How We Treat Prostitution is a Measure of Our Society

It is no argument to say as McNeill does that animals practice prostitution and we are, after all, animals.  Some animals kill their young, and we do too, but we don’t therefore make it legal.  It is no argument to say that prostitution has always been with us; so has slavery but we don’t make it legal.  It is no argument to say that some prostituted women benefit from prostitution; so did some slaves but that doesn’t justify the mistreatment of the balance. 

Proponents of prostitution criticize others as meddlesome for wanting to “protect” women.  But they too claim legalization or decriminalization will “protect” women and improve safety and human rights.  But in a direct rebuttal to Weitzer,[1] Farley provides proof that indoor prostitution is no safer than outdoor.  Peer reviewed studies show that neither legalization nor decriminalization improves the health, safety or human rights of women.[2]  Rather, prostitution increases inequality and maintains race, class, and caste status.[3]

Contrary to Weitzer’s claims, legal prostitution in Nevada is not without problems. Quite the opposite. Nevada has the highest rates of domestic violence-related homicide in the United States, and rape and sexual assault are rife. Women of Nevada are raped at rates that are twice those of New York and 25% higher than the U.S. average. According to, “College-aged men in Nevada are much more likely than college men in other states to use women in prostitution and to go to strip clubs and massage parlors.” Nevada college students tend to justify sexual exploitation and consider it acceptable that their future sons would use women in prostitution and their future daughters might become prostitutes.[4]  

As Julie Bindel reported,[5] after she visited four legal brothels in Nevada, “the trailer-type compounds are in the middle of nowhere and the women often live in prison-like conditions, locked in or forbidden to leave…” The women in the legal brothels are considered to be “private contractors” and must register as prostitutes at the sheriff’s office. They are also legally required to be tested once a week for sexually transmitted diseases - something not required of their clients. The women must present their medical clearance to the police station and be fingerprinted.”  Brothel owners take half the women’s earnings plus the women have to pay tips and fees and for their own supplies. “Nevada’s unlawful prostitution industry, according to research by the U.S. Government, is already nine times greater than the state’s legal brothels.”

Bindel visited four of the brothels and wrote, “It has the feel of an institution, and the barbed wire surrounding it adds to that effect.”  One woman bragged about how nice the pimp was because he let them go outside and didn’t even lock the door. The pimp bragged about how the women were cash cows. This hardly sounds like empowerment.

In fact, Mustang Ranch is modeled on a prison, and the women used to be called inmates.  However, the owner admits, “As soon as you legalise it turns the predators loose… You have to regulate. We have a stable of 1,000. If Susan didn’t run this place with an iron fist it would get out of control. You need to run this place with tough love.” The women are not allowed out without permission and even then are accompanied by a pimp.  Many are not allowed to have a car and must work 14-hour shifts for fifteen days in a row. The manager even bragged about pimping a 22-year old learning disabled girl since she was turning tricks at 12 years of age.

The utter failure of legalization is illustrated by the system in Australia.  The Occupational Safety and Health Codes guarantee the right of all workers not to have their health put at risk while carrying out the ordinary requirements of their work.  Therefore, to protect the “sex workers” from health risks of STDs and HIV, the customers, not the women, would need to have health checks prior to any contact.  It is, after all, the customer who brings the harm to the worker.  To protect the worker, a medical certificate would be required from each customer that s/he does not have any STDs or HIV.  To require health checks of the women violates the purpose of the law because if the women find at their weekly health check that they were infected, they were obviously not “protected,” and it’s too late, especially if they are infected with HIV.  This structure shows clearly that it is the intention of the Australian state to protect the customer, not the “worker.”

The Australian OSHA regulations also say that a woman can refuse to have sex with a man who won’t put on a condom.  How should this be enforced?  A video camera in every room?  A panic button around her neck – which might lead to her being strangled?  A microphone perhaps where she will yell out a magic word and guards will come and remove him?  Could they do that before he infected her? Should he then be arrested?  At the least the brothels should keep a computerized list of men who have refused to wear condoms and check the identification of the men upon entry and if they are on the list, refuse to allow them inside.  This is of course not done.  Instead in Thailand, photos of the women who had sex without condoms were posted publicly. 

Guidelines to implement the laws have also been drawn up in Australia.  One guideline is to have a 100-watt bulb in the room so the woman can do a visual inspection of the man’s penis to see that he has no obvious disease or, if on an “outcall,” take a small flashlight to do the same.  Further, she is to share her knowledge of hygiene and health with the customer.  Besides the fact that sexual diseases do not all have visual manifestations, most women are not nurses and would not know what to look for, most men would not allow their genitals to be inspected by flashlight nor could the women credibly share their knowledge of hygiene and disease with the john.  To enforce this safety requirement for women, the man should have to pass through a screening with medical personnel who question him about his reproductive organs and do a thorough visual screening in addition to the required blood test.  This is course is not done.

Perhaps the state could pay for the women to go to medical or nursing school to get the required education and then, when they have finished school, if they “voluntarily” decided to return to being a prostitute they could be in charge of inspecting genitals or perhaps they would prefer to be a doctor or nurse; but they are then free to choose.  Instead the government tells the women, [the] “only think (sic) wrong with sex work is society’s negative, hypocritical attitude towards it. You deserve as much support for your career choice as Mother Teresa does for hers.”[6] 

I agree with one thing McNeill says: Feminists have abdicated their place in the fight against trafficking and that vacuum has been filled by the religious right, whose reasons, methods and goals are frequently not compatible with those of feminists. Our focus is on human rights and equality for the woman.

The legal status of prostitution is a measure of a society.  Law is not just a set of dos and don’ts.  It sets a tone; it makes a statement about the type of society we are.  When segregation was legal; it made a statement.   When women could not vote, it made a statement.   When seven-year-old children went to work in the mines, it made a statement.  When women are viewed as nothing more than receptacles for men, when they can be purchased and are rated as consumer products on line, it makes a statement. In order to believe that prostitution is sex work and thus like any other work, we must forget everything we know about inequality in the world, about gender politics, about the gap between the rich and the poor, the north and the south.  Only then could we justify supporting such a structure.[7]  Because once we acknowledge the harm, we cannot turn our eyes away.




[5] Julie Bindel, “I’m selling sex like McDonald’s sells burgers. Legally”

The Times (London), November 14, 2011. 

[6] Cited in Shelia Jeffreys, “Normalising prostitution and trafficking: language matters” Labrys, January 2008.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Sex work is ubiquitous. Where a substantial demand exists, some people will inevitably try to meet that demand for a price. Retired call girl and madam Maggie McNeill reviews the various legal regimes that have been set up to regulate and/or prohibit sex work. She concludes that many approaches, particularly the most restrictive ones, increase the likelihood of harm to all participants. They tend to infantalize women and invest law enforcement with arbitrary and dangerous powers. She argues that the best approach is a regime of simple legalization, without licensing or heavy restrictions.

Response Essays

  • Prof. Ronald Weitzer argues that prostitution should be treated as a legal commercial transaction. He finds that much of the conventional wisdom on the sex trade is the result of generalizing from experience under legal regimes where it is criminalized. He argues that in a legally tolerant regime, many of the problems we observe today would vanish. He argues for a set of “best practices” that would entail some government regulation of sex work, including subjecting business owners to background checks and licensing, zoning regulations, and restrictions on advertising. These measures would make decriminalization politically palatable and protect against a possible backlash. He also finds, contrary to McNeill’s claim, that no country has fully deregulated sex work.

  • Dianne Post argues that prostitution is a form of exploitation, and that the only proper response is to abolish it. Prostitution, she argues, only exists because of material inequalities. Worse, it tends strongly to produce further inequalities – material, social, and political in nature. Prostitution traps women in economic dependency on men, and it encourages men to view women merely as commodities. Following this strong normative case against prostitution, Post looks at the empirical evidence, where she concludes that experiments with legalization have all been failures. She praises the “Nordic Model” approach to sex work, in which in which sex workers’ clients are prosecuted, rather than the women involved in prostitution.

  • Steven Wagner argues that the large majority of prostitutes are not workers at all, because they are not acting voluntarily: they are enslaved. The personal experiences of Ms. McNeill notwithstanding, many others have suffered horribly in prostitution, and even left-leaning governments like that of France under the socialists have justifiably outlawed the sex trade. Wagner likewise prefers the Swedish approach, in which prostitutes are not treated as criminals, but those who attempt to buy sex are.