Sex Work

Poll: Most Americans Reject Criminal Penalties for Prostitution

Republicans, women, and those ages 45 and older were the most likely to say that selling or paying for sex should be illegal.

|

Meredith Nierman/WGBH via @PointTaken/Twitter

Americans are split on whether prostitution should be legal, according to a new survey from The Marist Poll and PBS TV-series Point Taken. Forty-nine percent of respondents in the new national poll said prostitution between two consenting adults should be legal, while 44 percent responded that it should be illegal.

Younger respondents were more in favor of legalization, with 58 percent of those under 45 supportive, compared to just 40 percent of those 45 and older. Men were more in favor of prostitution legalization than women, at 54 percent versus 44 percent. And Democrats and political independents were much more likely than Republicans to say it should be legal: 52 and 58 percent, versus 35 percent.

It should be noted that while pollsters use the terms "legal" and "illegal," they did not define these terms for respondents. The ambiguity of the terms becomes evident in subsequent responses. For instance, around 40 percent of those who said prostitution should be illegal also said criminal charges were not appropriate. And overall, some 63 and 60 percent said selling and buying sex should not yield criminal penalties.

Legalization, in the context of prostitution, generally refers to a system by which some forms of prostitution (say, in brothels) are allowed—and highly regulated—while all prostitution outside these bounds is still considered criminal. Decriminalization refers to a system that ditches all criminal penalties for sexual exchange between consenting adults, and is the desired goal of most sex-worker, human rights, and criminal-justice reform advocates. Under a decrim model, of course, activity involving force, fraud, coercion, or minors would still be criminalized, and regulation of business like brothels and/or opt-in licensing could schemes could exist. 

In the Point Taken/Marist poll, a majority of respondents did oppose criminal sanctions for prostitution—though many thought it should still be a civil infraction. Fines for sex workers and clients appealed to 30 and 29 percent of respondents, respectively. Slightly larger blocks opposed any penalty for selling (33 percent) or buying (31 percent) sex. Twenty-nine percent of respondents still said sex workers should face criminal charges, and 33 percent said the same for people who purchase sex.

The poll, conducted May 24-25, was small: 516 U.S. adults. And with an error margin of ±4.3 percentage points, none of these slight statistical pluralities and majorities are assured. The only conclusion that we can safely draw here is that Americans are conflicted about prostitution. Fifty-nine percent of poll respondents—including 43 percent of those who favored prostitution legalization—said they would be at least a little bit bothered to have a sex worker as a neighbor. Thirty-eight percent of all respondents, and 58 percent of Republicans, said they would be very bothered by living next door to a sex worker. Moral and social stigma against sex work is certainly still strong. 

But the results of a live poll during Tuesday night's Point Taken episode indicate that something else is at play. The four-guest segment, promoted as "Should Paying for Sex Be a Crime?", turned out a referendum on the sex trade in both voluntary and violent/coercive forms. The guest most in favor of decriminalizing prostitution was Jenna Torres, a former sex worker turned community organizer and poet. She talked eloquently from a place of experience about the economic pressures that drove her and those around her to sex work, the factors most likely to keep people in sex work when they don't want to be (things like lack of money or job options, not evil pimps), and how criminalizing prostitution hurts those most vulnerable. After growing up in foster care and having her first child at age 13, Torres turned to part-time prostitution starting at age 15. By 2013, at age 17, she had graduated from high-school, had three children, continuing to make a living through sex work, and enrolled to start college in the fall—plans postponed after she was arrested for prostitution by New York City police.  

The two guests most opposed to decriminalization were a Kings College philosophy professor and a self-described "investor, author, and finance expert," who cast Torres as a privileged activist concerned with some vague notion of "empowerment" but oblivious to the many sex workers who dislike the experience. They came ready with ample unsourced and misleading if not outright false statistics about the average age of entry into prostitution, the prevalence of sex trafficking in countries where prostitution is legal, and the compassion and prudence of the Nordic Model (which punishes sex buyers more harshly than sex workers). "Legalization allows traffickers to hide victims in plain sight, which creates greater trafficking," insisted the finance expert, against all evidence.

After the beginning of the segment, 72 percent of people in the Point Taken studio audience said that paying for sex should not be a crime. By the show's end, just 53 percent held this position, with 47 percent now saying it should be a crime. 

NEXT: Baylor University Is a Perfect Example of Why Universities Shouldn't Police Rape

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Well, nobody who matters cares what “most Americans” think about anything.

  2. For instance, around 40 percent of those who said prostitution should be illegal also said criminal charges were not appropriate

    lolwut?

    “Illegal” means doing it can get you murdered by some psychopath cop and nothing else happened. How have people not figured this out yet?

    1. People don’t intend for laws to be enforced by violent thugs who are prone to murder when they don’t get their way. Laws are supposed to be obeyed. Like magic or something.

    2. I would say people are not making a moral/criminal distinction.

    3. Isn’t that what most people mean by “decriminalize”? You could get a small fine, but you won’t get arrested or have a criminal record.
      It’s still all wrong, but it’s not entirely absurd.

  3. Public opinion polls would seem to have value in a democracy/democratic republic. But the reality is that we don’t get the luxury of voting on single issues. It’s perhaps better to ask how much people actually care about a specific issue. A politician cares only about what gets you to pull the lever one way or the other. I’m going to bet the people who oppose prostitution are far more likely to vote on it and spread propaganda than the Americans polled who more or less shrug at the issue.

    1. Well, polls show that more than 50% of Americans favor legalizing cannabis, yet our federal government is still waging a full scale war on it, and few politicians dare to even utter the words ‘legal cannabis’.

      So it should be of no surprise that no politicians are even willing to talk about legalizing prostitution or even reduce penalties, when that probably has even more power to induce pants shitting in the busy bodies of America who rule this country with an iron fist.

    2. Sometimes, especially in some states & municipalities, you do get the luxury of voting on single issues. But what you write is the dynamic that’s operated to keep drug policy far more prohibitionist than referenda would have it.

  4. Did ENB just call the Nordic model “compassionate and prudent”? Why? That’s like saying a Drug War that only goes after “dealers” is “compassionate”

    1. There’s no lack of absurdity in the laws of first world countries. Look at the Dutch model for cannabis. There are shops where it can be sold and consumed legally, but supplying those shops is 100% illegal and will get you a trip to the pokey. Once a supplier has stepped through the doors of a legal shop, he’s in the clear. But one foot outside the shop with the cargo, and he’s a criminal on the loose.

      1. I thought the Dutch made weed illegal for tourists also? Like, you have to be Dutch and have a “weed card” now?

        1. No, as far as I know, tourists can partake of it and buy it in the legal shops. But no one is allowed to supply the shops and they are not allowed to grow it themselves. I watched a documentary on this not more than a month ago.

          1. Provinces are allowed to prohibit foreigners from entering coffeeshops. Some have, some have not.

            1. One addendum: Originally the law prohibiting foreigners from entering coffeeshops applied everywhere in The Netherlands. I think it was passed in 2012, though my memory is a bit hazy. Some areas, like Amsterdam, were worried about losing tourist dollars. They refused to enforce the law and fought it. The national government changed the law so the provinces could decide if they would enforce it.

    2. Yeah, what’s that all about? It’s as compassionate and prudent as NYC’s failed and corrupt “diversion” system.

    3. No, she didn’t. Learn to read, Trumpie.

      1. Yep you’re right – she was describing what other people think of the Nordic Model.

        1. This is how I read the sentence:

          “They came ready with ample unsourced and misleading if not outright false statistics about the… the compassion and prudence of the Nordic Model”

          maybe it’s no miracle of clarity, but that’s how it reads.

          1. Then read harder.

            1. I can see how the sentence can be ambiguous. Let’s parse it to make it clearer:

              Subject+verb+idiomatic prepositional phrase* *PP = With + Phrase1+Phrase2+Phrase 3.

              Simplified it reads: They (subject) came (verb) ready with (IPP) ample false statistics about the average age of entry into prostitution(P1), [false statistics about] the prevalence of sex trafficking in countries where prostitution is legal(P2), and [false statistics about] the compassion and prudence of the Nordic Model(P3).

              If it were a spoken utterance, you’d probably have no problem following ENB’s train of thought. This is why we shouldn’t write like we speak, however.

              1. Why come you no post anything substantives?

              2. Or, if you want to be lazy, put scare quotes around “compassion and prudence”.

      2. Yeah, she did: she’s accusing the anti-decrim speakers of lying about the Nordic model, right?

        1. The two guests most opposed to decriminalization were a Kings College philosophy professor and a self-described “investor, author, and finance expert,” who cast Torres as a privileged activist concerned with some vague notion of “empowerment” but oblivious to the many sex workers who dislike the experience. They came ready with ample unsourced and misleading if not outright false statistics about the average age of entry into prostitution, the prevalence of sex trafficking in countries where prostitution is legal, and the compassion and prudence of the Nordic Model (which punishes sex buyers more harshly than sex workers). “Legalization allows traffickers to hide victims in plain sight, which creates greater trafficking,” insisted the finance expert, against all evidence.

          If you think that is an endorsement of the Nordic model by ENB, you may be even stupider than I realized.

          1. I’ll admit I was wrong, but I had to go to the TIME magazine article to find that out.

            Did I insult your girlfriend, little buddy? TDS is a hell of a disease.

            1. TDS? “No one likes my Daddy but me! Wah!”

              1. You poor dear, you’re suffering. If you weren’t, why the gratuitous insult? You could have just said, “oh, I think you’re misreading that”. Get the sand out of your vagina.

                1. Gratuitous? You completely earned that insult. You should have to pay tax on that insult.

                  1. On what grounds?

                    I just admitted I misread the sentence. People make mistakes. Maybe you should grow up and get over it. Sorry I misread one of your Tribe Members, but you should probably quit being a bitch about it.

                    1. Squirm harder.

                    2. THEM COSMO FAGGOTS DONE IS STICK TOGETHER LIKE JEWS

                    3. She’s not going to fuck either of you.

                    4. I know. But at least you still have your dad.

                    5. no finesse in his insults, sad!

          2. You’re right, SugarFree, it’s definitely not an endorsement by ENB. The paragraph is a little ambiguous right there and could be taken out of context. But not that out of context.

            1. Even taking the sentence out of the paragraph doesn’t make his moronic case. You have to excise (that means “cut out,” MAGA) just these few words the compassion and prudence of the Nordic Model to get there.

              They love a liar and they think that means they can get away with lying as well.

              1. Its like saying this:

                “Gun control opponents provided reams of data refuting claims that gun control is working”

                means

                ” . . . gun control is working.”

      3. Yeah. That paragraph could be taken out of context, but it seems clear to me that she’s quoting someone else there.

    4. That’s like saying a Drug War that only goes after “dealers” is “compassionate”

      Isn’t it? There are far more users than dealers. So you greatly reduce the number of people who are being warred vs.

  5. WOMEN PAY TENS OF THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS TO ATTEND RAPE FACTORIES

    THEY SHOULD AT LEAST BE PAID FOR IT

    Okay, I’m done.

    1. Nah. They’re paying to go to class. The rapes are just a free perk. They’re lucky they aren’t charged for those, too.

  6. Younger respondents were more in favor of legalization, with 58 percent of those under 45 supprotive

    I could have sworn there was a similar poll a few weeks ago, and younger people – “Millennials,” or whatever – wanted it to remain illegal.

  7. They came ready with ample unsourced and misleading if not outright false statistics about the average age of entry into prostitution…

    Prostitution is a black market. We’re not talking about strippers, whose SSN was transmitted to the gov by the club as per regulations and whether she files her taxes is her business. The very notion that top echelons of studies can and have polled an actively underground populace with any accuracy is fucking bullshit on its face.

    They’ve collected the raw data of everyone swept up in some government or social worker net. They don’t know what the average prostitute as a demographic does or is or says or thinks, based on this population sampling. They don’t even know for sure what percentage of the whole this sampling represents.

    Dunning-Kruger. But that never stopped anyone.

  8. It’s amazing how well you can persuade people when you can spout garbage stats and the host doesn’t call you on it.

    1. In all fairness to the host, (s)he has the obligation to keep his(her) show on the air (even if just self-preservation) and if (s)he is hostile to his(her) guests, guests will refuse to appear, thus ending the show. Cry-baby Trump has shown us this fact many times during his campaign (I won’t participate in this debate because Megan Kelly is mean to me). This is just a very unfortunate fact regarding today’s media.

    2. Were the decrim proponents not in a position to fact-check their adversaries?

  9. Poll: Most Americans Reject Criminal Penalties for Prostitution
    Republicans, women, and those ages 45 and older were the most likely to say that selling or paying for sex should be illegal.

    Prostitution is already legal.
    Look how many are working in the People’s Congress, the Soviet Supreme Senate and the White House dascha.

  10. Sometimes dude you jsut have to roll with it, know what I mean?

    http://www.Complete-Privacy.tk

  11. Government has no business dictating to us what we may do with our own bodies! They must all be removed from power!
    Revolution now!
    robertsrevolution.net

  12. Legalization, in the context of prostitution, generally refers to [snip]

    Is the language really used that differently re prostitution from other vices? Usually legaliz’n means making something legal, and decriminaliz’n means keeping it illegal but subject only to civil penalties, not criminal ones.

    1. What ENB says they say decriminaliz’n means w.r.t. prostit’n would be called legaliz’n + deregul’n in other fields. What she says they legaliz’n means w.r.t. prostit’n would in other fields be called legaliz’n + regul’n.

    2. Is the language really used that differently re prostitution from other vices?

      ENB was accurate. How you perceive these terms to be used for other vices I cant say, but ENB was accurate.

  13. Paying for sex is not a crime now… providing you get the marriage license.

    And PAY you will!

  14. Let’s see. I’m a man and I own my body and mind–theoretically–and can do with it what I want just so long as I do not violate the rights of others in so doing. I meet a woman (not a girl) and–theoretically–she owns her body, etc. She wants money. I want sex. We agree to exchange what we each have to our mutual satisfaction. Oh, and here’s another element to this scenario: Neither one of us goes to the church or believes in the god that tells people that paying for sex or having sex without being married to the other person is immoral and therefore should be illegal. When will we get religion out of our secular laws?

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.