Why is prostitution illegal?

Dear Cecil: Why is prostitution illegal? Frank Carroll, Arlington, Virginia


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Because hookers are a nuisance, that’s why. Always around when you don’t want them, and never there when you do.

Prostitution isn’t a felony. In most U.S. jurisdictions it’s a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine and a short stretch in jail. In parts of Nevada, it isn’t even that — prostitution is legal, though regulated.

Fine, you say. But why should prostitution be considered any kind of crime?  The victims aren’t complaining.  Why should the rest of us care?

The usual explanation is that criminalization of prostitution is a product of the moralizing impulse in American politics.  As with other victimless crimes such as gambling and drug use, our antiprostitution laws largely date from the Progressive era around the turn of the 20th century. This period also produced reforms such as the pure food and drugs laws and antitrust regulation.

Many Progressive leaders were educated, articulate members of the middle class that had emerged during the economic expansion following the Civil War.  No longer was it necessary to accept social ills as inevitable, they felt. If we apply scientific methods and can-do attitude to our problems, we can eradicate them altogether.

In many respects the Progressive project was a great success. Today everybody is grateful that we have pure food laws and antitrust regulation. (Well, maybe Bill Gates isn’t.)  The legacy of the antiprostitution campaign is perhaps a little less positive.

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 hey, boys will be boys, and men will be animals.  The best we can do is regulate prostitution, 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 suppressed.   Middle-class women 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.

Officially, that’s been the aim ever since. But let’s face it. Nobody really expects prostitution to go away, and it’s hard to believe anyone ever did.  They just don’t want it in their back yards.

From time to time a few people make noises about changing U.S. prostitution laws.   The best known is 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.

Other feminists, it should be said, consider prostitution a form of “female sexual slavery,” to cite the title of one well-known book. One way or another women are coerced into prostitution, the argument goes — sometimes physically, often psychologically, and if nothing else out of economic necessity. But that seems to victimize prostitutes more than the reality warrants. Suffice it to say studies of prostitution have generally found that women who become prostitutes do so voluntarily,  often to support a drug habit.

It’s not clear to what extent the lot of prostitutes in the U.S. differs from that of their counterparts in countries that have a supposedly more enlightened attitude.   Germany reportedly has taken the regulatory approach, in which prostitutes register with the police, obtain licenses to work in specified houses or areas, submit to VD checks, and so on.

Britain has followed a third course, somewhat confusingly known as abolition. What was abolished was not prostitution but prostitution laws, after a fashion.  Prostitution as such is legal in the UK. What’s not legal are various nuisances associated with prostitution such as soliciting on street corners, living off “immoral earnings,” and keeping a brothel. In short, prostitution is legal in theory, illegal in practice.  English prostitutes complain of police harassment just as American ones do, and receive similar punishments.

So: different legal theories, same result.  That’s the thing about prostitution, see. Whatever may be said for the rights of prostitutes in the abstract, streetwalkers don’t do much for a neighborhood’s property values. Sure, in these liberated times, we all have healthy attitudes about sex, right? But even among defenders of prostitutes’ rights, the fundamental reaction to the business itself remains: ick.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.