As Sen. Craig becomes the latest elected legislator to be arrested for soliciting, I wonder at what point we can look forward to a push to decriminalize or legalize prostitution in America. And I feel an immense frustration that even as we see that the hiring of prostitutes is a common behavior engaged in by even holders of some of the highest offices in America, there has been utter silence from all corners on the importance of making sure that another consensual activity is not considered criminal behavior in our country.
There is no doubt some satisfaction in seeing the hypocrisy of people like Sen. Craig, David Vitter, and Ted Haggard exposed. But most Americans who engage in prostitution are not hypocritical leaders. Most buyers in the prostitution market are ordinary Americans. Nearly all prositutes, male and female, are people at the lower end of the American economy. Yet, despite being an utterly victimless crime, it is an act where both people involved are considered criminals in 48 states.
So, what are the benefits of legalizing prostitution? Beyond the savings to law enforcement, it is possible to identify several benefits.
1. It will reduce abuse of sex workers
All of us know that prostitution is a business which is rife with pimps and organized crime. In addition, prostitution is responsible for a significant amount of human trafficking. Every year, 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders (some international and non-governmental organizations place the number far higher), and 70 percent are female and 50 percent are children. Annually, 14,500 to 17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked into the United States. The number of U.S. citizens trafficked within the country each year is even higher. The criminalization of prostitution provides a powerful incentive for criminals to engage in this behavior, and the penalties for capture encourage abusive behavior of these victims.
2. It will allow us to mitigate the impact of prostitution on children
Between 100,000 to 3 million teenagers are currently engaged as prostitutes in America. Due to the breadth and the inevitability of the existence of prostitution, these minors are nearly invisible as a law enforcement priority. By bringing prostitution out of the shadows and regulating it as a business, we will have a better chance of having law enforcement successfully prevent the proliferation of minors as sex workers. In pornography, allowing adults to perform in pornography has had tremendous success in preventing the participation of minors in that field. We can achieve similar success with prostitution.
3. It will help us slow the spread of HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases
This area is where the most evidence exists that the legalization of prostitution can have significant public benefit. In Australia, where prostitution is legal, the HIV infection rate among prostitutes is so low that it has been removed from the list of known risk factors for HIV infection. A World Health Organization report from 2001 (Steen, R. Eradicating chancroid. Bulletin World Health Organization. 79(9): 818-826) showed that:
In Kenya, where the importance of chancroid in HIV transmission was first described in the late 1980s, interventions targeting sex workers and STD patients were implemented. Reported condom use by sex workers has since increased to over 80% in project areas and the incidence of genital ulcers has declined. Chancroid, once the most common ulcer etiology, now accounts for fewer than 10% of genital ulcers seen in clinics in Nairobi, Kenya.
In Senegal, HIV prevalence among pregnant women has been below 1% for more than a decade. A strong multisectoral response, an effective STD control programme and early legalization of prostitution have been credited for this low level. Special clinical services, for example, offer regular examination and treatment for registered sex workers. Not only has there been a significant decline in STD rates among sex workers and pregnant women between 1991 and 1996, but genital ulcers are also no longer common and chancroid is reportedly rare.
It seems particularly desperate that nations such as Kenya and Senegal have a more effective policy towards HIV prevention among sex workers than the United States.
4. Legalizing prostitution will strengthen the legal basis for sexual and reproductive freedom for all Americans
Laws prohibiting prostitution are at their most basic a prohibition on one person choosing to have sex with another person in exchange for direct renumeration. The acceptance of state prohibition on consensual sexual behavior is an implicit acceptance that Americans lack true sexual autonomy from the state. The landmark Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas was an important first step towards establishing this autonomy. But laws prohibiting adult incest, polygamy, adultery (which is still technically illegal in certain jurisdictions) and prostitution were not covered by Lawrence. And as long as those laws are still permissable, new threats to the sexual and reproductive freedom of Americans still can pose a threat.
From prohibitions of the sale of birth control, to laws prohibiting the sale of sex toys and aids, to restrictions and laws prohibiting abortion, all of these gain legal legitimacy from other laws allowing the regulation and prohibition of consensual sexual behavior between adults. The recognition that you have a right to use your body as you see fit, including for sexual work, would be an important reinforcement to the rights of Americans to be free from state regulation in terms of your sexual and reproductive choices.
I understand that what most of us take from the arrest of Sen. Craig is satisfaction at seeing a hypocrite get his comeuppance, with the added benefit of improving the electoral future of the Democratic Party. But perhaps we could also think of his actions serving as a notice that hundreds of thousands of Americans would be better off if Sen. Craig and every other American could solicit a prostitute without either of them committing a crime. In the long run, that would benefit far more people than the humilitation and exposure of Sen. Craig possibly will.