Prostitution: Attitudes in the U.S. with a look at the Netherlands

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It doesn’t even occur to me that prostitution should be illegal.

Young Woman, resident of Amsterdam (Weitzer 2011, p. 146)

Sexuality is something that is unique to each individual. It is something personal and something that is intrinsically linked with one’s personal experiences and the mores by which they choose to live their life. In understanding this, it should be legal for individuals to be free to practice their sexuality in whatever ways they choose as long as they are not endangering someone else. Prostitution has been debated in nearly every single society and culture to differing degrees of acceptance or rejection (Valor-Segura & Moya 2011, p. 159) and it remains to be an intense topic in the United States. To legalize or not to legalize? Legalizing prostitution would not just benefit consenting adults who should be allowed to make their own decisions regarding their own sexual preferences, but it would have a lot of other benefits as well. Many individuals think that legalizing prostitution would reduce the crime rate, be beneficial to public health, increase tax revenue, and help individuals who are already engaging in prostitution get off the streets and practice in a safe environment (Prostitution 2011). Still, there are others who believe it should stay illegal because of its “immorality” — however, this is not a good enough reason to ban people from doing what they would like with their bodies and when there has been mutual consent between individuals. Prostitution is oftentimes called “the world’s oldest profession,” but the laws that prohibit prostitution are also the oldest examples of the government inserting itself where it doesn’t belong. In any free society, laws that prohibit prostitution violate the fundamental rights and liberties of the people and it is especially discriminatory towards women as women make up the majority of prostitutes in the United States. In countries that have legalized prostitution — like the Netherlands — there is a completely different view on prostitution. Whereas in the United States most people tend to not see past the sex part, in the Netherlands, for example, prostitution is seen as a job — a consensual act in which money is exchanged. Rights are not being violated and there isn’t harm done to anyone. For this reason, prostitution should be legal — plain and simple. We can learn a lot about this issue by looking at countries like the Netherlands (which we may consider but progressive, but in the Netherlands, prostitution has been legal since the 1400s) and how they are able to legalize, regulate and standardize prostitution. In understanding prostitution laws here in the United States, we have to understand that the issues surrounding it are not necessarily merely health issues or worries about crime and drugs. These elements to the equations feel more like scapegoats so that the real truth doesn’t have to be told. The Untied States is a country that is governed by puritanical codes and the people who hold the powers to make decisions erroneously believe that they have the final word on what is moral and what is not. This is the issue at hand when prostitution is discussed in the United States. It is only by understanding that we all have our own set of morals and mores by which we hold ourselves accountable that we can allow others to live their lives the way they wish to do so.

Prostitution can be defined as an activity where a person gives sexual acts in exchange for money and there are a number of different lenses in which prostitution can be viewed (e.g. public health, law, personal preferences, ethics, morals, etc.). Though the United States keeps prostitution illegal in most states, there are over one million women who call it their job. The National Task Force on Prostitution maintains that over one million people in the United States have at one time worked as a prostitute — or approximately 1% of women in America (Prostitution 2011). Of course, it can be inferred from those numbers that there are also people soliciting those services. In 1993, Armentano (1993) stated that sex with a prostitute was the third most common way that an American man contracted the AIDS virus. However, in an ironic twist, it is precisely the growing number of HIV / AIDS cases (as well as other types of STDs) which is used as an argument for legalizing prostitution in the United States (1993).

As health professionals, it is important that we do not allow misinformation to be perpetuated in our society. Many opponents of legalizing prostitution think if prostitution were legalized there would be an increase in sexually transmitted diseases (e.g. HIV / AIDS) (Prostitution However, countries such as France, Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark, and even Israel that have legalized prostitution have fewer people living with HIV / AIDS as well as the number of deaths as a result of HIV / AIDS infection when compared to records in the United States (Reasons for Liberty 2011). Opponents also believe that the legalization of prostitution would lead to global human trafficking and an increase in rapes and homicides (2011). From the perspective of a health professional, it is does not make sense thinking that the legalization of prostitution would necessarily lead to an increase in sexually transmitted diseases because the licensing premises would encourage prostitutes access to health care in order for them to stay licensed. That is to say, there would be a major incentive for ensuring that prostitutes were in good health. Another point is that legalization would mean that sex workers could find a safe place to work as opposed to being forced to hide out in areas that are unsafe (streets, abandoned buildings, illegal premises). The bottom line is that prostitutes are forced to work outside of the law right now in the United States (except in Nevada and Rhode Island) and this has major health ramifications. In one study that was carried out in Australia in 1998, it was found that the prevalence of sexually transmitted infections was 80 times greater in 63 illegal street prostitutes than in 753 of their legal brothel counterparts (Prostitution 2011). This does not seem like a mere coincidence.

One of the mainstream attitudes in society that plague this topic is that prostitution is immoral — plain and simple, case closed. It is interesting to note that there are few topics that garner such outrage. But what it is about prostitution that enrages people so? When people try to defend the legalization of prostitution, the sentence “It’s my body — not yours” tends to be uttered. The notion of a body not belonging to someone else but only to the person residing in that body is a notion that forms many discussions on issues from abortion to euthanasia to plastic surgery even (Phillips 2011, p. 725). Even children learn that they should not touch other’s bodies or allow anyone to touch theirs because bodies belong to the individuals in which embody that body. If this is true then, if a body solely belongs to the individual as if it were a piece of property owned by them, then why shouldn’t they be allowed to trade it for money if they like? What are the issues? Valor-Segura and Moya (2011) posit that it could be an issue that is influenced by ideological factors (p. 159). Some perceive prostitution as akin to slavery since sex trafficking is an oftentimes a major component of prostitution, which is why some believe that sex should not be allowed to be bought or sold (Weitzer 2010, p. 940). While certainly sex trafficking and the prostitution of minors is a problem that must be dealt with in a legal way, there are many industries that hold similar risks. The point is that we cannot just blame prostitution for everything wrong in the world without having any empirical data to back it up (which there is none).

There are some cases in the United States where prostitution has tried to be normalized. Weitzer (2010) notes that in 2008 residents in San Francisco voted on a ballot measure that police should stop enforcing the law against prostitution (p. 61). Even though the measure failed, it was supported by a good size of voters (42%), which shows that there are individuals out there who believe that people should have the right to do what they want with their bodies (whether it is buying or selling sex). Despite this ballot measure in San Francisco (a city where prostitution might be expected to be more acceptable due to the LGBT population), the rest of the country is not as open to legal prostitution. Even in cities (and towns) where stripping and pornography are considered normal parts of the culture, prostitution is still viewed as the worst thing a person could engage in. It seems ironic in this day and age where Internet porn is rampant. People in America seem to be on some kind of moral crusade when it comes to making sure that prostitution is not legalized, yet we will sit by while football coaches molest and rape young boys. Bringing the topic back to ideology is important when considering this. When did it become okay for clergy and societal leaders to molest people and not okay for people two people to consent to having sex with each other if there is money involved? One is an act of coercion and one is not. The only difference is the exchanging of money from hand to hand.

Our government has decided that it is its responsibility to decide what is moral and decent in our society and what is not. The government has come to the conclusion that prostitution is indecent and anyone who engages in it is indecent and immoral or even amoral. The decisions and laws that are made regarding both pornography and prostitution are manifestations of policy on what is a deemed a decency issue (Sharp 2003, p. 263). The individuals who set out to make policies against sexually explicit businesses are usually the kind of people who completely reject anything that is sexually explicit and they lead the way to make laws against any type of sexually explicit behavior because they see those acts as a threat to family values (2003, p. 263). In general, it can be suggested that there really is only one side in politics when it comes to sexually explicit businesses such as prostitution: opposition (2003, p. 263).

It can be hypothesized that these views on prostitution as being indecent and immoral are formed in the church and then its members carry them out into society. When it comes to any sort of moral issue, the church generally has had a say in it and has made its position very clear. Thus it can be suggested that the church shapes the ways in which public officials handle issues that appear to have some major moral component attached. However, this goes against the Constitutional principle that separates church from the state. While legalizing prostitution would perhaps be good for a state’s economy, the idea that the state could be judged and deemed as indecent is far worse in the eyes of many public officials and members of society. People, in general, are too hung up on religious morals and there needs to be a separation of church and state in order to allow individuals the liberties that are protected under the U.S. Constitution.

The problem with criminalizing prostitution is that the laws benefit only the members of society who deem that prostitution is something that is morally reprehensible. So the criminalization benefits those who see prostitution as something evil. There are plenty of individuals, however, who do not think that prostitution is morally reprehensible (for example, nearly 75% of the population in the Netherlands) (Weitzer 2011, p. 149). The church has set forth that prostitution is a threat to society and social order perhaps because the church holds marriage as being the most respectable sexual institution. If the church is to condone prostitution, a sexual act where there is no intention of marriage, then they believe they would be saying that sex outside of marriage is fine and even when there is not a chance of marriage. On the other hand, St. Augustine condoned prostitution because of the idea that male desire had to have some kind of outlet and prostitutes gave them this outlet (Hayes-Smith & Shekarkhar 2003, p. 46). Though the prostitutes themselves were considered sinners, they were believed to have a function in society because without them male lust would be out of control this lust without an outlet could destroy the family order (2003, p. 46). While we can assume that this statement is not true, we can still assume that there is, indeed, a function in society for prostitutes. If there is a function in society for big businesses who thrive on corporate greed then there is surely a place for individuals who are trying to make an honest living.

The fact that prostitution is criminalized in most parts of the United States is something that is unfair and is based on others’ judgment of something that does not concern them directly. Hayes-Smith and Shekarkhar (2003) refer to the criminalization of prostitution as a legal fiction. A legal fiction is a fact that is created by the judicial system and it is regarded as being a fact even though it might not really be a fact. Prostitution is a prime example of a legal fiction (2003), p. 43). It has been criminalized by the legal system in most parts of the United States, but is buying and selling sex really criminal? Many believe that it is not, so we cannot hold that prostitution is criminal because there are some who say it is while there are so many others who say it’s not (as well as other countries that legalize it). Still, most of our public officials will have us believe that prostitution is one of the greatest evils in society (2003, p. 43) (even as these same public officials cheat on their wives and father babies with their mistresses).

The widespread belief that prostitution is criminal is just one of the erroneous beliefs that our government perpetuates. There are many other assumptions that plague this topic. The first of those assumptions is that by making prostitution criminal, people will stop soliciting prostitutes. That is, criminalizing prostitution is a way for deterrence (Hayes-Smith & Shekarkhar 2003, p. 44). Another assumption is that by legalizing prostitution we will be threatening the health of the public. Yet two more assumptions are, one, that legalizing prostitution will further victimize prostitutes, and, two, that legalizing prostitution will cause social chaos (2003, p. 44). It is easy to see when looking at all these assumptions how the government wants to induce fear in the hearts of people so that prostitution will remain criminal. However, none of these assumptions are empirically justifiable (2003, p. 44).

All of these assumptions can be argued against. For one, in the first assumption, that prostitution being illegal will deter people from partaking, there is the assumption on top of it that people will think that the punishment of partaking (whether buying or selling) is worse than the benefits. However, not all people may believe that the punishment is great enough to deter. Currently, the punishment for prostitution is not always severe and, in many cases, it is not even certain (Hayes-Smith & Shekarkhar 2003, p. 44). This is not to say that the deterrence argument isn’t a good one, or a reasonable one — that is, but what is clear is that deterrence is difficult (if not impossible) to study and validly test. The majority of research that has been done on deterrence illustrates that the deterrence theory doesn’t explain that much of a variance in criminal activity (2003, p. 44).

Hayes-Smith and Shekarkhar (2003) note that the second assumption, that people will stop soliciting sex from prostitutes out of a fear of contracting HIV / AIDS or another sexually transmitted disease, is one that is relatively new in the argument against legalizing prostitution. The argument against prostitution was always about morality before the 19th century (2003, p. 45). The argument changed from one about morals to one about health in the 19th century (2003, p. 45), but it was just another way of finding ways to control people. It was during this time that doctors thought it wise for the government to both regulate and license prostitution and have prostitutes takes medical exams to ensure that they were healthy and not spreading any type of STD. After the first World War, there was such a fear of disease, in general, that the federal government began to see prostitution as something that could threaten the health of the nation’s youth in a physical — and moral — way. It was this fear that was the impetus for the federal government closing most of the red-light areas near military bases (2003, p. 45).

The third assumption that Hayes-Smith and Shekarkhar (2003) address is that prostitutes are infinitely more vulnerable to violent and criminal acts because they are generally women who are in a sexually-exploitative situation (p. 45). This assumption comes from the idea that the women are more likely to be threatened while working. However, it must be noted that if prostitution were legalized and regulated, the places and the situation in which prostitutes work would most likely be much safer. Yet there is another problem with this assumption and that is that by assuming that all female prostitutes are vulnerable assumes that the women didn’t have a choice but to get into prostitution and while this is probably correct in many cases it is definitely not correct in all cases. Prostitution has long been regarded as a problem having to do with men and their inability to control their sexual desires. Because of men’s insatiable lust, women are forced to live their lives as prostitutes in order to satisfy these men. However, some women choose to become prostitutes and not just women whom we think are uneducated or don’t have any other choice. There are educated women with degrees and certificates and opportunities who may choose prostitution because they can make more money than doing something else.

The last assumption that Hayes-Smith and Shekarkhar (2003) discuss is the assumption that prostitution creates social chaos. The assumption is that if prostitution were decriminalized the community would suddenly became chaotic, disorganized and the family and community values once prized would corrode before their very eyes. It is this belief that causes prostitution to be zoned only in certain parts of the city in places where it is legalized, far away from areas that are considered respectable (2003, p. 45).

In the Netherlands, prostitution is legally recognized and standardization is implemented as a way of managing and making money from the industry at both a local and a national level (Gregory 2005, p. 2). The documentation of prostitution in the Netherlands dates as far back as 1413. There was a bylaw that permitted prostitution in the 15th century as prostitutes were seen as necessary in larger cities — especially important, they thought, in cities of commerce (Weitzer 2011, p. 146). Even though prostitution was tolerated in the busy city centers six hundred years ago, the practice was still seen as something shameful; however, this did not stop the people from visiting prostitutes and places like the Red Light District became known for its window-brothels (2005, p. 4). From the 15th century until today, the tolerance for prostitution wavered back and forth because of increases in crimes and scandals, but it eventually, as we can see, has reverted back to the way that it was six hundred years ago (Can we call that progress?).

Today in the Netherlands, prostitution is legally recognized but, according to Marneffe (2009), prostitution is still stigmatized because of the fact that it is not fully decriminalized (p. 18). That is to say that the Netherlands does not treat prostitution as a profession the same way that it treats other professions. However, a public opinion poll done in 1997 showed that 73% of Dutch citizens believed that prostitution should be legalized and 74% even thought that it was an acceptable job to have just as long as nobody is being forced to be a prostitute (Weitzer 2011, p. 149). Other European cities are not as relaxed about the topic thought, but despite this difference, there are only a 20% of Dutch citizens who believe, according to the 1997 survey, that prostitution can never be justified (2011, p. 149). Studies done in France show that 46% of French citizens do not tolerate prostitution while 58% of Italian citizens and Polish citizens do not tolerate it (2011, p. 149).

The reason behind the Dutch’s acceptance of prostitution seems to have a lot to do with the way in which prostitution is viewed. As opposed to countries like the United States that can’t seem to get past the fact that prostitution involves sex without the chance of marriage, Dutch people seem to see prostitution more about work and making a living than about the actual deed. In a bill passed in 2000, sex workers (i.e. prostitutes) were recognized as service providers and thus the bill hoped to make the industry more transparent and controllable (Weitzer 2011, p. 149). The bill basically stated that prostitution has existed for a long time and it is never going away and thus there is no use fighting it. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em! With the legalization of prostitution comes that ability to regulate it so that it can be something that is safer for everyone involved. This 2000 bill also removed a ban on any kind of third-party involvement (e.g., managing a brothel), allowed businesses to be formally licensed, put forth prostitution as ‘labor’ (which means that labor laws would pertain to them and there would also be employee rights), discussed the difference between forced and voluntary prostitution, and, overall, had the goal of empowering prostitutes (2011, p. 149). The 2000 legislation also set forth certain laws pertaining to prostitution: coercion is illegal, minors under the age of 18 may not participate in prostitution (either selling or buying) (2011, p. 149). In addition to this legislation set forth, there are also now certain guidelines for licensing as well as a code of conduct for the law enforcement officials in dealing with prostitution matters (2011, p. 150).

The Netherlands offers us a great example of how prostitution can be something that is not criminal, but rather, it is something that offers individuals the right to do what they want with their bodies while being recognized by the government as a worker. Prostitution in the Netherlands, because of its legislation, exists mainly inside — in brothels, clubs, hotel rooms, window rooms, and in private homes (Weitzer 2011, p. 150), which shows us that legalization of prostitution makes it so that prostitutes do not have to offer their services in areas that are sketchy and dangerous out of a fear of being arrested

Prostitution can be seen through many different lenses and, as we can see, where we get in trouble is when we attach too many feelings about our own morals to the issue. This is what happens in the United States as opposed to countries like the Netherlands. Even with the sacrament of marriage sex is oftentimes a bartered service. There are people in marriages who offer sex for love and some who offer love for sex. Sex outside of a marriage, for example, with a prostitute, for some may be normal. We all have different ways of expressing our desires and sexuality is something that is intrinsically linked to who we are as people. This is not to say that everyone should or wants to have sex with a prostitute, but there are plenty of people who do want to — for whatever reasons. One of the biggest misconceptions, arguably, about prostitution is that men go to prostitutes because they want something dirty or something that wouldn’t be tolerated by their wives or girlfriends. The misconception is that these men want rough sex or they want to hurt the women while engaging in sex with her and this is simply not true. There are many men who seek out prostitutes because they cannot find a connection with a woman or they are shy and they have a tough time meeting women. For some men, seeing a prostitute may be more about not feeling lonely or feeling attractive than it is about the actual act of sex. The bottom line is that individuals have their own sets of desires (whether these are sexual or just wanting to feel loved) and these desires, which are primitive and so personal, should not be oppressed by people who may not identify with those feelings. We can definitely look at sex, in general, as something that is a mutual trade-off. Money may not be exchanging hands, but other things might be either explicitly or implicitly occurring. There are other sorts of exchanges that are taking place — natural exchanges of give and take. As long as people aren’t being coerced into something that they don’t want to do and as long as we still have the liberty to decide what we want to do with our bodies, we have to admit that all sex is a type of commodity.

The idea that prostitution leads to a breakdown of family values (Weitzer 2009, p. 2) or that the people who engage in prostitution are deviant and sinning individuals (2009, p. 2) are ridiculous claims. The sex industry is huge and as we can see from the research done in this paper, even 600 years ago it was considered normal and even healthy for large cities to allow prostitution. So what has led us here in the United States to attribute such demoralizing characteristics onto people who engage in the sex trade? Some may argue that it all comes down to issues involving public health, but as we can see from public health studies about prostitution in other countries, there is no evidence to suggest that legalizing prostitution causes increases in STDs. In fact, the opposite can actually be proven: in countries where prostitution is legal, prostitutes have fewer health issues (e.g. such as STDs) than the prostitutes in the U.S. This can be directly linked to our country’s criminalization of prostitution.

One way of approaching this problem is through education and by practicing acceptance. Education about sex and, specifically, not making sex something that is considered perverted or dirty is the first step. In our puritanical country individuals don’t discuss sex as they see it as something that is wicked rather than something that is normal and even healthy. On a national level, we can start by teaching kids in school that sex is a natural and normal part of human life and that there is more to sex usually than just the act itself. People have sex for all different reasons, as we have discovered, and we shouldn’t demonize someone who may want something sexual he can’t get from someone that he (or she!) is not paying. This is the first step toward looking at prostitution as something that is normal and not criminal.


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