These excerpts from a post/discussion on Reason, asking why prostitution hasn’t yet been legalized. As you will see with my comments, I am highly critical of this libertarian perspective.

Cathy Young wrote:
Yet prostitution is perhaps the ultimate victimless crime: a consensual transaction in which both parties are supposedly committing a crime, and the person most likely to be charged—the one selling sex—is also the one most likely to be viewed as the victim. (A bizarre inversion of this situation occurs in Sweden, where, as a result of feminist pressure to treat prostitutes as victims, it is now a crime to pay for sex but not to offer it for sale.) […]

It’s the criminalization of prostitution that does take actual victims. […]
It’s hard to see who benefited from the fact that the authorities in Maryland spent a lot of taxpayer money to investigate and prosecute a woman for discreet and private sexual encounters with men—encounters that would have been perfectly legal if, instead of directly paying her for sex, those men had spent an equivalent amount on dates and gifts.

As with other victimless crimes, the criminalization of prostitution creates a vast breeding ground for corruption, hypocrisy, and morally dubious law enforcement tactics. Thus, open advertisement of escort services is widely tolerated under the flimsy pretext that clients are paying for companionship, “modeling,” “role play” and other non-sexual activities, and that when sex occurs it’s by mutual choice unrelated to any fees. Selective enforcement is the norm, as is entrapment. Anti-prostitution campaigns are also frequently accompanied by the Big Brother-ish practice of state-sponsored public shaming. Not to mention how black market constitution makes it more difficult to police the sex slave trade, where the prostitutes really are victims.

Unlike some defenders of prostitution such as “Mayflower Madam” Sydney Biddle Barrows, I do not believe that selling sex should ever be seen as an empowering or liberating way of life, or an affirmation of female sexuality. (If anything, it perpetuates the notion that sex is something women do for male enjoyment.) I do not believe, as sex-positive feminist Susie Bright has written, that “sex-work professionals are [among] the future’s largest contingents of the new het-sex liberation front.” Nor do I think that disapproval of sex for profit invariably stems from a residual notion that sex is bad, or that “sex work” should be destigmatized as just another career. But there is a vast difference between social stigma and criminal prosecution, between personal moral judgment and the nanny state.

Comments worth reading 🙂Bill Pope | May 7, 2007, 5:29pm | #

I agree that we’ll never get rid of prostitution, but Cathy please don’t treat it as just another career choice offered by the market. The average age of entry into the trade is 14, and that entry is ususally motivated by abusive homes and addiction to drugs. There is really nothing terribly consentual about this arrangement from the provider’s point of view, especially if addiction is what keeps her in the profession. Please be cognizant of these realities when commenting on the issue.

Kwix | May 7, 2007, 5:41pm | #

The average age of entry into the trade is 14, and that entry is ususally motivated by abusive homes and addiction to drugs. There is really nothing terribly consentual about this arrangement from the provider’s point of view, especially if addiction is what keeps her in the profession.

Much of this is because both prostitution and drug use are underground economies where the only interest the police have in it is sending all participants to jail. If prostitution were legalized, police could concentrate on getting coerced prostitutes (girls, young teens, imported sex-slaves, etc.) the help they need and busting the “pimps” that force them into the work.

Alessandra | May 10, 2007, 2:22pm | #

1-The question to ask is: Why should society sanction the use of force to keep people (mostly women) from engaging in sex for money, if it is done consensually?
2- I really don’t understand the arguments that hiring a prostitute for her “body part” is any different than hiring a circus strong man for his physical attributes.

The argument that prostitution is illegal? That’s a laugh.

Above is a parasitical perspective. Saying that there’s no difference between prostitution and sitting at your computer terminal, and it’s all “just work,” is like a propaganda slogan.

Ask these pro-prostitution guys if they would encourage their wives to be a prostitute, or be a prostitute themselves, and usually we get a no. If it were just another “job,” they and their wives wouldn’t mind prostituting themselves to hetero and homosexuals alike — since it’s all claimed to be just like a sports massage, or being a hairdresser. But that usually doesn’t

apply. Why stop there? They could do the same with their own children. If there’s nothing wrong with prostitution, why not their own kids (of legal age)?

If prostitution is “just work,” we are sure that any of these guys would take their own daughters and sons, and instead of telling them to work at McDonalds to earn some extra cash, they would encourage them to prostitute themselves, starting at the legal consent age of 16 in DC, for example.

And since prostitution is “just a service,” instead of mowing the neighbor’s grass, they would offer their children to perform sex to the entire neighborhood, including the 60 year old pervert down the road, the alcoholic, the 3 homosexuals with syphilis (using a condom, of course, because this is a responsible father who prostitutes their own children!) I’m sure they would love to see their own children sucking other human beings for a buck — that’s what kind of men they are. And they could use their job connections to get clients with more money to pay for their kids’ services – that’s how much they care.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture. The truth is parasites are really comfortable with all kinds of sexual abuse and exploitation as long as the damage and hurt remains with someone else’s kid. ( And we might add, given the epidemic rates of child abuse, the latter can only be said for the non-abusers ).

And this isn’t even delving into all the studies proving the high degree of sexual/domestic abuse victims that get trapped into prostitution, etc. Although this is not saying all prostitutes have this same battered profile, this very violent reality also cannot be negated for millions of children and adults caught in prostitution systems around the world.

How much do you have to be a parasite regarding human relations on a personal level and how much do you have to destroy a context of dignity, intimacy, respect, and love to begin thinking that degrading forms of sexual interaction are legitimate and good? And harmless?

The answer is a lot. Sadly, these kinds of attitudes are being increasingly normalized in society, and the damage they cause go way beyond some little DC madam scandal.

There is no space here to go into the question of the “consensual” label masking an enormous web of underlying problems as well; that’s a key issue too in prostitution.

(p.s. and we can also note that pornography is not different than prostitution in many of these respects as well.)

Charlie | May 11, 2007, 12:45pm | #


You make some very good points, but not for criminalization. Criminalization of any type of consensual behavior only makes the problem IMMENSELY worse. Look at our government’s previous attempt at prohibition concerning alcohol. It caused tremendous crime. Look at the issue now, with alcohol being legal – you don’t see Budweiser pushing beer at the playground, do you? Also, look at another of our “leader’s” current attempts at prohibition – since the inception of the “The Drug War” the drug problem is HUGELY worse. Why? Simply because of prohibition, nothing else.

Alessandra wrote:


There is absolutely no space here to discuss here what can be done about prostitution. (It takes at least a book, given that there are so many things a society can do that go way beyond the legal/illegal decision). Your analogies to drugs and alcohol are very faulty and simplistic, starting with the fact that so much in prostitution systems is not consensual and does not include free nor informed choices.

If you really want to delve into the issue, there are books with comparative studies regarding prostitution measures around the world, including underage prostitution.

You are wrong to think that no country has ever had measures put into place that didn’t have a significant ameliorating impact on the prostitution problem (to diminish it, and to reduce violence and suffering — which included keeping prostitution illegal). But you need to address the issue from a root perspective, the entire social context and causes, not a parasitical one which just wants impunity for sexual exploitation of people.

By the way, you forgot to mention smoking — is the problem better or worse now that it is largely prohibited and unmasked for the crap that it is?

And this comment really strikes at an issue that most lay people don’t like to address:

“$300 an hour to $2,500 a day for her services… discreet and private sexual encounters with men—encounters that would have been perfectly legal if, instead of directly paying her for sex, those men had spent an equivalent amount on dates and gifts.”

How dysfunctional do you have to be to go to a prostitute then?

And this comment, asks from a legal perspective what I also noted from a more broad perspective regarding the similarities between pornography and prostitution. It shows one of the most profound contradictions in American culture nowadays.

Dave | May 7, 2007, 6:14pm | #

If there are any lawyers posting here, maybe you can answer a question which has long perplexed me: How is it that prostitution is illegal, but paying a woman to have sex in a pornographic movie is not? I’m not saying morally, I’m asking from a legal standpoint. How does the porn industry not get charged with prostitution? Does the fact that both (or more than both) participants are being paid make a difference? Big-name porn actresses tend to get paid much more than the male actors they often film with, so if you pay a prostitute $400 and she pays you $5, would that make it legal? If you have a camera in the room, does that make it legal? Is there anything to stop a prosecutor from bringing charges against Jenna Jameson?

Kwix | May 7, 2007, 7:01pm | #

You are correct that an adult vid is a)protected under Amendment 1 and b)you are paying the actors for, well, “acting”. That they have sex together is immaterial to what it is you are compensating them for, which is their portrayal of sexual deviants on film.

Pi Guy | May 7, 2007, 7:09pm | #

How ’bout this: If you pay a woman to havae sex with you, it’s illegal. However, if you pay a woman to have sex while you video it and put on the intertubes, well that’s just peachy!

Jay | May 8, 2007, 10:20pm | #

Ultimate in ‘victimless crimes’? The legalization of prostitution in Germany having two deleterious effects: (1) it has made those in the sex industry legitimate employers who could make job offers to the unemployed, which triggered the state to say that if the unemployed person refused the offer that she would lose her benefits;
(2) Russian organized crime syndicates moved in got involved in human trafficking and the state has less incentive to prioritize intervention

[[ This is really interesting, the fact that Russian organized crime took advantage of the legalization of prostitution, a move that I assume was at least minimally conceived of to ameliorate the worst degrading and violent aspects of the prostitution problem in Germany. And if they did it in Germany, I’m sure they (and others) would do it anywhere else, if conditions allowed. Which also brings us to this question:]]

Bob Mnemos | May 8, 2007, 11:13pm | #

Go to any neighborhood where there are some reasonably good marriages and ask the wives (doesn’t matter if they’re liberal or conservative) if they’d mind if a few prostitutes plied their trade in the neighborhood. I think you’d find out pretty quick why in the Real World ™, which no here seems to be from, prostitution has never been openly accepted in society. Even the places where it’s “legal” are heavily restricted for that very reason.

Eh voilà, the only reason prostitution is a problem for a large chunk of society is because it bothers privileged women and their marriages. It is so tiring to live in a world where concern about human suffering is usually profoundly dictated by the privileged according to their selective needs.

There was something in this discussion that was heartwarming to see. It’s the fact that many commenters, which we can tell are just “normal” lay people, already have as part of their general culture the information that street prostitution (as the foremost example) is saturated with violence and exploitation (including the ugly drug addiction problems). This is a major gain for activists who worked for decades to unmask the cruel reality of so many aspects of prostitution systems, something I would say got its major real push with the women’s movement around the 70’s and continuing until today. Today we can see the resulting awareness shifts in the mass media, universities, and the general public regarding perceptions and cognizance of sexual violence issues. If we compare today’s awareness of the ugliness of street prostitution with how people viewed prostitution 100 hundred years ago (a total “blame-the-prostitute for everything” view), the progress is enormous. As this criminal investigator highlights:

RP | May 8, 2007, 11:21pm | #

I’m a criminal investigator and I see a great deal of prostitution. It’s strictly drugs, thugs, disease, violence, and pathetic lost women addicted to crack — who’ll do anything for more crack. They’re exploited by men who’ll use them unspeakably for a rock. Their circumstances are filthy and dangerous. Why does anybody think we can “regulate the hell” out of the prostitution business? Does anybody really imagine these people are suddenly going to play by the rules? Will regulation solve the crack problem? Please get real.

And I’ve spent the last three years after a maniac who’s killed at least 8 prostitues, attacked many more. He picks them because they are easy marks.
Prostitution is evil.

And to end, a nice reminder, of the most fundamental importance:

h | May 9, 2007, 12:01pm | #

There’s nothing reasonable about this argument. How many prostitutes does the author know? How fulfilling is their life? How much do they like degrading themselves or being forced into degrading themselves.

Prostitution is time-limited slavery. Should slavery be legal even if it were “consensual?” No, because for one human being to be so degraded all of humanity becomes degraded.