Cartagena "Scandal" Revives Discussion of Legal Prostitution


The Secret Service agents and military personnel who went junketing in Cartagena just before the Summit of the Americas may not have done their careers any good, but their hijinks did breathe new life into the debate over legalizing prostitution. You'd think that bans on an industry that combines two legal and popular activities — sex and commerce — in an eternally lucrative way would be subject to frequent discussion. But it seems to take provocative headlines to get the exchanges going, though some former federal employees may be less than thrilled at their conversation-starter status.

It's not like commercialized sex is difficult to find; it can even, sometimes, seem challenging to avoid. Years ago, a tabloid weekly in Flagstaff ran an advertisement for an escort service in which the digits of the phone number were transposed, directing callers to my number until the next issue. It was apparently a very popular service. I amused myself for several days by reciting a litany of improbable services and providers into the receiver.

Whether I did the escort service's reputation good or harm is something I'll never know.

Despite its enthusiastic clientele, though, prostitution is only partially legal in parts of one U.S. state: Nevada. (Though Rhode Island deserves a special shout-out for accidentally legalizing the trade and keeping it that way for 29 years, only to engage in a hysterical rush to re-outlaw commercial sex in 2009.) And there's relatively little debate over prohibition and its costs in terms of liberty, money and corruption of law-enforcement.

Except for rare moments like now, when the conversation is forcibly reopened. Acknowledging the currency of the issue, Reuters ran a brief piece simply noting, "[w]hether the U.S. should legalize prostitution is a question without a clear answer. But with this latest Secret Service scandal, it's sure to be a hotly debated topic."

Hotly debated at places like the New York Times, that is, which actually ran a multi-participant debate over the issue, giving proponents and opponents of legalization an opportunity to make their cases in front of a large audience.

In that debate, Chika Unigwe, author of On Black Sisters Street, made the hard-to-contradict argument that "[c]riminalizing prostitution does not eradicate it. It drives it underground, putting the women at risk and giving customers an unfair advantage. … Women who work legally enjoy huge benefits: better access to health care, protection from violent customers and protection from exploitation."

Barbara G. Brents, a sociology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, defended her home state's heavily regulated approach, saying "In legal brothels, employees report that they feel safe, are free to come and go, and are bound only by their contract. Of the brothel workers we surveyed, 84 per cent said that their job felt safe. Workers report that they felt safe largely because the police, employers and co-workers were there to protect them."

Over at NPR, Scott Simon is more dubious and overtly provincial. He wonders "Why were world leaders meeting in a place with legalized prostitution?"

Because … international gatherings should be held only in places that duplicate the legal prohibitions of the United States? Clearly, Simon is uncomfortable with the new discussion over prostitution's legal status, but can't quite refrain from jumping in.

There was no squeamishness at CNN, where Ronald Weitzer, a professor of sociology at George Washington University, pimps legalized commercial sex and his own book on the subject with equal gusto (and why not?):

In my book, I advocate about 30 "best practices" that I think should be taken into account by any nation considering legalizing prostitution. The first step, I write, is that "consensual adult prostitution be officially recognized as work and that participants be accorded the rights and protections available to those involved in other occupations." …

… While positive outcomes are by no means automatic or guaranteed, I find that legal, well-regulated prostitution can be superior to blanket criminalization.

There's no sign yet of a groundswell of support for legalizing the sex trade. No surprise there; a nation that can barely bring itself to discuss legalizing marijuana despite 50% support for the idea probably isn't quite ready for above-board commercialized copulation. But resuming the conversation is a first step.