This month at Cato Unbound, we will debate a very controversial subject — prostitution and related activities, collectively known as sex work. Our lead essayist, a pseudonmymous former call girl and madam known as Maggie McNeill, advocates treating sex work simply as work: Like many other professions, it has its risks and rewards, and — also like many other professions — when you make it illegal, a black market will emerge. McNeill argues that prostitution is not inherently exploitative, and that much of the danger to sex workers arises precisely from the legal regimes that govern the oldest profession, and the violence inherent to all black markets. 

Is she right? Fortunately, the question is to a great degree an empirical one, and we can review the practical consequences of a variety of legal approaches. We have invited three other experts in the field, each of varying viewpoints: Ronald Weitzer is a sociologist at the George Washington University; Dianne Post is an international legal advocate who works on gender-based violence; and Steven Wagner is the president of Renewal Forum, a nonprofit opposed to human trafficking.

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.

Related at Cato

Cato @ Liberty:Anti-Sex School for Johns?” by Jeffrey A. Miron

Commentary:Marijuana, Sex, and Amsterdam,” by Jeffrey A. Miron

Cato @ Liberty:Deborah Jeane Palfrey: Hounded to Death,” by David Boaz

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