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Conservatives should make peace with the complete decriminalization of prostitution
Published on Washington Examiner, 17 October 2019
When Veronica Monet was trapped and raped by a client, she couldn’t go to the police. She knew they’d dismiss her concerns and possibly even throw her in jail on prostitution charges.
This is the reality women face under our current legal system, which treats some vulnerable women as criminals for their choice of profession even if it wasn’t a completely free choice.
Thankfully, though, it’s a reality under scrutiny. The D.C. City Council held a hearing Thursday on a bill that would completely decriminalize prostitution.
Conservatives don’t have to like it, and they certainly don’t have to view prostitution as moral or acceptable. But if they want to embrace practical reality over moral idealism and help women, they’ll begrudgingly accept that we must stop waging state-led war on the world’s oldest profession.
Criminalizing prostitution only pushes it underground, making it significantly more dangerous for the women that participate. Pimps and johns alike have carte blanche to rape, beat, and abuse the women involved, because those women cannot go to the police without putting themselves in legal jeopardy.
Decriminalization doesn’t magically make the sex industry a wonderful place to work or eliminate the moral qualms that reasonable people might have with prostitution. But it does do a great deal to make the trade, which always will exist and always has existed, much safer for everyone involved.
It would transform the sex trade into something more like strip clubs. Yes, women are harassed at strip clubs, and one might justly call the industry exploitative. Yet, women who work at strip clubs are not simply raped, beaten, and abused with impunity, the way prostitutes are under the regime of criminalization.
Decriminalization of sex work minimizes harm to women, plain and simple — and no matter how they feel about the personality morality of the sex trade, that’s something conservatives should support.
Ample research confirms the intuition that decriminalizing makes women safer. One study examining Rhode Island’s experiment with partial decriminalization found that decriminalization led to a 31% decrease in reported rape offenses and also decreased the state rate of gonorrhea transmission.
Another study examining the Netherlands found that “opening a legal street prostitution zone decreases registered sexual abuse and rape by about 30% — 40% in the first two years.” And according to Reuters, “Sex workers in countries where selling or buying sex is illegal are more likely to face violence, not use condoms and contract HIV.”
Still, the traditional conservative counterargument is well worth taking seriously. In an op-ed for the Washington Examiner published Wednesday, the Heritage Foundation’s Andrea Jones made the argument that “legalizing the sex trade is neither compassionate nor pragmatic.” Her arguments merit examination.
For one, Jones argues that decriminalization would just make D.C. a new hot spot of sex tourism — not exactly an outcome most people desire. This is a fair point, but it only holds true if other cities continue failed, misguided criminalization policies. And avoiding a boom in undesirable economic activity is not worth keeping vulnerable women at the mercy of pimps and criminals.
Jones further suggests that decriminalization “creates new victims while perpetuating the oppression of existing ones, and all under the approving sanction of the law.” But bizarrely, she only offers statistics showing violence in the current underground, illegal trade to support this claim. This makes little sense. As previously cited, the research overwhelmingly shows decreases in violence after decriminalization, because it is criminalization that allows this violence to continue with impunity.
The facts demand that conservatives put practical reality before their moral distaste for prostitution.
A core tenet of conservatism is that government must be limited, in part because of the serious unintended consequences of government involvement. Conservatives must stop pretending that policing sex work is some kind of exception, or women will continue to suffer the consequences of their naive, benevolent intentions.
by Brad Polumbo
photo from npr.org