One of the last rites of passage of a modernized society is the legalization of prostitution. Although sex work has receded to the background of social issues concerning the United States, its legalization remains a contested topic of debate, dredged up every time news of a philandering politician or soccer mom prostitution ring surfaces in the media. While these stories tend toward the scandalous, there is an underlying conversation about legalization worth having.
Governmental recognition of prostitution varies from country to country. The sex trade is legal and regulated today in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Turkey, Mexico, and New Zealand, to name
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a few. Other nations have made prostitution illegal but punish the client, not the sex worker. Some governments are sympathetic and see sex work as a source of income for women who may not have other employment options.
In this regard, the U.S. has moved backward, not forward. Up until the 20th century, sex work was tolerated in major cities from coast to coast, and regulation attempts were made by city councils. In the 1910s, San Francisco set up a municipal clinic to register and examine female sex workers for venereal disease. The clinic operated for two years and succeeded in reducing instances of VD, as well as rescuing women who had been trafficked into the sex trade. The clinic closed its doors when the California state legislature passed the Red Light Abatement Act, effectively eliminating legalized prostitution and forcing sex workers underground.
Movements for the legalization of prostitution in the United States spring up regularly, usually lead by sex workers themselves. Arguments in favor of legalization are pragmatic: Sex workers suffer incredible violence and harassment at the hands of clients, pimps and police. Legalization of prostitution would reduce instances of sex trafficking and ensure that every sex worker is part of the trade by their own free choice. Regulation of prostitution would also help track and reduce the spread of sexually transmitted infections. True elimination of prostitution will never be achieved, and would it not make more sense to regulate it safely?