US Prostitution Laws Are Awful And Can't Be Changed

I was reading an article about Mexican brothel laws. Mexican brothels apparently use the “legal, but heavily regulated, including medical testing of prostitutes” approach to prostitution I’ve heard Americans advocate (and which is the approach used by Nevada).

I’ve also heard Americans advocate for the New Zealand approach (legal, and basically no more regulated than any other business), and for the Swedish approach (prostitution is legal, but being a John is illegal).

But so far, I’ve never heard an American advocate for the US system. The US system doesn’t eliminate prostitution — according to Patty Kelly, the author of the article on Mexican brothels, 30 percent of single American men over 30 admit to having paid for sex,1 “and according to the National Task Force on Prostitution, 1 percent of women claim to have worked as erotic service providers at some point in their lives.” The system is brutal to sex workers, encourages corruption in cops, and wastes tax money on useless enforcement. No matter what you think the goal of prostitution policy ought to be, the US policy fails.

Yet it doesn’t seem seriously possible that US policy could change, either, except possibly in a couple of the more liberal or libertarian states. There’s no money behind changing the laws, and no political upside for congresspeople in advocating for change. (Plenty of downside, though — can you imagine the mailers? “Senator Smith wants to open a legal brothel in your neighborhood!” and so on.)

Kelly concludes her article:

Despite the Eliot Spitzers, the Heidi Fleisses, the Eddie Murphys, and, best of all, the pastor Ted Haggards, we deny, deny, deny that prostitution plays a role in our culture. Like Sonia lies to her family back in El Salvador about what she does for work, so too do we lie to ourselves as a culture, though on a far more massive scale. What I admire about Mexico is not the legalization of sex work in some states, but the widespread cultural honesty about the topic. What I admire even more is New Zealand’s effort to transform their own honest assessment of their situation into a public policy that benefits both sex workers and society. The final conclusion of the sex workers, the nun, the police officer, the criminologist, the public health specialists and others who formed the committee to evaluate New Zealand’s Prostitution Reform Act states that “traditions and attitudes [about prostitution] developed over many years and cannot be changed overnight.” This is true. But perhaps it is time we start trying.

  1. I originally wrote “30 percent of American men over 30 admit to having paid for sexual services,” and then updated it to more accurate wording. []
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16 Responses to US Prostitution Laws Are Awful And Can't Be Changed

  1. 1
    Myca says:

    30 percent of American men over 30 admit to having paid for sexual services


    Jesus Christ, that’s awful.


  2. 2
    chingona says:

    Myca (and Amp),

    This is what was in the article:

    A 2004 ABC News poll found that 15 percent of all American males have paid for sex at some point in their lives; this figure jumps to 30 percent for single men over age thirty.

    So … I don’t know what a “good” number would be, but I think Amp’s wording makes it sound higher than it is.

  3. 3
    Ampersand says:

    You’re right, my wording screwed it up. I’ve edited the post to correct it. Thanks for catching that, Chingona.

    I do think there’s some validity in concentrating on older men; probably not all that many 18-year-olds have paid for sex, but some of that is probably accounted for by lack of opportunity and money. (And for all ages, it’s a safe bet that the “real” number is higher than the polled number.)

    I don’t know what a “good” number would be, either; I actually don’t care much what this number is, except that it’s notable that despite the banning it’s much higher than zero.

    I think that other numbers — mostly having to do with the well-being of prostitutes, and with how many people are forced into sex work — should be the main measures of how successful or not our prostitution policy is. A system that was half as harmful to prostitutes as our current system, but in which twice as many men paid for sex, would be an improvement over our current system.

  4. 4
    chingona says:

    I don’t disagree with anything you wrote. Our system seems to be a pretty bad system that is unlikely to change, and that’s to the detriment of the women who work in it.

    I wasn’t trying to suggest the key thing is to get that number down. I put good in scare quotes because I didn’t want to come off like “It’s only 15 percent! Hip hip hooray!” The number … is what it is. My personal feelings about men who pay for sex aren’t really that relevant to what our policy should be. I just noticed the “single,” so thanks for fixing it.

  5. 5
    Sailorman says:

    That’s good analysis. I agree that the likelihood of change is very, very, small. I do not frankly see a way around the problems you list.

  6. 6
    Ampersand says:

    Chingona, I didn’t think you were saying that driving the John number down should be our primary goal; sorry if I came off sounding that way.

    * * *

    The only way to really improve things for prostitutes in the US, I think, is to try and make prostitution more acceptable — which doesn’t have to mean approving or favoring prostitution, just a “it is what it is” attitude. The more prostitution is accepted as just another life choice, neither romanticized nor seen as deplorable — the more viable political measures to change policy will become.

    That’s a pretty enormous change, and perhaps very unlikely to happen, I know. But I don’t think legal improvements will come without a big change in social attitudes, at least not in the US.

  7. 7
    RonF says:

    So essentially 1/3 of all single men over 30 have paid for sex? Really? Somehow I find that difficult to believe. I too find it awful if true.

    OTOH, I remember one night on the Leno show when he had a famous young male movie star on his show. He’d been recently busted for being a john. Leno pointed out that he had money, good looks and fame and asked him why he would pay for sex. The answer? “Because when you’re done they leave.” Now, perhaps being young, rich and famous makes it a lot more likely that a sex partner has ulterior motives than it would for a mor ordinary person. But overall it speaks to a rather corrupt attitude towards sex from my moral viewpoint, but it’s hardly unique.

  8. 8
    chingona says:

    The answer? “Because when you’re done they leave.”

    Charlie Sheen. I don’t pay them for sex. I pay them to leave.

  9. 9
    RonF says:

    As far as whether it should be legal, I ask what are the State’s interests in either encouraging it or discouraging it? There’s the morality aspect – of course, people are all over the map on that one, but overall the U.S. tends to be traditional on that issue. There’s the public health issue. I do wonder how effective periodic exams are in keeping diseases from being spread. There’s the effect of prostitution on prostitutes. Personally I think it’s pretty degrading, but then it can be argued that a lot of that is due to it’s illegality. And while periodic exams can help prevent them from spreading disease to customers, it does nothing to keep them from getting them themselves.

    I’m torn. My secular side says “permit and regulate”. But I cannot help but feel that I would be contributing to the degradation of people on that basis.

  10. 10
    Happy Endings? says:

    Currently prostitution is legal in Rhode Island behind closed doors. Street solicitation is illegal. The system is actually good, because it cleaned up the streets. What is unfortunate is this year they are trying to change the law again so they can be like all the other states where prostitution is illegal.
    I did a documentary following the debate in RI about the prostitution law and interviewed women in the spas at the center of the debate.
    It is sad that this year the law might change because of the media, because in every poll the people of RI want to keep the law the way it is.

  11. 11
    Jeff Fecke says:

    I always go back and forth on this. On the one hand, I don’t think consensual sex between adults should be illegal, even if money changes hands. And in a perfect system, we could have government regulating prostitution, guaranteeing that those involved in it were of legal age, were there willingly, and were safe healthwise.

    But of course, there are other indications that legalizing prostitution doesn’t eliminate the market for illegal prostitution, and that legal prostitution increases the risk of women in general being battered and sexually assaulted.

    I’m not sure what the solution is. I know it’s not the American system. I think the New Zealand system, with its emphasis on independent contractors, could eliminate the worst part of the American system, that being women forced into the practice. But honestly, I just don’t know how to solve this.

  12. 12
    Macerio says:

    Admitting that the general approach country-wide is pretty awful, and side-stepping the question of should it be legal or not, what about Nevada’s system? It seems to be much better regulated, forces individuals to take protective action against STIs, and allows greater systematic protection for the women involved. There is some discussion of it in this article. (Some information is provided about Nevada’s system of legalized prostitution as opposed to the ramshackle protections offered in the porn business.)

    Like other posters above, I’m torn — I can see how perhaps any system could easily be detrimental to women, but, taking the tack of making a terrible system at least better, it seems like it would be a step in the right direction.

  13. 13
    PG says:

    RonF Writes:

    June 23rd, 2009 at 3:49 pm
    So essentially 1/3 of all single men over 30 have paid for sex? Really? Somehow I find that difficult to believe. I too find it awful if true.

    If “sex” includes manual and oral stimulation to orgasm, I find it totally plausible. Ask the single men over 30 you know whether they’ve ever tipped a masseuse or a stripper for stimulating them until orgasm. There will be a lot of them, I assure you. This type of sex work is very common, and puts customers at a far lower risk of getting busted than most other kinds — even the illegality of it is questionable, since some states don’t include handjobs in their definition of prostitution.

    On the other hand, the 2004 ABC News poll on which the article relies for that statistic doesn’t seem to have specified that it was including the kind of sex work I just described, so maybe the 30% doesn’t even include that.

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  15. 14
    MER says:

    I can see the 30% as being a reasonable assessment.
    What I think this reflects is the real disconnect between our (United States) legal policy and what actually happens culturally. In general, I believe that just law is a reflection of cultural values, not a method of shaping them.
    Personally, I don’t believe sex work to be by nature degrading, as one not involved at all, I leave that judgment up to the women and men involved.
    If there would be an end to prostitution and sex work, I think it would have to come from culture an not government, though I don’t see this happening any times soon.
    Personally, I think that the next step we should take as a socioty would be to legitimize it, and remove the stigma, I recognize sex work as a legitimate occupation, and I think that by making the blanket claim that it’s at best degrading and harmful, and at worst, rape, victimizes and removes the agency of those involved.
    This isn’t a denial that abuses happen, but I think it is harmful to lump men and women into ‘abused sex workers’ and ‘evil misogynist rapists’, rather than accept that these people are individuals with differing experiences and situations.

  16. 15
    Lord Cerbereth says:

    Prostitution is wrong. People are making the argument that outlawing it hasn’t made it go away and it hasn’t, but making it legal and then trying to regulate it isn’t the answer.

    When the government says something is legal it means it is ok to do it and then more people will do it look at how many people drink after prohibition and how many drank before. Yes you will get rid of the criminal element of the activity(because the profit margin goes down), but the goal is to get rid of the activity not the criminal element.

    Lets get down to eliminating the causes of prostitution like addiction to cocaine and heroine, and then lets get down to punishing the people who are profiting(prostitutes are not getting rich by being prostitutes) the pimps. Make the sentences stiffer on people who are profiting from human exploitation.

    Also why do people look at other systems being used see that they don’t work and conclude that America is also doing it wrong. Maybe we are actually doing it right. If there is a better system that we can look at that is fine, but if there isn’t maybe we should stick with what we have or at least keep the majority of what we have in place.