Should Prostitution Be Decriminalized?

San Franciscans will soon vote on whether their city should decriminalize prostitution.

Supporters say that taking prostitution out of the black market will improve the safety and health of sex workers, and shave $11 million per year off the city’s law-enforcement expenses.

Opponents say the measure would encourage human trafficking, raise crime, and generally turn San Francisco into a magnet for pimps, prostitutes, and sex fiends.

The most effective solution might be to split the difference.

In 1999, Sweden legalized the sale of sex, leaving buyers subject to fines and humiliation through public exposure. While the jury is still out on how effective Sweden’s “Sex Purchase Law” has been, the approach has drawn international attention for its novelty.

Julie Bindel and Liz Kelly, at London Metropolitan University, found that the Swedish law decreased street prostitution by two-thirds between 1999 and 2003. But the law’s effect on the sex trade overall is difficult to determine — it may have simply driven sex workers indoors.

We’ve weighed in more than a few times on prostitution.

But what do you think?


Keep it a contractual relationship between consenting adults. If the business is legalized the money generated will be subject to both sales tax as well as income taxes. Let the cops fight more serious crimes.


It is very important for San Francisco voters to read the actual text of proposition K. There is ZERO mention of decriminalization or legalization. NO regulations would be put in place. No taxes would be paid to help improve San Francisco. Not many would argue that prostitutes should not be arrested for prostitution, but that is NOT what prop K says. Prop K says the city "shall stop enforcing laws against prostitution." That goes FAR BEYOND individual, consenting adults exchanging money for sex. "Prostitution" includes all aspects of prostitution, including pimping, pandering, human trafficking, etc.
Also, prop K will 'stop funding anti-prostitution programs.' What are 'anti-prostitution programs' you ask? Well, they are social service programs that help women and girls to escape prostitution and obtain safe housing, vocational training, trauma and addiction recovery services, and mentorship opportunities. Why would a caring and compassionate person want to deny women and girls of these life-changing services?



Shouldnt the comparison be with Nevada? Or comparison with lifting prohibition.

Wasnt it Milton Friedman who also argued that drugs should be legalized? We have a separate underground economy. What about the taxes that could be collected - the income of the drug dealers, the tariffs or fees for being licensed to deal - in sex or drugs.

That would be real capitalism.


The two best arguments I've heard for decriminalization (which, by the way, is completely different from legalization, which would encourage taxing the proceeds):

1) a sex worker said to me, "I know one day I'll get arrested. My biggest hope is that I don't have to have sex with the cop first." If we can't be just in applying the law, how can it be a just law?

2) Sex workers who are robbed, beaten, or raped by a client have no recourse. They generally don't trust going to the cops or through the court system because their work is so stigmatized. There was a case in Philadelphia where the sex worker was gang raped by a "client" and his friends at gunpoint, and the judge dropped the rape charges against the attackers, calling it "theft of services." Sex workers should have FULL human rights, including the right of protection from rape.


Britain has the right idea: prostitution is legal, but "living on the immoral earnings of another" (pimping) and "soliciting in public to the annoyance of passers-by" are not.

It seems to me that criminalizing prostitution creates exactly the sort of hole-and-corner atmosphere where abuses, including human trafficking, can flourish. However, it's not enough just to have laws on the books - we need a society that does not attach taboos to sex and treats sexual transactions no differently from other transactions. Because sex workers are outside both the law and society's approval, law enforcement too often treats crimes against prostitutes as "no humans involved" and that won't necessarily change with decriminalization unless and until society stops demonizing sex.

The other side of legalizing prostitution, though, would be a shifting of costs away from "vice" law enforcement onto agencies responsible for enforcing compliance with health, safety and employment regulations. Sex workers would have to be covered by workers' compensation, with an increase in claims for STDs, assaults by customers, even trip-and-fall accidents. Licensing would no doubt require regular medical examinations - how would the cost of this be funded? What kind of zoning or building code regulations would cover brothels? What kind of health code regulations?

Hmm, seems like legalization would drive the cost of sex way up.


Nis Baggesen


There is no significant social stigma attached to being a construction worker.


@49 & 64

Both points are irrelevant.

The social assumptions regarding a profession (or act) may incite lawmakers to declare it illegal, but that does nothing to justify the law. It's not illegal to be slut, but the social consequences are effectively equivalent. It's only illegal to get paid for being a slut.

Similarly the degree of unpleasantness in the profession has nothing to do with legality--aside from specific guidelines for safety. Regulated prostitution industries are likely to be far safer with respect to life and limb than fishing or mining industries.


I totally agree with R Deans from Sydney, its a pitty common sense is so rare.


Sweden didn't actually legalise the sale of sex, which was always legal. Rather, they criminalised the buyers. Norway is heading in the same direction on 1 January. Criminalising johns has exactly the same effect as criminalising prostitutes in that it drives prostitution underground, with all the problems associated with that. There is also the moral absurdity of it being illegal to purchase a service that can be legally sold.

Melissa Farley

While most people intuitively understand the harms of prostitution, they are confused about what to do about it. Decriminalization would mainstream prostitution's human rights violations, creating a class of mostly poor girls and women, often those who are ethnically and racially marginalized, who would be available for purchase.

Masquerading as a progressive initiative that would protect sex workers, Prop K directs San Francisco Police Department and the DA to refuse to enforce the State of California's prostitution laws. District Attorney Kamala Harris explained that Prop K would grant virtual immunity to traffickers by prohibiting prostitution investigations that often reveal evidence of sex trafficking. Prop K's proponents hide that fact.
Non-enforcement of prostitution laws would put our community at risk, and send a legal welcome out to pimps, traffickers, and johns. Prop K would empower pimps. K's proponents have renamed pimps: "support staff" and "business managers."

Ten years ago, the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women issued a Report titled "Violence Against Women in Prostitution in San Francisco." 78% of those who identified as prostitutes/sex workers had been traumatized by violence, the Commission found, "ranging from childhood sexual abuse, kidnapping, beatings, rape, torture, domestic violence, to sexual coercion and harassment - with many reporting multiple incidents and repeated re-victimization."

Women from Korea, China, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam testified about the San Francisco sex industry. Some had been sold by traffickers in San Francisco, where they existed in conditions of actual slavery. Prostitution itself is a racist, sexist activity that increases human trafficking. The first prostituted women in California were trafficked Chinese women. Today we see the same trafficking of Chinese, Korean, Filipina, Thai, and Vietnamese women who are sold to johns in Tenderloin massage parlors and brothels located in residential neighborhoods like the Sunset.

Decriminalization can't stop the violence, abuse, and stigma that are built-in to prostitution. Prostitution has increased dramatically in Australia and New Zealand since decriminalization, with a 200-400% increase in street prostitution in Auckland and a 300% increase in brothels in Victoria. Prostitution of children and youth has increased in both locations, with humanitarian agencies declaring that Maori and Aboriginal children are at highest risk for prostitution. Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands are now known as destinations for sex tourists. Attracted by the flow of cash, organized crime has increased. Mayor Job Cohen has begun closing down Amsterdam's prostitution zones because legal prostitution did not reduce crime as proponents had promised and women were no safer than when prostitution was illegal.

When prostitution is decriminalized, neighborhoods mount legal battles over whose back yard the next brothel will be zoned into. A few days ago, frightened parents discovered that a New Zealand brothel was in the same building as a child care center. Under decriminalized prostitution "We don't believe we have any legal avenues to stop them," said the director of the child care center.

In 2004, the voters in Berkeley overwhelmingly rejected a proposal for decriminalization of prostitution. Asked to assess the impact of decriminalization on Berkeley, the City Manager reported to the Mayor and City Council that decriminalized prostitution attract pimps and johns, and would result in Berkeley's becoming the Bay Area prostitution destination point. The exploitation of women and children, especially teenage prostitutes, would likely increase in Berkeley as a result of decriminalization. Decriminalization would significantly increase the cost of law enforcement, he predicted, and would also result in an increase in the numbers of crimes of sexual assault, battery, and robbery.

Medical providers would see an increase in STDs, according to the City Manager, especially in vulnerable groups of people with HIV, hepatitis, tuberculosis and other communicable diseases. Regardless of its legal status, prostitution places those in it at extremely high risk for HIV. That's because they are the most raped class of people in the world, and because many johns refuse to use condoms. There is no evidence that decriminalized prostitution reduces HIV risk. A recent study documented a 3-4% increase in HIV risk for each additional month spent in a brothel.

We need more services for women escaping prostitution, not more pimps trafficking women into San Francisco. A recession is hardest on those already struggling to get by. People in prostitution, whether they are teens running from abusive homes, gay youth rejected by homophobic environments, women who have no other way of paying next month's rent, or women who've been trafficked from China, Guatemala, Korea, Russia or Honduras - all are at risk and deserve our support, not Prop K which eliminates services and locks in those who tell us they want out.



While I am not partial of the idea, I feel that if it is decriminalized, it needs to be regulated and taxed. It would be completely illogical to simply remove any penalty for the act. If San Francisco wants to decriminalize such an act they need to take on the burden of regulating it. This would be quite a venture, especially when one considers such factors as income tax for prostitutes and sales tax for customers. Obviously, it is not impossible, Nevada has legal brothels.

It would be quite interesting to see what happens to overall crime rates if this proposition is passed. Some criminologists have theorized that small incivilities, such as prostitution and panhandling, can eventually lead to a decrease in informal social controls and allow crime to run rampent.

It seems that the bay area is continually attempting to pass controversial legislation. As I said before, if this proposition is passed into legislation, I hope San Francisco officials are willing to put forth the necessary effort to regulate and tax this practice.



Malslow said sex is part of physiological human needs.
In Asia, prostitution is not always legal, but much more tolerated and easily accessible than in Western countries.
Many major asian cities are much safer than their Western counterparts.
Many girls in asian cities can dress a (hell) lot sexier than their Western counterparts.


I used to be a big fan of the dutch approach (i.e. legalization and regulation) - but from the evidence I have seen it's just not working terribly well. IF prostitution would indeed be entirely legal and free of force and violence I think legalization would be best both on policy and moral grounds.
But that just does not seem to be the case. A lot of issues with trafficking, forced prostitution, drug-related forced prostitution etc. play into the topic, which has led the Swedes to impose their more restrictive model, which, from all that I have read, seems to "work" better - i.e. less trafficking and less violence against prostitutes (which for me are the two crucial benchmarks).


Works well in Nevada....


What's with all this business of regulation? I'll get skewered here, but the realm of prostitution is where the free-market would flourish.
Want a drug-and-disease-free prostitute? You'll have to pay for that... Want to take your chances on the dodgy-looking hooker? You'll pay less -- at least initially. You may have to explain to your wife where the disease came from (if it doesn't kill you).
The idea of decrimnalizing an act and following it up with positive externalities, such as free disease testing, drug testing, medical benefits, among a host of other tax-payer-provided benefits is lunacy.
Having sex is risky business. Particularly these days. I belive we all know what happens when risk is hedged by tax-payer money.
Lastly, as a purely economic study, eliminating any public-paid regulation of prostitution would let us finally find out how much it's worth to have sex!


"Split the difference" Arresting the customers and not the prostitutes is a horrible idea. They tried the Swedish model, and the result was that the price of sex work went down, customers that were left tended to demand unsafe sex more often, and they were more violent.

Decriminalization is a much better option.


I'm with Logan - legalize, regulate and tax.

You can't regulate something that is prohibited. It limits policy responses and fails to address the true social ills that the prohibition supposedly addresses.

Matt Osborne

Anything that gives a prostitute legal protections against pimps and johns is an improvement on stupid Puritan laws that protect sexual violence and misbehavior.


Lost in the greater debate is the fact that San Francisco is a "sanctuary city". Combine that with the anti-profiling clause and you have a recipe for illegal immigration.


One purpose of law that has not been discussed here is that it serves as a signal of what society believes - what it approves of or disproves of. No matter what Hollywood says about the matter, no matter that it's flaunted in advertising and the media, ilicit sex is wrong and saying, acting, or legistlating otherwise will not make it right.

"Free" or purchased sex cheapens pure love and debases man and woman alike.