Legal Prostitution: Article in Rocky Mountain News

Subscribers to the Rocky Mountain News may notice an article of mine today on page 26 (in the second news section). It’s titled, “Should prostitution be legal?” Unfortunately, the News has not made the text of the article available on its web page at this point (a matter that I’ll try to resolve).

[March 17 Update: The article is now available online.]

After discussing some non-vices that are sometimes banned and some vices that are not banned, I describe prostitution as a vice that should not be banned. Here is my central claim: “The proper purpose of government is to protect people’s rights, not prevent vice beyond that context.” I add that prostitution (between consenting adults) should not be banned because it does not violate anyone’s rights.

Notice that I do not use the phrase, “victimless crime.” Opponents of legal prostitution (and legal drugs) argue that the activity harms third parties. However, that’s not the relevant distinction when defining legitimate crimes. Instead, the relevant factor is whether someone initiated physical force (or fraud). Without that element, no action should be considered a crime. Take the following example. A father who doesn’t work, but who lays around on the couch all day watching television while his wife works a low-income job, thereby harms his children. But should laziness be banned? Clearly not. Obviously, Eliot Spitzer harmed his family by hiring prostitutes. But he did not initiate physical force. Single people have no family to harm, though arguably they still harm third parties, but again no initiation of force is involved.

The final two-thirds of the article considers four objections to legal prostitution (see the text).

Here I want to add several qualifications based on the comments of various readers. (The article has fewer than 650 words, so it is highly essentialized.)

Thanks to the advice (and reference) of Brian Schwartz, I did not use the phrase “legalized prostitution” in an effort to try to avoid the sort of definitional issues that Wendy McElroy addresses:

Legalization (or regulation): government has registered prostitutes with the police and subjected them to rules meant to protect health and public decency. Legalization refers to some form of state controlled prostitution. It often includes mandatory medical exams, special taxes, licensing, or the creation of red light districts. It always includes a government record of who is a prostitute, information which is commonly used for other government purposes. For example, some countries in Europe indicate whether a person is a prostitute on his or her passport. This restricts that person’s ability to travel since many countries will automatically refuse entry on that basis. Controlling legalized prostitution usually falls to the police. …

Decriminalization (or tolerance): all laws against prostitution have been abolished. It refers to the removal of all laws against prostitution, including laws against pimping. Almost all prostitutes’ rights groups in North America call for the decriminalization of consensual adult sex on the grounds that laws against such sex violate civil liberties, such as the freedom of association.

The individualist feminist approach to prostitution is to advocate decriminalization: that is, the abolition of all laws against selling sex.

My goal with the article was to argue for legal prostitution, without getting into the debate that McElroy reviews.

However, I may need to clarify the following sentence in my article: “On a legal market, both prostitutes and their solicitors would be screened and monitored much more carefully…” What I had in mind is that both houses of prostitution and independent prostitutes would have the ability to screen clients more carefully, and houses of prostitution and and other parties would have a greater incentive and ability to screen and monitor prostitutes. Of course knowingly putting someone at risk of a sexually-transmitted disease (without disclosure) should be illegal across the board, for prostitutes and everyone else.

In discussing the legality of prostitution in the article, I mean to address only criminal law. Obviously any sort of infidelity violates the typical marital contract, but contract is a matter of civil law.

Hopefully the entire text of the article will become available for online readers soon.

[March 17 Update: The article is now available online.]

One thought on “Legal Prostitution: Article in Rocky Mountain News”

  1. I wonder whether some instances of prostitution might still be legitimately illegal, for example, when it amounts to “defrauding your marriage partner.” This wouldn’t affect single people, though; nor would it be a problem if the marriage partner consented.

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