The Economics Of Prostitution In The Last 20 Years: Should It Be Legal

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The word “prostitution” is defined by the Webster dictionary as “the act or practice of engaging in promiscuous sexual relations especially for money.” Prostitution is one of the oldest forms of making money in our world’s culture, as well as the United State’s. Historians have identified prostitutes as some of the very first women in early American settlements. American society has many opinions of soliciting sex for money; the morality of it, the risks of it, and the criminality of it, but also the economics of it. Yet, the laws against this are only about a 100 years old. Therefore the question is, should prostitution be a legitimate career option in the United States? Is the money worth the societal, mental, and physical strains? Did prostitution add to the growing economy and is pushing capitalism? Or is capitalism and the growing economy pushing for the career choice of prostitution?

Prostitution is dangerous, highly unsafe, and many people are doing it. I think that because it’s such a taboo subject, people associate it as bad, but it doesn’t have to be seen so negatively. It doesn’t have to be a dangerous, assault filled dead end, that it very much is to most people. History shows us it has always been a highly questioned topic of our culture. Once, society saw it as a mere nuisance but now is a huge problem in some people’s eyes.

There was and always will be many questions about the way people handle this profession and the people who work it. The opinions have always varied, from the 18th and 19th centuries, to the 20th and 21st centuries. But who is a prostitute, really? Havelock Ellis, a philosopher of sex, defined a prostitute as “a person who makes it a profession to gratify the lust of various persons of the opposite or same sex” (Elias, pg.25). When Ellis was investigating sex, it was a much more secretive society and time period he lived in. In 1918, the official definition of a prostitute in the United States, for legal usage, is a “woman who practices indiscriminate lewdness for hire” (Woolston, pg. 33). Police records defined a prostitute as a person who has been charged, arrested, or convicted of prostitution. On many occasions, law enforcement officers have believed that a majority of prostitutes were emotionally uninvolved with their clients and received minimum physical pleasure themselves (Elias, pg. 25-26). Obviously, even back then the definition varied from person to person.

From New Amsterdam to the Louisiana colony to San Francisco’s Gold Rush founding, sex work was traveling the continent. Yet, many historians agree the age of prostitution was the early 1920s, when prohibition was in effect, speakeasies were booming, and bootleggers ran wild. In the 1920s, over half of the population of sex workers were under 25 years old. More than half the girls were in the business before the age of nineteen. There are no accurate accounts of prostitutes working in the United States up until this time period. The average length of their careers was six years, but this estimate is dependent of age. Some women were over 40 years old and had been in the career for ten to twenty-five years. The tables in Howard B. Woolston’s book Prostitution in the United States, shows that many girls start at young age. The tables also allude to the fact that many of these girls had sexual encounters before entering the profession. They also note that over 80% of prostitutes in rural areas came from outside of New York City (Woolston, pg. 37-45).

In 1872, California passed a law called the Penal Code 647 which covered prostitution, loitering, begging, public intoxication, drug use, and a host of other ‘moral’ crimes (The Oldest Profession..2018). Then comes the Progressive Era, with a huge cultural panic of what should be deemed “White Slavery”. These panics were mainly huge outbursts of concern about the common idea of womanhood during this time. “White Slavery being the practice of organized coercion of unwilling persons into prostitution” (The Oldest Profession..2018). The response to this was the Mann Act, or the official named the White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910. This made it a felony for any women transported between states or countries soley for prostitution. California, in 1961 repealed Penal Code 647 and instead enacted Penal Code 647(b), which made it a misdemeanor to solicit, agree to perform, or actually perform an act of prostitution (The Oldest Profession..2018).

A lot of studies show that most prostitutes are addicted to drugs, many were forced into prostitution against their will. Sex trafficking is an international business that kidnaps and enslaves girls. Girls as young as ten-years old are taken from their countries and sold into sex slavery (Why Do Women..2017). Also, that a majority of prostitutes were sexually abused during their childhoods. These are the people most likely to become addicted to drugs, as well as develop a serious health problem, such as HIV or other STDS. Then again, this is one category of prostitution. On the other side of the spectrum we have happy endings in massage parlors, escorts, and call girls. The men who sollicite it, are mostly ignorant to the extremity of these women’s lives. They believe that it’s their choice and that none of them are being exploited (Why Do Women..2017).

The “red light district”, a place in the city where soliciting sex for money is centralized or encouraged, was an American invention. Before the establishment of “red light districts”, the act of selling sex or sexual entertainment wasn’t completely illegal in the United States. People who sold sex were still targeted by the cops, and charged with a multitude of crimes (When Prostitution.. 2013). Laws that use to target these women were leftover from English common law, which outlawed “vagrancy” and “nightwalking”. This meant appearing in public at the wrong time, in the wrong place, or were poor and female. In the state of Louisiana, people in the sex trade along with men caught having sex with other men could be charged with violating an 1805 law. This law stated engaging in oral or anal intersourse, for compensation or for free, to be a “crime against nature”. The law was ruled unconstitutional in 2012 (When Prostitution..2013).

An analysis of prostitution in 1992, by Timothy F. Gilfoyle in New York City from 1790-1920, estimated 10-15 percent of all young women in this area were prostitutes (Elias, pg. 25). A multitude of women were making money in the prostitution game, but many left when they were about thirty, only being involved for a short time. The early-twentieth-century did not provide many options for women, working women’s wages were next to nothing. Prostitution, at the time, was the second largest business in New York generating money. It generated more than four times as much income as the brewing industry, three times as much as the hat and cap manufacturing industry, and twice as much as boiler and steam engine sales (Elias, pg. 27). The early-twentieth-century did not provide many options for women, working women’s wages were next to nothing. Prostitution made sense economically, for women who were being paid barely anything or were unemployed with families to feed. Sometimes this is still the case today, but prostitution has also evolved economically. Most of these early studies were by men, who generally left out male prostitution and approached female prostitution with a certain of masculine blindness (Elias, pg.45).

“Social ills” were associated with prostitution like crime, decaying property values, disease, violence, and a variety of moral failings. The past has proven that none of these are direct effects of prostitution. There’s also a stereotype attached to the profession that women wouldn’t sell sex if they had any other career paths or options, but given the endurance of the sex trade and how a variety of employment options for women existed in the 20th and 21st century, it makes sense why these women did what they did. But, there were the groups of women owning their path of prostitution. COYOTE, which stands for Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, was founded in 1973 in San Francisco. The founder herself is an ex prostitute, Margo St. James. She started the first and best known prostitutes’ rights group in the United States. They challenged law enforcement and government officials, which drew in more support for their cause by fellow prostitutes. They also challenged the contemporary women’s movement by linking the problems of prostitutes to dilemmas for women elsewhere. COYOTE was also the connection for public health agencies and sex workers during the AIDS epidemic (Jenness, pg. 402-405).

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The AIDS epidemic posed many changes in the political environment for prostitution and prostitutes’ themselves. Prostitutes were being blamed for the spread of the disease. The government and medical establishments in response to the AIDS epidemic, secured stronger regulations for prostitution. This meant registration, mandatory AIDS testing, and prison sentences for those carrying the antibodies for the virus. This led to increased social control of prostitutes, especially with legal sanctions. COYOTE has since protested the AIDS testing by describing it as discriminatory and a violation of a prostitutes civil rights.

Economically, prostitution being an actual conventional job is taken as a joke, met with anger, and disgust. The term “sex worker” became popular in the 1970s, when it was invented by Scarlot Harlot, a prostitute and activist living in San Francisco (When Prostitution..2013). The actual sex industry includes the workers, managers, owners of brothels/sites/establishments, marketers, clubs, and agencies. According to Legalizing Prostitution : From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business by Ronald Weitzer, the definition of sex work involves the exchange of sexual services for material compensation as well as the selling of erotic performances or products (Weitzer, pg. 3). It also includes person to person contact, such as lap dances, sex. Indirect stimulation is considered “sex work” as well. Indirect stimulation is telephone sex, pornography, live sex shows, and webcam performances ( Weitzer, pg. 3). The sex for sale business is very widespread and common at this point in time, especially in the last 10 years. A lot of people don’t realize pornography, camming, phone sex companies, and strip clubs all fall under the same umbrella as prostitution. The General Social Survey recorded that 15-18% of men in ten polls from 1991 to 2008, said that they had participated in buying sex and 3-4% saying they did so in the past year ( Weitzer, pg. 4).

Most of the money received for sex work doesn’t even go to the sex workers. It goes to the agencies, websites, pimps, managers, clubs or establishments. There is also no proof of transaction, so most research is done through interviews with law enforcement, pimps, lawyers, and the prostitutes themselves. The Urban Institute published an intense investigation into the subject in eight U.S. cities, in a report funded by the research arm of the Department of Justice in 2014. It basically describes the complex, wild world of sex work. It also widely associates the internet with it’s success and growth. Researcher’s for Urban estimate that, in 2007, the entire illegal sex economy in Atlanta – including brothels, escort services and dubious massage parlors –was valued at $290 million (We Now Know..2014). In Washington, it was $103 million, and on the lower side in Denver it was about $40 million (We Now Know..2014). The research is based on 260 interviews with convicted pimps and sex workers, prosecutors, law enforcement officials and other experts in San Diego, Seattle, Dallas, Denver, Washington, Kansas City, Atlanta, and Miami (We Now Know..2014). These cities were known for being apart of the “pimp circuit”. The data consists of interviews with the pimps talking about the eight cities and how much was possible to make, and the gun and drug business. In this report is states that a prostitute will roughly cost the average person $150-$300 an hour. The research notes that the pimps have “business expenses” such as housing and transportation. The graph in the report shows that they only spend about 13.7% of their income on sexual protection, but spend 65.8% on transportation alone (We Now Know..2014).

In the research there were graphs displaying recruitment venues, protection/security , and location venues. Social networking accounted for 42.5% of venues for recruitment, and 38.4% for home neighborhoods ( We Now Know..2014). Thus showing how lucrative the internet has been for the economics of prostitution in general. For locations, hotels/motels was 66.7% the usual place for the people interview. The second most was surprisingly streets at 52.8% (We Now Know..2014). The majority claimed that people were the biggest protection in prostitution with a 19.4%, and the next best protection being a knife at 11.1% (We Now Know..2014). Statistics like these are calculated by actual sex workers, pimps, and agency managers as well.

The women interviewed in the Urban’s research also talk about how the rollercoaster economy over the years has disrupted their work, but also that the internet was drastically changing it. The researchers describe it as “the spatial and social limitations of the sex market” ( We Now Know..2014). This make sit a lot easier for the sex worker themselves to charge higher rates than on the street, which is low amounts of cash or traded for illegal drugs. The internet does bring a lot of other concerns to the job. One of the sex workers interviewed for the report stated that, “Online, you can quote $120, but [the client] might not necessarily bring it, whereas on the stroll, you can see the money and see what the clients have” (We Now Know..2014).

As of 2019, according to Havocscope: Global Black Market Information, $186 billion is spent on prostitution worldwide. In the United States, it’s $14.6 billion. To put the other parts of the world in perspective as well, China’s total amount is $73 billion and Turkey’s is $4 billion (Prostitution Statistics..2019). In the world, there are roughly 13,828,700 prostitutes in the world. In the United States there are at least 1 million (Prostitution Statistics..2019). The average price for a “street walker” in the United States is $50-$100, keeping in mind that this is leaving out call girl agencies, websites, and cam girls. The statistics for prostitution arrest in the United States are shocking. In New York there are around 4,200 arrests for prostitution each year, it takes 5 police officers to pull off a prostitution sting, and the US police department publicly identifying the “johns” is at about 60% country wide (Prostitution Statistics.. 2019).

Sex is a huge part of relationships, society, the media, the food industry, music, movies, television, education, and almost everything else.While prostitution being an unconventional way of making money, it is understandable why these certain people participate in it. It is fast, non-regulated, tax free, income. The perception of the depraved nature of it is all culturally based. It is also considerably something that will never not be needed. A human’s sexual response cycle will always be something to profit off of, like most things in a consumer driven world. A lot of men and women intend to leave the profession after gaining the amount of money they need. Another perspective is that some escorts or sex workers believe they are helping men and/or women save their marriages by supplying something they can’t get at home or helping them stave off loneliness on business trips. For a lot of sex workers who are the sole earners of their families, they see it as a way out of poverty.

Prostitution is a controversial topic and many people argue over the morality of it all. The argument should really be over if people should have the right to do what they want with their bodies. In Roe vs. Wade, they used the Fourteenth Amendment stating the right to privacy, I feel as though prostitution would fall in the same category of a person’s privacy. This issue also coincides with the fact that pornography and the distribution of it is fully legal, and protected under the First Amendment. Sex is inevitably involved in every faceit of “privacy”, therefore so should the career of it. People are already profiting off of porn which is basically a different form of prostitution. Instead of people paying to have sexual intercourse with you, it’s payment for two people different people to and to film it.

The one place in the United States that prostitution is legal is in Nevada. Studies show that brothels offer a safer environment than the alternative. While Las Vegas is known for its enormous sex industry, prostitution is illegal in the actual city. Nevada law allows counties with a population below 700,000 to offer brothel prostitution. The state board of health requires sex workers to undergo testing for sexually transmitted infections, and sex workers must also require clients to use condoms. It attempts to provide is protocols relative to pimping, zoning, sexually transmitted diseases, and advertising (Trifiolis, pg.19). As independent contractors at the legal brothels, women set their own hours and rates. They can also choose to turn someone away. Many of these legal brothels also have panic buttons for emergencies of any kind.  

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