The Unintended Consequences of Banning the “World’s Oldest Profession”

Prostitution is known as “the world’s oldest profession.” Indeed, as far back at the 18th century B.C., the Code of Hammurabi contained provisions regarding rules and protection for sex workers. “Sacred prostitution,” or sex associated with religious worship, occurred in many ancient societies and is well-documented. Over time, however, the sex industry has come under increased regulation. In the U.S., prostitution is only legal in the state of Nevada.

Despite this prohibition, the world’s oldest profession is alive and well. There are an estimated 1 million prostitutes in the United States. Worldwide, an estimated 42 million people make a living selling sex. In the U.S., street prostitutes earn approximately $18,000 annually. High-end escorts can earn upwards of $200,000 a year.

(Source: Elon University blog)

When I have the occasion to discuss legalizing prostitution (who said economics is boring?!), I’m typically met with puzzled looks and a barrage of statistics about sex trafficking and the general exploitation of women. These are followed by the question, “How can you, as a woman, be in favor of letting women sell their bodies?! Don’t you want to end things like sex trafficking?!”

The answer to the last question is an enthusiastic, “yes.” In fact, if we truly want to protect (mainly) women involved in the sex industry, it’s time to seriously discuss the idea of legalizing sex work.

I am not alone in this suggestion. In fact, the U.N., Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International have all suggested that legalizing sex work would decrease the exploitation of women. What may not be clear is why they suggest this would be the case. The logic behind the legalization of prostitution is a straightforward application of the economics of prohibition.

By making prostitution illegal, the government attempts to eliminate the market for sex work. This prohibition, however, doesn’t eliminate the market. Instead, it pushes it underground.

As a result, those who work in the sex industry cannot use legitimate legal channels to resolve problems or report crime, as their participation in the industry automatically makes them criminals. A prostitute, for example, cannot file a report or go to court in order to compel a client to pay, or report an abusive pimp without risking her own freedom.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere (regarding the market for illegal drugs), prohibition increases the likelihood of cartelization and increases the likelihood these cartels will use violence as a means of control. This is precisely what we’ve observed as a result of the prohibition of sex work. As opposed to breaking down such enterprises, prohibition has effectively increased the profitability of sex trafficking, making it more appealing to criminal enterprises. By legalizing the sex trade, we would allow those involved in the sex trade to come out from the shadows, use legitimate business practices and legal channels, and decrease the likelihood that women will be trafficked by violent groups of criminals.

These ideas are supported by the data. New Zealand, for example, legalized prostitution in 2003. The New Zealand Ministry of Justice examined the impact of the law on human trafficking. They found “no incidence of human trafficking” and that the law made it easier for workers to report abuse and for police to prosecute sex crimes.

Legalizing the sex trade means one has to respect the choices people make, male or female. While one may find prostitution morally or otherwise objectionable, the fact that such activities offend one’s sensibilities does not constitute a legitimate argument against it.

I am often confronted with arguments that we should make prostitution illegal because it’s poor women who work as prostitutes, or that prostitution will spread disease. The data indicate, however, that legalizing prostitution decreases the transmission of disease. The logic is straightforward. As prostitution becomes a legitimate profession, it allows for prostitutes to be more open with their doctors about their sexual history and seek treatment for STIs and other problems.

The fact that those who select prostitution as a profession may be poor is inconsequential (though we can discuss why other opportunities may not be available). It may be true that some women who work as prostitutes would strongly prefer another profession. Even if this is the case, women who voluntarily choose prostitution as a means of income should be allowed to practice their profession in the safest environment possible. The safest environment, in this case, is a legal market for sex.

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.
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