Hit & Run

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.

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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.