In many communities throughout the U.S., the police investigate and arrest persons involved in prostitution. A careful examination of this practice shows that it reduces the quality of life in society.

Legalization improves neighborhoods and promotes safety

By forcing prostitution out of places where it would more naturally be found, such as in brothels or near motels, the police drive that activity into the streets of neighborhoods where it otherwise would not exist. As a result, residents of the neighborhoods are exposed to the activity against their will.

Also because of prostitution being forced into the streets, the dangers to many prostitutes greatly increase. Prostitutes whose jobs involve working at night and getting into cars with strangers can be, and often have been, easy pickings for serial killers and other sociopaths. James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University, says prostitutes are the most frequent targets for serial killers.

A sensible solution to these problems would be to follow the example of some European cities, where prostitution is allowed in certain designated areas. People who are interested in the activity go to places where it’s permitted, and they leave alone the neighborhoods that don’t wish to be associated with it. And the prostitutes can work in environments where they are much safer.

Legalization reduces crime

Another problem with prostitution arrests is that they cause long-term increases in crime and drug abuse in society. Margo St. James, a former social worker and a leading advocate of legalizing prostitution, writes: “When a woman is charged for a sex crime, it’s a stigma that lasts her lifetime, and it makes her unemployable.”

St. James identifies this stigma as a major reason why a large percentage of women who are in jail were first arrested for prostitution. The arrest record forecloses normal employment possibilities, keeps the women working as prostitutes longer than they otherwise would, and sets them up for a lifetime of involvement with drugs and serious crime.

Keeping prostitution illegal also contributes to crime because many criminals view prostitutes and their customers as attractive targets for robbery, fraud, rape, or other criminal acts. The criminals realize that such people are unlikely to report the crimes to police, because the victims would have to admit they were involved in the illegal activity of prostitution when the attacks took place.

If prostitution were legal, these victims would be less reluctant to report to police any criminal acts that occurred while they were involved in it. This would significantly improve the probability of catching the criminals and preventing them from victimizing others. In many cases, it could deter them from committing the crimes in the first place.

That view is consistent with the experience of the European countries where prostitution is legal. They have far lower crime rates than the U.S.

A similar situation applies in the Nevada counties where prostitution is legal. According to Barb Brents and Kate Hausbeck, two professors of sociology at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas who have extensively studied the Nevada brothel industry, those counties are quite peaceable and have very low crime rates.

No wonder that in November 2004 in Churchill County, Nevada, a ballot proposal to outlaw prostitution was rejected by a 2-to-1 margin. Although the county is mostly Republican and supported George W. Bush for president, the same voters saw no reason to stop brothels from operating there.

Legalization promotes liberty and privacy

Laws against prostitution violate Americans’ fundamental rights of individual liberty and personal privacy. Thomas Jefferson and other founders of the U.S. envisioned a society where people can live without interference from government, provided they don’t harm others.

As Jefferson said in his First Inaugural Address: “A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement.” Or as Arthur Hoppe wrote about consensual acts in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1992: “The function of government is to protect me from others. It’s up to me, thank you, to protect me from me.”

Similar to issues such as birth control, abortion, and the right to death with dignity, this issue involves people’s fundamental rights to control their own bodies and decide the best way to conduct their lives. Alan Soble noted, “The freedom to choose one’s reasons for engaging in sex is an important part of sexual freedom.”

In a free society, it makes no sense for the government to be telling persons – particularly the poor – they cannot charge a fee for harmless services they otherwise are at liberty to give away. To paraphrase George Carlin: Selling is legal, and sex is legal, so why isn’t selling sex legal?

Legalization benefits sex workers and their clients

Many people work in the sex industry because they see it as their only means of alleviating serious financial problems. Other sex workers aren’t poor but simply enjoy that type of work and receive both income and personal satisfaction from it.

As one sex worker wrote in an article for a national newspaper: “All in all prostitution has been good to me and I have been good to it. . . . I don’t really have to work anymore, but I love the business, so I still see my regular clients.”

Likewise for the customers, there’s no reason their freedom should not include the right to purchase the companionship and affection they may want but, for whatever reason, don’t find in other aspects of their lives.

For example, one disabled man told researchers he was lonely and visited prostitutes because “I’m ugly, no women will go out with me. . . . It’s because of my disability. So prostitutes are a sexual outlet for me.” Another man reported he did the same for a number of years due to being “anorexic and very reclusive. There was no chance of forming a relationship.” A physically unattractive man added, “I pay for sex because that is the only way I can get sex.”

Another person said his experiences with prostitutes and other sex workers helped him overcome an extreme aversion to physical intimacy, which had resulted from years of physical and emotional abuse while growing up. He explained: “I very likely would have died a virgin if I hadn’t somehow gotten comfortable with physical intimacy, and sex workers enabled me to do that. At least for me, it’s been a healing experience.”

The same can be true for female clients of sex workers. A woman told ABC News: “I have a disability (cerebral palsy) and my first sexual experience was with a sex worker, and I really value that experience because it gave me confidence to then pursue other relationships.”

Dr. John Money, a leading sexologist and a professor at Johns Hopkins University, similarly notes that sex workers, with proper training, can assist clients in overcoming “erotic phobia” and various other sexual dysfunctions. He says that for the clients, “the relationship with a paid professional may be the equivalent of therapy.”

Can anyone, other than the ignorant or cruel, argue that sex workers should not be permitted to help such persons?

Legalization puts law-enforcement resources to better uses

Numerous legal commentators point out that using law enforcement resources against prostitution reduces substantially the resources available to fight serious crimes committed against persons or property. This nation desperately needs more efforts applied to solving those crimes, because arrests are being made in connection with only about 20% of them.

And according to the Multinational Monitor, massive amounts of white-collar crime are not being prosecuted. The magazine also says the damage inflicted on society by corporate crime and violence far exceeds the harm caused by all the street crime combined. The victims of the Enron and WorldCom scandals – many of whom lost their life savings – would probably support that claim.

As Ralph Nader stated in 2000: “Law enforcement, which is supposed to protect the incomes of consumers from corporate crime, fraud and abuse is a farce, devoid of resources and the will to apply necessary law and order. Hundreds of billions of dollars are being looted from consumers yearly.”

Some researchers say a reason for the inordinate amount of police attention to prostitution is that certain officers prefer duties enabling them to be with attractive women in hotel rooms or massage parlors. The duties are more pleasant, far less dangerous, and less complex than assignments requiring them to be among violent criminals who may be carrying weapons.

For instance, in 1999 at least one of the vice-squad officers in Columbus, Ohio, was regularly having sexual intercourse with prostitutes before arresting them.

After receiving negative publicity about that practice, the police division issued new guidelines limiting officers to getting completely naked with prostitutes; touching their thigh, genitals, buttock, pubic region, breast, or other regions to the extent needed “to obtain the necessary elements of the offense”; being masturbated briefly; and “momentarily” having sexual intercourse if it’s “in spite of all reasonable efforts of the officer to stop.” (In practice, though, the officers apparently find it necessary to use those tactics only in arresting female – not male – prostitutes.)

Because of these “requirements of their assignments,” the policy directs that officers receive periodic training on sexually transmitted diseases.

Despite the revised guidelines, in 2003 The Columbus Dispatch quoted one court clerk as describing the officers’ arrest reports as sometimes being so steamy she “should have a cigarette after reading it.” The head of the vice squad admitted to the newspaper that “it appears officers are engaging in sexual contact.”

His officers give new meaning to being “in hot pursuit.” Unfortunately for the public, this nonsense goes on at the same time that Columbus has over 400 unsolved murders since 1990, including several prostitutes brutally murdered by a possible serial killer. When a frightened group of senior citizens and disabled persons asked in 2004 for more protection from violent crime, the Columbus police chief turned them down, saying, “Seventy-eight times a day we are unable to fill a cruiser because of lack of personnel.” And in 2008 he acknowledged that citizens criticizing the police for insufficient patrols and slow responses to complaints “have legitimate beefs.”

As for white-collar crime, the police undoubtedly know that their jobs and careers are safer by making prostitution arrests than by investigating criminals who cause serious harm but either wield political power or have strong connections to those who do. And when the corruption involves others in the police force, the notorious “Blue Wall of Silence” leads all too many officers to ignore and protect the wrongdoing of badge-wearing criminals too.


Our society would be better served if the police directed their efforts away from the activities of consenting adults and toward preventing and solving real crimes involving clear victims and injustices.