Prostitution: Should it remain a crime?


‘As a prostitute, I’ve been beaten, tortured and raped,’ says Sarah, who has since escaped the life of prostitution. ‘Whether legalized or not, would that make the impact any different?’ she wonders, contemplating the legal status of prostitution.

Vednita Carter, founder of Breaking Free, an organization dedicated to helping women and girls escape the life of prostitution, maintains that prostitution, legal or not, hasn’t affected the ongoing prevalence of sexual crimes. Crimes involving rape and molestation exist right alongside crimes of prostitution. The reported rate of sexual assault in the United States, where prostitution is illegal in most states, is .3 percent of the total population. Australia, which has decriminalized prostitution, reports continuing sexual assaults at a rate matching that of the USA.

Carter opened a September 19 speech at the Minneapolis YWCA on Lake Street with a condemnation: “Prostitution is often called the oldest profession. I say it’s the oldest suppression. Prostitution is violence, and it should [remain] illegal,” she stated with conviction.

Lee Roper-Batker, president and CEO of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota (WFM), which sponsored Carter’s presentation, concurs. One of the cornerstones of WFM is advancing women’s safety and security. “We want women to experience the world as safe. Prostitution is recognized as an act of violence against women,” remarks Roper-Batker.

Carol McGee Johnson, vice president of community philanthropy and programs for WFM, echoes her colleague’s opinion. “We support Vednita’s assessment of the problem and the issue. We totally believe in the way that she describes prostitution as violent and suppressive.” The premise is that it comes out of systemic oppression of women, and in particular, women of color.

Rather than making prostitution legal, Roper-Batker would like the focus directed at the recipient. “Right now it’s the women who are being arrested and prosecuted, and not the men. How are we enforcing prostitution?” Roper-Batker asks.

Beth, also a former prostitute, views the legalization of the sexual trade in a very negative light as well. “It gives men rights to exploit women,” she says. “Sexuality is a part of our core; you shouldn’t be able to sell it, because you’re going to hurt yourself. It’s sacred,” Beth posits.

Carter views prostitution on a par with other practices for subjugating human beings. She bitterly declares that if prostitution is made legal, “They might as well make slavery legal again, too.”

But that’s where they’ve got it all wrong, implies Charles Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Minnesota. He asserts that decriminalizing prostitution would have a desirable impact.

“Will there be madams and managers or whatever you want to call them?” Samuelson asks, and answers, “Yes. Will they be able to beat them [prostitutes] black and blue like pimps can do now? No. They’ll be watched.

“Right now, because it’s illegal, they do it sneakily and they do it in the dark. If you’re out in the light, doing it legally…men won’t be able to pick up women and kidnap them into prostitution,” Samuelson projects.

When Beth heard Samuelson’s remark, she sneered, “Sure, but that’s coming from a man. He only stands to profit from prostitution.” Currently, it would seem, men’s part in this supposedly consensual crime is limited. And from Beth’s perspective and that of others now in the position she once was in, the last thing men need is to make prostitution easier for them.

San Franciscan Carol Leigh, aka the Scarlet Harlot and champion of sex workers’ rights, responds, “We believe that decriminalization is not necessarily the solution to these problems, but certainly it’s the first step that’s needed in order to advocate for the rights of [sex workers]. Arresting them is just not the answer,” Leigh maintains.

“Basically, the State has no right to proscribe for what reason we have sex,” states Leigh. “They have no right to say, ‘Well, you can do it for love, you can’t do it for money; you can do it when you’re married, but you can’t do it when you’re not.’ I mean, we consider this a right of privacy.”

“Presently,” says Samuelson, “it’s the rule of the jungle out there. Whoever’s biggest and strongest sets the rules.” That would change, he says, if the consensual act of sex-for-profit were decriminalized.

That change is what’s happened in Australia. Myrna Tonkinson, anthropologist and former state and national president of family planning/Planned Parenthood, comments on her observations of decriminalized prostitution in her home country: “I abhor the idea of prostitution myself, but I also think it’s unrealistic to ban prostitution. Even though I think it’s an indictment on society, I think that making it illegal punishes women.

“In western Australia where I live,” Tonkinson continues, “in the town of Kalgoorie, prostitution is almost like a tourist attraction — the brothels are legendary. In the city, in Perth, there are rules and health checks, but there is also illegal prostitution because there’s not to be a brothel that’s not licensed, as well as no street walking,” she explains.

“It’s an area that most of the public agrees should be legalized, as it encourages better health safeguards. Australia has been able to contain and restrain AIDS and HIV spread,” Tonkinson is pleased to report.

Janice G. Raymond with the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women International wrote 10 Reasons for Not Legalizing Prostitution. Her reason number seven offers a compelling argument:

“With the advent of legalization in countries that have decriminalized the sex industry, many men who would not risk buying women for sex now see prostitution as acceptable. When the legal barriers disappear, so too do the social and ethical barriers to treating women as sexual commodities. Legalization sends the message to new generations of men and boys that women are sexual commodities and that prostitution is harmless fun.”

Leigh replies that as women are sexual commodities, it is a problem within our society regardless of prostitution. “Women are forced into female roles in general that are paid less and acknowledged less, and yet this [particular] female role is criminalized.”

Susan Budig welcomes reader responses to