Why is prostitution illegal?

–Frank Carroll, Arlington, Virginia

I know, it doesn’t seem fair. Screw a guy for a hundred bucks and it’s a crime. Screw the whole country for a hundred grand and it’s a campaign contribution.

If it’s any consolation, prostitution isn’t a felony. In most U.S. jurisdictions it’s a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine and a short stretch in jail. The question is why it should be a crime at all, since those on whom the act is inflicted are asking for it–in fact they’re driving around looking for more.

As with other victimless crimes such as gambling and drug use, criminalization of prostitution dates from the Progressive era around the turn of the 20th century. Many reforms from that period (trust-busting, food and drug regulation) represented genuine progress. But attempts to legislate morality had more ambiguous results.

In the 19th century, prostitution, while not always legal, was tolerated in most of the world as a necessary evil. Enlightened opinion–enlightened male opinion, anyway–held that the best course was regulation, including health inspections, licensing of brothels, etc. But in English-speaking countries the regulatory impulse was countered by growing sentiment that prostitution was evil, period, and ought to be stamped out. Middle-class women, becoming more numerous and vocal as time went on, played a leading role in the antiprostitution movement, arguing that prostitution threatened family life. Sympathetic journalists suggested that prostitutes were the principal carriers of venereal disease, then thought to be rampant. (Prior to the advent of effective treatment in the early 20th century, VD was certainly no trivial matter.)

The abolitionists ultimately carried the day. Before 1900 most legislation dealing with prostitution sought merely to control it. After World War I, usually considered the end of the Progressive era, the goal was to stamp it out.

Following the sexual revolution of the 60s a few people made noises about decriminalizing prostitution; the best known was Margo St. James, whose hookers’-rights organization, COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), surfaced in 1973. She complained that prostitution laws gave the cops an excuse to harass women–prosecution of their male customers was far less frequent. St. James and her camp attracted their share of feminist allies, who felt that a woman’s right to control her body included the right to rent it out. This line of thinking has succeeded to the point where much sociological and AIDS literature has replaced the pejorative prostitute with the more PC sex worker.

Yet other feminists consider prostitution a form of “female sexual slavery,” to cite the title of one well-known book. The number of women physically forced into prostitution is probably small; most studies have found that women who become prostitutes do so voluntarily. But most prostitutes are poor women who take up the trade out of economic necessity, often to support a drug habit.

Even if prostitution were legalized, would the day-to-day lot of most prostitutes improve? In England prostitution per se is legal but most “nuisances” connected with it–soliciting on street corners, running a brothel–are not. English prostitutes complain of police harassment just as American ones do. Whatever may be said for the rights of prostitutes in the abstract, streetwalkers don’t do much for a neighborhood’s property values.

That’s the thing about prostitution, see. Gambling and some forms of recreational drug use can be tamed, even made respectable. And in these liberated times, we all have healthy attitudes about sex, right? But even among defenders of prostitutes’ rights, the fundamental reaction to the act itself remains: ick.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.