Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ronald Weitzer's "Legalizing Prostitution"

Ronald Weitzer is Professor of Sociology at George Washington University and author or editor of many books, including Sex for Sale: Prostitution, Pornography, and the Sex Industry, Second Edition.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Legalizing Prostitution: From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business, and reported the following:
On page 99 of my new book, Legalizing Prostitution, I discuss the situation in New Zealand after prostitution was decriminalized in 2003. Some of the standard concerns about legalization include whether the number of sex workers and clients will increase after legalization has occurred, how the authorities treat newly-legal participants in commercial sex exchanges, and whether sex workers will feel empowered or oppressed by the new regulations. Regarding New Zealand, page 99 reads, in part:
A major evaluation in 2008 indicated that the number of prostitutes has remained about the same as prior to legalization and that there has been no increase in the number of underage workers. In addition, more than 90 percent of prostitutes (survey N = 772) were aware that they had legal and employment rights under the new law; two-thirds felt that the law gave them more leverage to refuse a client or his requests; and a majority (57 percent) felt that police attitudes had changed for the better since passage of the law.
No one would predict that everything would improve in such a short time period (2003-2008). It typically takes quite a number of years for a vice that was previously illegal to gain acceptance and become normalized – as was true, for example, for casino gambling in Nevada when it first began or problems regulating medical marijuana today in the 15 states that allow doctors to prescribe it for patients. In New Zealand, as my book points out, legal prostitutes continue to feel that certain employment conditions have not improved and that sex work continues to be stigmatized by New Zealanders. But overall, as I write on page 100, the government’s main prostitution monitoring agency has concluded that “legalization had achieved many of its objectives and that the majority of individuals involved in the sex industry were better off now than under the prior system” of criminalization.

What the New Zealand case shows is that legalized prostitution can be organized in a way that is superior to criminalized prostitution, where participants not only risk arrest but also face much higher risk of victimization and exploitation. And the New Zealand case is by no means unique. In varying degrees, other settings where prostitution has been legalized reveal certain benefits of a liberalized approach. Nevada’s legal brothels (restricted to rural counties, not the cities of Las Vegas and Reno) are very safe and healthy workplaces. For instance, not one prostitute in these legal brothels has tested HIV-positive since the Nevada mandated monthly testing in 1985. Most of the book focuses on my research on three other legal prostitution systems – in Frankfurt, Germany, Antwerp, Belgium, and Amsterdam, the Netherlands. My research identifies both advantages and disadvantages of each of these rather different models. We see that legal prostitution is far from a monolithic category: there are major differences from one legal system to another and these differences are largely due to the specific kinds of regulations in place post-legalization. Is it possible to identify a set of “best practices” across settings where prostitution has been legalized? I think so, and the final chapter of the book lists several practices that I advocate as universal norms for any society considering legal reform.

What about the United States more generally? Well, the U.S. has steadily moved in the direction of enhanced criminalization, in the sense that penalties have increased and new offenses have been created over the past two decades. Although as many as 45 percent of Americans favored legalizing prostitution in a public opinion poll, no state has seriously considered this in recent memory. However, it is possible that change could happen at the local level. In a 2008 ballot measure in San Francisco, for example, 42 percent favored de facto decriminalization of prostitution – which means that the city’s police would simply stop enforcing the prostitution laws. Prostitution would remain illegal by state law (which trumps local measures) but the San Francisco police would informally cease enforcing the law. Although the measure failed to win majority support, the fact that 42 percent voted in favor of it (in the face of a robust campaign by opponents of the measure) suggests that at least some kind of liberalization might occur in a particular city in the future. The former mayor of Las Vegas also floated the possibility of legalizing brothels in a designated district of the city. We can conclude, therefore, that criminalization in the U.S., while it reigns supreme today, may be lifted in at least some jurisdictions in the future.
Learn more about Legalizing Prostitution at the NYU Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue