Prostitution thrives in the underground market and has continued to do so throughout history. Commonly referred to as the world’s oldest profession, the presence of prostitution continues to lurk in nearly every area, despite being illegal in most. So how do citizens feel about it occurring legally in the United States? The most recent 2016 poll on prostitution found that 49% of the 516 adults surveyed believed that prostitution should be legalized or decriminalized in the US, 44% disagreed, and 6% were undecided (Marist Poll). In the year prior, YouGov Polling Agency surveyed 1,000 adults and found that 44% of voters understood prostitution as something that could be legalized or decriminalized, 46% disagreed, and 11% were unsure. These surveys help show the nation’s split of those who believe prostitution should be decriminalized and those who strongly oppose.
Advocates prefer the word sex work over prostitution, as it is usually centered around a demeaning stigma. Advocates of sex work support its full decriminalization to bring sex work above ground and into the light, so that the violence associated with it can be abolished. Sweden, Norway and seven other countries have adapted an approach to the violence associated with prostitution. It is known as the Nordic Model, which decriminalizes the act of prostitution, but not the men who buy the services (Salam). This is used as a tactic to cut off the demand of sex work, in hopes to cut off prostitution all together. Advocates do not support the Nordic Model because it labels the sex workers as victims, and they see sex workers as women who choose to willingly work in the sex industry. In Lukomnik’s article she mentions the Nordic Model and the harm that it causes for the women who choose work in the sex industry, because they must work secretly, which puts their safety in jeopardy. Lukomnik states, This model suffers from the same fundamental problem as total criminalization: it means that sex work must be conducted underground, pushing sex workers away from safety and services. Although the Nordic Model may not criminalize the sex worker with legal charges, it carries the same stigma that forces sex work to be hidden, which compromises the sex worker’s safety. By making the act of buying sexual acts illegal, sex work must be kept hidden, which advocates argue corresponds with violence, rape, and diseases.
When women are put into vulnerable situations without regulations, they are susceptible to abuse. Sex work has been described as one of the most dangerous professions, because the woman must put herself in unfamiliar situations. Researchers have concluded that prostitutes are murdered at a much higher rate than any other group of women murdered (Sanders). Advocates propose that sex workers are injured and abused systematically because sex work itself is illegal and only by decriminalizing the sex industry all together, will we be able to create a safer environment for adults who consent to these types of sexual relations. Amnesty International recently posted their view on decriminalizing prostitution, for the health and safety rights of all sex workers and buyers. Their main concern is to provide sex workers with basic human and legal right which would in turn, hopefully lead to safer sex practices. Amnesty International states that if sex work was decriminalized, women could report their abuses without facing the fear of prosecution and could protect themselves by enforcing the men they sleep with to wear protection.
There are countless stories from sex workers who have shared their experiences of being forced into engaging in a sexual act without the use of protection. Buyers typically do not want to wear condoms with sex workers and can get violent if they know the sex worker is alone and vulnerable (21st Century Criminology). Since sex work is illegal, studies cannot be fully accurate when reporting the number of sex workers with STI’s or HIV/AIDS. A study in 2000, found that about 20 to 80% of identified prostitutes had been diagnosed with HIV (Farley & Kelly). In order to keep the lives of millions American’s healthy, organizations such as UNAIDS have called for decriminalization as a way to insure regulatory safe sex, which would include, but not be limited to, weekly STI screenings, support and care for individuals diagnosed, and a requirement of buyers and customers to wear condoms.
In 2003, Rhode Island accidentally decriminalized all forms of indoor prostitution for six years. In this time period, researchers Cunningham and Shah studied the sex work occurring here and concluded that the rates of rapes and gonorrhea and had significantly dropped. Gonorrhea had decreased by 1,035 cases in the six years that prostitution had been decriminalized indoors. Businesses and workers were profiting and had to ensure safe sexual encounters, so that their businesses could continue to grow. By providing a safe, regularly monitored work environment advocates believe that sexual diseases would drop significantly. As Rhode Island’s gonorrhea rates decreased, the state’s economy increased, with local businesses profiting from the money being made by indoor sex agencies. Businesses were booming, and in 2003 Providence, the capital of Rhode Island, became known as New England’s red-light district (Salam).
The revenue from sex tourists brought in money for Rhode Island’s towns and cities. Banks, airlines, travel agencies etc., benefitted from the income spent by sex tourists; people who travel to areas where prostitution is legalized (Shapiro). In certain rural counties of Nevada, prostitution is legalized, and this industry brings in close to fifty million dollars a year. The brothels give significant amounts of money to the counties they reside in, however the state of Nevada has not legalized prostitution and therefore cannot benefit from the profit of these brothels (Social Problems: Continuity for Change). If Nevada changed its policies, the state would benefit from the amounts of revenue that the sex industry brings in (Haltiwanger). In a 2006 study on Americans and the amount of money they spend on sex-related items, Weitzer found that people spent 13.3 billion dollars. This included money spent on X-rated magazines, videos, DVD’S, and strip clubs. He advocated for the decriminalization of sex work and highlights the economic growth it would bring for the country. He argues that the demand for sex will always be high, and a profitable business is booming underground. The underground sex industry is estimated to have an annual revenue of 14 billion, which is all money that goes untaxed and undistributed. Sex work is alive and thriving in the economics department, and advocates proclaim that the country’s economy could benefit from the taxes of legalized brothels and indoor sex houses.
Sex workers advocate for the realization and acknowledgement that their work is real work. Liberal feminists support the idea of expressing one’s sexuality without regulations from the government. They view sex work as an act of consensual sex that helps one make a decent living (Beran). When these women are able to work together in safer environments, they are able to better protect themselves and others in the industry. By being considered real work, workers are able to unionize and create a supportive group that works together for equal rights and safety precautions. In Melissa Grant’s book, she writes of her experience as a sex worker who worked in a dungeon where multiple women worked together. In this setting women were able to work together, taking turns being receptionist, who would be responsible for writing down specific information about clients or any potential threats or suspicions. This gave the women a sense of empowerment to legally control their situations and better protect themselves with the help of other sex workers.
Many people disagree with the idea that decriminalization will help women in sex work achieve justice or safer working conditions. Opponents argue against Amnesty International’s claim to decriminalize all forms of sex work as they see prostitution as a violent and degrading experience. As a former prostitute, Rachel Moran strongly disagrees with Amnesty’s claim and cringes at the term sex work, as she remembers her past as nothing similar to a regular job. Moran had entered the sex industry at age fourteen, which is the average age of entering prostitution. She was homeless, jobless, with no education and was forced to sell her body as a way to survive (Farley b). She was stuck in the cycle for seven years, developing a severe cocaine addiction five years into prostitution. She was just one of the millions of women suffering from prostitution’s causes and effects. Rachel Moran quotes herself, Yes, there are women who choose to sell sex in their own free and liberal way, but they are the white, middle-class, western women in escort agencies. Their right to sell doesn’t trump my right and others not to be sold in a trade that preys on women already marginalized by class and race (Moran).
Through studies it is estimated that 90% of people in prostitution want to get out of the life of selling but cannot afford to (Farley b.). Those who enter prostitution are usually not the happy high-class escorts that are seen advocating for the decriminalization of sex work for free individual and liberal rights. The majority of women who enter into the force are doing so because they lack the resources and opportunities that others are given. Studies have shown that the social and economic conditions of a child and young adult’s life have great influences on whether the person will enter prostitution or not. In one study, it was found that those who were abused physically, mentally or sexually by family members and ran to escape the violence at home, were at the highest risk of getting sucked into the whirl of prostitution (Widom) The young women that run away from abusive households are usually jobless with little education and resort to selling their body as a way to meet their basic survival needs. In this view, it is difficult to assume that prostitution can be considered a job for all, when the social conditions that affect that person to do it, are different. One woman may be choosing to sell her body, but others may be resorting to prostitution as their only way to survive.
Opponents believe that men who buy sex tend to try to justify their actions, by believing they are somehow helping the prostitute. One Canadian sex tourist who visited Thailand remarked, They gotta eat don’t they? I’m putting money in their pockets Bread on their tables (Farley). This shows the upsetting realities of how some men will justify using the bodies of poorer and more vulnerable women and girls, because they may be getting paid. This is the belief that justifies the objectification and transformation of reducing a woman’s body into an object. In Farley’s article she states the fact that someone who is in a dire situation, consents to grievance harms and situations. One man interviewed by Farley who compared prostitution similar to rape said, Although rape is worse, prostitution is close, because there is superficial consent On the face of it, the prostitute is agreeing to it, but deeper down you can see that her life’s circumstances have forced her to resort to it.
Opponents also argue that prostitution is inherently violent and legalizing or decriminalizing it will not result in any beneficial changes for the woman or her safety. If a prostitute fails to meet the buyer’s specific requests and fantasies, she is vulnerable to assault and battery. Opponents deny the claim that legalization or decriminalization will lead to safe working conditions, because the act of buying a body is dangerous and degrading itself. Morals are swept aside, and the buyer is given the belief that he is in charge for the amount of time paid for. Australia noticed the continuance of violence after legalizing prostitution in some areas and created negotiation training seminars for sex workers to attend to better educate them and the public of the dangers that occur in the sex industry even if legalized (Quandara). One study concluded that 99% of prostituted women are injured more than occupations considered very dangerous such as mining and firefighting (Gibbs). New Zealand’s Prime Minister has shared that in efforts to decriminalize sex work and bring the job into the light, the 2003 law reform has still not reduced underage coercion and violence in prostitution (Farley b.)
The Netherlands legalized prostitution in 2000, and has since became a sex tourist destination, but continues to have trafficked children and illegal prostitution throughout the country. Women who work in prostitution in the Netherlands are encouraged to register as sex workers on their tax returns. The Netherlands government makes this an option to reduce the country’s stigma of prostitution overall; but most women do not register for these benefits, because they are afraid of the stigma and the hatred from the public that comes with it (Hersch). Researchers have examined the health and well-being of those who have remained in prostitution for years, and linked it to severe emotional trauma, suicidal tendencies, and PTSD. These are results of the constant batter and abuse that comes hand in hand with prostitution. It is common for prostitutes to develop dissociative disorder, which is the condition when one’s state of mind detaches from the physical body during times of great distress and pain (Gavin). This is common, as women describe the feeling of being treated as an object leads to emotional and mental depressions.
Opponents fight against legalization, because if prostitution ever was legalized governments would benefit from the income brought in by taxes being placed on the women who sell their bodies. Women’s bodies would be used as commodities, taxed and shared by the people who use them. Opponents urge against total decriminalization or legalization because those dismiss the fact that the prostitute is a victim. They argue that by allowing sex houses and brothels to open and run freely, the government is condoning the violent treatment against women in prostitution. If the US did legalize prostitution, the likeliness of those living in poverty and socially challenged economic areas who would resort to prostitution would rise. If the sex trade expands, women who are the most vulnerable will be at risk of becoming entrapped in prostitution legally. These women are more vulnerable and are less likely to voice their opinion, becoming entrapped by the legalization or decriminalization of prostitution.
As I first began researching prostitution I had a very liberal feminist mindset which encouraged my support for Women’s advocacy groups such as ESLERP, a group of sex work activists in San Francisco, I felt empowered that women felt free to decide what they wanted to do with their bodies. With the systemic patriarchal system in the United States, these advocates gave me hope that women were reinventing sex work into something safer and more controlled by themselves, rather than being controlled by pimps and traffickers. However, when I began researching the cons, it shocked me at the number of women who are stuck in prostitution but want out. Severe mental and physical harm have been effects of prostitution when women resort to selling their bodies as a way of survival. These vulnerable women suffer from poverty, low levels of education, drug abuse, homelessness etc. The women are not willingly participating in prostitution because they feel liberated to freely express their bodies, they are selling their bodies to make it through the night. I believe most women are victims of prostitution, and in order to help these women escape the pattern of prostitution, buyers and pimps need to be charged with crime. I support the Nordic Model, to criminalize buyers while providing help and assistance services to the women struggling to escape prostitution.
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