It’s Time for Legalized Prostitution

There’s no way to end demand for sex work. So why are Sweden and Canada trying?

The world’s oldest profession isn’t going anywhere.

Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Whom is it safe to hate? One of the reasons the cause of same-sex civil marriage has gained so much ground in recent years is that it is no longer socially acceptable to hold gay couples in contempt. Many if not most opponents of same-sex marriage harbor no ill will toward lesbians and gays, yet opposition to the expansion of civil rights for gay people has long profited from deep-seated prejudice against them. As this prejudice has grown less common and less intense, it isn’t terribly surprising that proponents of same-sex marriage have gained the upper hand. Similarly, opposition to cannabis legalization has long rested on the belief that stoners are losers who can and should be kept on the margins of society. Now that marijuana use is associated in the public mind with cancer-stricken grandmothers and foxy celebrities, there is no going back. The stigma against marijuana use is dying, and support for keeping marijuana illegal has been slowly dying with it.

Sex work is a different story. The stigma associated with selling sex remains strong, as is the stigma against buying it. This is despite the growing evidence that decriminalizing the buying and selling of sex has significant public health benefits. A pair of economists, Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah, recently found that when Rhode Island accidentally decriminalized indoor prostitution due to a quirk of statutory language, cases of female gonorrhea plummeted, as did the number of rape offenses. A recent study drawing on data from Vancouver, British Columbia, found that the decriminalization of sex work has the potential to greatly reduce the spread of HIV. So will Americans soon start clamoring for legalized prostitution? I doubt it, because it’s going to be very hard for people to stop looking down on those who buy and sell sex.

There is relatively little polling on how Americans feel about legalizing the buying and selling of sex. The main reason, presumably, is that outside of a few rural counties in Nevada, the idea seems exotic, strange, and very far off the political radar. Back in 2012, however, YouGov found that legalization was surprisingly popular: While 48 percent of respondents said that prostitution should definitely or probably remain illegal, 38 percent of Americans said it should definitely or probably be legalized, with the remaining 13 percent on the fence. Far more respondents maintained that prostitution should “definitely not” be legalized (31 percent) than that it definitely should (12 percent), and this intensity of opinion does matter, as we’ve learned from the debate over gun rights and other hotly contested issues. Intriguingly, a substantial majority of women (57 percent) opposed legalization, while only 40 percent of men felt the same way.

There is one important question that the YouGov poll didn’t ask. I wonder whether, for those who believe that sex work should be illegal, it’s more important to protect society from sex workers—on the grounds that they spread moral turpitude—or to protect sex workers from their clients—on the grounds that those clients are dangerous.

The former is more like the traditional view of the prostitute—the woman of loose morals who tempts otherwise upstanding men into betraying their families. The latter is a view that has taken hold in a number of countries that have pursued new strategies for the regulation of sex work. In 1999 Sweden criminalized the purchase of sex while continuing to allow individuals to sell it. The new legislation was justified on the grounds that violence against women is inherent in sex work, and its stated goal was to reduce the prevalence of prostitution by deterring potential clients. (Let’s pause here to note that, of course, not all sex workers are women and not all their clients are men.) Champions of the Swedish approach maintain that their goal is to “end demand,” and the Swedish government has been fairly successful at promoting its approach internationally.

The Swedish model, with its emphasis on discouraging sexual transactions, isn’t all that popular with sex worker advocacy groups. The Global Network of Sex Work Projects and the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform have both warned that the Swedish model has marginalized sex workers without reducing prostitution. No matter the country, and no matter its laws, men and women will buy and sell sex. Given that reality, there is little reason to believe that criminalizing the buying of sex will make prostitutes safer. Rather, it could push the practice further underground, where protections are harder to come by.

While the regulation of sex work hasn’t been a high priority for Americans in recent years, Canada has drawn inspiration from the Swedish model. In December of last year, the country’s Supreme Court ordered Canada’s Conservative Party government to devise a new set of rules and regulations that would do more to protect sex workers. As a consequence, the Canadian government recently followed Sweden by introducing legislation that would, among other things, make it very clear that prostitution was to be discouraged and deterred.

Yet the new Canadian bill would go further than the Swedes do by making it illegal for sex workers to advertise their services, or to communicate their interest in selling sex in a place where a child might plausibly see or hear that communication. Earlier this summer, Canadian sex workers took to the streets in protest. Their argument, again, is that these supposed protections don’t actually protect women. “This will simply move sex workers out into more isolated and more marginalized areas of the city, and in many ways this legislation is a gift to sexual predators,” the head of a sex worker assistance group called Maggie’s told the Canadian Press. “It means they can’t work in groups to watch out for one another and say, ‘I’ll be back in half an hour.’ And people who would do women harm, who would do sex workers harm, will know this.”

Nevertheless, it’s easy to see why the Canadian government has decided to go this route. Legalizing prostitution appears to be somewhat more popular in Canada than in the United States. An Angus Reid survey conducted in June found that Canadians were split 45–45 on whether buying sex should be legal. But the gender gap on legalization was yawning: Fifty-six percent of men believe that buying sex should be legal, while 55 percent of women believe that it should not be. Canada’s Conservatives attract far less support from women than men, and embracing the Swedish model seems like a shrewd way to shore up female support for the party by uniting feminists and social conservatives. What should worry Canadians is that the fundamental premise of the Swedish model—that it is possible to “end demand”—is profoundly flawed.

As Melissa Gira Grant, author of Playing the Whore, has argued, sex work is best understood as a service industry job. One of the more discomfiting facts about the modern market economy is that it’s not just sex workers who are selling the illusion of intimacy. Few would deny that being conventionally attractive and mildly flirtatious would help you earn more tips as a server in a restaurant. Indeed, we have reliable evidence that these qualities help women and men alike earn more in a wide range of professions. Sexiness aside, there are many jobs in which it pays to be caring and attentive. Paid emotional labor of this kind is central to the entertainment and hospitality sectors. And as the population ages, more and more households outsource the work of meeting the needs of young children and aging parents to professionals, for whom a central part of the job description is to be, or to appear to be, warm and loving.

Something similar is true of sex workers, who provide a real service to clients who, for whatever reason, find themselves in need of paid sex. This is not to suggest that johns are morally praiseworthy. One imagines that many of the men who purchase sexual services find themselves unable to experience physical intimacy via other means, in which case it is cruel to assume that their motives are necessarily predatory. And then there are men who are wary of investing every sexual encounter with emotional significance, and who appreciate the transactional nature of sex work. It’s not entirely clear that it is preferable for these men to manipulate their way into getting the casual sex they crave rather than have them pay for it.

Suffice it to say, I haven’t exhausted all of the imaginable reasons why one might choose to purchase sex—the world’s oldest profession has stood the test of time for a reason. (Or rather, a whole bunch of reasons.) “Ending demand” is a pipe dream, as Sweden has demonstrated in its decade-and-a-half-long effort to do so. The arrival of the Swedish model to Canada should give us pause here in the United States. We should listen to what sex workers in Canada are saying about the consequences of criminalization, and look at the positive results in Rhode Island when that state accidentally decriminalized indoor prostitution. If legalizing sex work really does decrease the rate of sexual assault and the spread of venereal disease, as the latest evidence strongly suggests, we need to have a much better reason for banning it than the fact that we hold prostitutes and johns in such low esteem.