eradicated..

    In the US, however, with the current relitious leadership, the SC will stymie any attempts to change the status quo.

  • Sam

    Ro,

    Very eye opening article on conditions in the industry. A few things struck me though. Namely that legalized doesn’t mean unregulated which those folks most definitely seem to be. There are a number of activities going on that seem to violate labor laws, and criminal ones as well.

  • “Should Prostitution be Legalized?”

    YES

  • dan

    ok so… people that like to have sex are perverts.

    got it.

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