Sex work in the United States is often imagined as something seedy, a dark and dank back alley event performed by someone desperate for money and a customer caring only about getting off. Otherwise, we get the Pretty Woman media issue of the girl just waiting to find that perfect guy that will save her from herself. What do these images have in common? A repressed American ideal on sex work, and sex itself.
The main reason why prostitution remains illegal in all but a very small area of the United States is because its citizens are repressed about sex. We have held on to the beliefs of a few Colonists that arrived on our shores nearly 400 years ago. If sex is something that should be hidden and not spoken about or worse, condemned when any activity is outside the missionary position, how can those who provide sex services for money ever supposed to find acceptance? Political figures who would change the laws will never get on board, no matter their personal convictions, because support for such legislation would be political suicide.
Repression, in any form, is bad for a society. When people don’t feel that they can express their desires or needs freely, negative consequences can occur. They may suppress their needs and have negative self-images as a result or act out in response to their desires, often with painful consequences. If sex is considered such a “dirty” activity, those who make their living as a sex worker are often considered to be broken in some way. Is he a drug addict? Run away? She must be addicted to sex.
Keeping prostitution illegal also drains resources. Local, state and federal governments spend tax dollars every year finding prostitutes and their customers, and then processing them through the judicial system. Rarely is there adequate government resources spent on medical care or education for those workers who might need the services. The current political environment is calling for cutting spending at all levels of government. Yet, even in my own community I see police departments request larger budgets every year. If we made sex work legal, law enforcement could focus those man hours in other critical area. Also, legalizing prostitution makes it a revenue source for the state. When you bring an activity out of the shadows, you can regulate it and collect taxes. Just like hotels have visitor taxes or we all pay sin taxes on alcohol, there could certainly be a sin tax on sex we purchase.
What about the worker? When prostitution is legal, then some of the stigma is gone. Of course, they may keep what they do from mom and dad, but will it make it easier to prove income to rent an apartment or buy a car? Will it make it easier to file a report with the police if they aren't paid for their work or injured in some way? And what about the client? When the purchase of sex is legal it opens up the opportunity for sexual pleasure to a lot more people. If the image of hiring a prostitute is a seedy one, a lot of people won’t use one. But there are many who are not getting the sexual satisfaction they desire. Being able to hire someone legally, may go a long way to fulfilling those needs.
In the end, I don’t see a change any time soon. Even if a large population of the country wanted a change, just like they want gun control or reproductive rights, there is always a very vocal minority that will paralyze our political leaders and keep the laws just the way they are. And that is a shame. Not only for the workers and their clients but for every one of us because, until our society accepts that sex is healthy and a part of what makes us human, we are all losing out.