Legal Prostitution: what can we learn from the empirical record?

20 February 2013, 1953 EST

No, this isn’t one of those posts where we go all “Monkey Cage” on our readers and pimp (sorry)  promote political-science research, but rather a “Dan is befuddled, perhaps readers might help” kind of thing. In other words, I make no effort to answer the question of the title. The post is an extended version of the question itself.

In one of those strange synergies associated with social media, I’ve seen a fair number of things about prostitution today. Erik Loomis points to an interesting history of sex work. Then there’s this Julie Bindel piece arguing that “the Dutch experiment in legalized prostitution has been a disaster,” which isn’t very good but does mention the key problem with experiments on decriminalizing and legalizing prostitution: that they just seem to make life easier for pimps, organized criminal syndicates, human traffickers, and others seeking to profit from the exploitation of women and men  (she does a better job chronicling those issues here). Sweden’s decision to abandon a regulatory model and criminalize the buying of sex (but not the selling of sex) gets a lot of positive press these days.

This is one of those issues that I can’t sort out of my views on. My inner libertarian tells me that the state does not have the right to prohibit the exchange of money for sex. My inner pragmatists looks at the experience of some European countries and says, more or less, “that’s nice in theory, but in practice legalization just makes things worse.” My inner lefty responds, “but that’s because of inadequate regulation — if the regulators, parliamentarians, and police did their jobs than selling sex would be little different than offering personal training or non-sexual massage services.” My inner old-school feminist chimes in by pointing out that prostitution is the ultimate in objectification. My inner new-school feminist champions sexual autonomy and de-stigmatizing sex work. And on it goes. Of course, the internet isn’t much help in sorting out fact from propaganda. Disagreement is the name of the game.

At the risk of bringing out the trolls, I know we have some readers who know a lot about this and cognate subjects. Help?