A tan car pulls up to the curb on a dark street. A woman in thigh-high fishnets approaches the passenger window and gives the rates set forth by her pimp. When the man agrees, she gets in the car and directs the driver to a nearby alleyway that she has used many times before. She climbs in the backseat with the driver and begins to take off her clothing. Before she finishes undressing, the driver pushes her down, pins her hands, and forces himself upon her, ignoring her protests. The woman finds herself in shock and tells her pimp about what happened, only to find herself back on the street an hour later with a fresh black-eye for not making a profit.
Prostitution is a natural occurrence within society and is often said to be the world's oldest profession. Criminalizing prostitution has not even come close to eliminating its presence, but has created an underground market, which makes it easier to rape and abuse prostitutes without concern that action will be reported. Having worked with a number of women's rights organizations, ranging from NARAL to Washington University's Men Organized for Rape Education, I have come to realize that there is a solution that would help protect the women1 involved, reduce violence, and minimize the spread of sexually transmitted disease: regulation. Prostitution should be legalized in the form of regulated brothels because it would lead to enhanced public safety. To show this, I will lay out my proposition of the form that the legalization should take, the regulations that must be followed, and the many benefits that would result. I will then address the complaints that are likely to arise from this controversial suggestion.
One of the primary dangers of illegal prostitution involves the physical risk for the prostitute. The most significant of these dangers are rape and other forms of violence. According to recent studies, 62% of prostitutes report having been raped and 73% report suffering physical violence while on the job.2 This is a result of the business being outlawed and also because there is no one to protect them and thus there is no need for the criminal to fear punishment. With prostitution being illegal, a catch-22 situation is created for the victim: she can either not file a report and let the injustice go unpunished, or she can go to the police, without any assurance that the deviant will be caught, and risk being punished herself for her occupation. A well-regulated, legal brothel would prevent this situation. The first of the requirements for a brothel to operate legally is security. This security comes in many forms, including guards and cameras. Neither would not be present within any rooms in which intercourse would occur, but would be stationed nearby, in the main areas, and outside. One employee at The Mustang Ranch in Nevada, a legally run brothel, said, “We have the biggest security you've ever seen. Airports have got nothing on us.”3 The guard would be ready to step in should anything inappropriate occur on the part of the customer, much like the bouncers at strip-clubs who enforce the rules of the establishment. This would nearly eliminate the threat of physical danger towards the employees. With security on site, customers would be much less likely to attempt anything inappropriate and would be almost guaranteed to be punished if they did. Additionally, the knowledge that she has nothing to fear from the police would solve the rock-and-a-hard-place situation caused by illegal prostitution and the victim would not hesitate to report the incident. In this first aspect of a legal brothel, the danger of rape and assault is minimized.
Illegal prostitution is a breeding ground for sexually transmitted diseases and offers no regulated way to protect against them. When one engages in illegal prostitution on the street, it is impossible to know the health status of a given prostitute. Even with the proper use of a prophylactic, there is still a risk of spreading an STD, a problem that is rapidly impacting a greater segment of society as a whole. Conversely, it is difficult for the prostitute to ensure that she has proper protection and that the customer uses it correctly. A legally operating brothel would help to eliminate these risks through two specific procedures. The most necessary of these is regular checks for STDs and HIV and following through once these tests are conducted. As with employees in any other service industry, public health is a big concern – signs are posted in restaurants reminding employees to wash their hands and there is a health code that must be followed. In the case of brothels, not following these health standards carries greater risk to both the employee and the customer, so more stringent enforcement must be put in place. Using the standards set forth within the Nevada Administrative Code as a guide, those who work at brothels must undergo weekly STD tests, most often in the form of PAP smears, and monthly blood tests for syphilis and HIV. Should the weekly test come back positive, the employee is unable to work at a brothel until treatment has cured the issue and she is cleared by either an in-house or private doctor. If the HIV test comes back positive, it is a felony for the employee to continue working.4 This requirement is an important regulation aimed at protecting public safety. In tandem with the required exams, legal brothels take an additional step to safeguard the public health. The employees at the brothel are provided with any contraceptives that are needed. This provides a second line of defense against STDs without additional charge to the employees or the customers. At legal brothels, the safety of the employee and the customer is protected through regulated STD exams and the use of provided contraceptives.
When prostitution is illegal, it creates a violent and misogynistic black-market that endangers both the women involved and society as a whole. About 90% of the time, illegal prostitution involves pimps.5 These pimps, normally men, determine the rates for each prostitute and often take an extremely large cut of the woman's earnings. Additionally, the women act subservient to the pimp, providing him with sexual acts on command and typically fearing his punishment if they do not reach a given quota. Sometimes the pimp even tattoos the women working for him as a sign of “ownership”.6 Pimps often engage in other illegal activities, from drugs to violence against competing pimps. The entire notion of a pimp would be eliminated as a result of the business structure of a legalized brothel, specifically due to the fact that the women do not directly work for the owner of the brothel. According to the Mustang Ranch, the women there actually rent space from the owner and are free to charge their own rates and determine their own hours.7 Though they still have to follow the safety regulations set forth, this gives the women greater autonomy in terms of their business and the way it is conducted. Thus, it puts the women themselves in a position of control and prevents an institutionalized form of pimping from occurring. By eliminating pimps from the business of prostitution, it gives women greater rights and freedom, and helps to protect the employees and society as a whole by eliminating a major source of underground crime.
It is unsurprising that there are myriad objections to the legalization of prostitution in any form, despite the number of lives that would be bettered by decriminalizing brothels. One of these concerns might be that by legalizing prostitution, the popularity of the activity would increase and lead to more extramarital-affairs. Along with this is the concern that prostitution, no matter the form, is unethical. Another qualm might be that by legalizing the profession of prostitution, the spread of STDs would increase, as prostitutes have relations with many people and this multiplies the risk of passing on a disease. A final complaint leveled against the legalization of brothels is that it would not eliminate the black-market system of prostitution, and thus a number of a brothel's benefits are minimized.
The first of these two complaints can be addressed simultaneously. It is almost without a doubt that legalizing prostitution would make it more popular and it is very possible that might lead to more extramarital affairs. With this possibility acknowledged, it is important to note that adultery is not a crime on the federal level and it is not enforced in the few states where it remains a crime. Since it is not illegal, there is no problem with the federal government allowing something that might facilitate it. Since the issue of having an affair is strictly an ethical one, it is not the responsibility of the government to legislate it or anything that might encourage it. Laws are not put in place for the sake of morality, but rather to protect the people's safety, health, and fundamental rights. While there are times when the two goals coincide, such as not allowing murder, the government cannot make laws based solely on moral merits, such as making a law against lying to your neighbor. Since legalizing prostitution does not infringe on any of the aspects that the government is meant to protect – the criminalizion of prostitution actually does greater damage to the people's safety, health, and rights – it cannot be prevented on solely ethical grounds.
Worrying that the legalization of prostitution would increase STD transmission would be a valid concern only if one were not to take into account the regulations involved with a well-regulated brothel. As has been previously stated, there would be frequent, mandated health checks along with free contraceptives. These two safeguards would prevent the increased spread of STDs and would result in fewer STDs transmitted than occurs through illegal forms of prostitution.
The concern that legalizing brothels would not eliminate the black-market system of pimps and street-side prostitution is valid. After all, where there is a legal activity there is bound to be an illegal form of that same activity aimed at providing cheaper goods. Legal brothels would help to minimize the problem, though. Women who would previously have been working under pimps would be able to find a safer way to practice prostitution, while clients who would previously have visited an illegal prostitute would be able to visit a legally operating brothel. The rush of women wanting to leave behind the illegal system would be the first step in reduce the black-market, while the laws of supply and demand would further reduce the need for a black-market. Even if a small amount of pimps remain, any reduction in a system that encourages treating women as property and leads to violence towards the women, competing pimps, and society is a good thing and should be acted upon immediately.
When a law is in place that causes harm to society, it is imperative that the law be remedied or removed immediately. Banning prostitution has created a system that advocates the mistreatment of women and treating them like property; banning prostitution has created a system that allows for the rape and assault of women; banning prostitution has created a system that spreads disease to the prostitutes, the clients, and to society. Legalizing prostitution in the form of well-regulated brothels will immediately start to eliminate these problems and will lead to fewer pimps, fewer rapes, fewer beatings, fewer diseases, and more power to the women themselves. If this society places any value in safety, health, and women's rights, brothels must be legalized immediately.
1The author acknowledges that there are men who engage in prostitution. All advantages of a well-regulated brothel will benefit male prostitutes, as well as the women.
2"Prostitution Facts." Rape Is. Web. 14 Feb 2011.
3Telephone Interview by Ethan Brandt. 15 Feb 2011.
4Nevada. Chapter 441A -- Communicative Diseases. Nevada Administrative Code. Print.
5"Prostitution Facts." Rape Is.
6Claudia Rowe. "No Way Out: Teen Girls Sell Bodies in Seattle." Seattle PI. N.p., 27 Jun 2008. Web. 15 Feb 2011.
7"Frequently Asked Questions." World Famous Mustang Ranch. Web. 14 Feb 2011.