Legalizing and Regulating Prostitution

Cecil’s column that is currently featured is about prostitution. He briefly mentions the need for regulation if it were to be legalized, which reminded me of a book I read about historical prostitution in Colorado. One thing I was surprised to find out is that Victorian society was more pragmatic than we often think. Many pioneer towns managed the remarkable feat of regulating prostitution, even though it was illegal. It was apparently quite common to have a varying system of fines–for example, the fine for prostitution might be $10 north of Main Street, but $20 south of Main Street.

I’ve been thinking off and on about how a modern system of regulation might look if prostitution were legalized. I’ve come up with something of a rough draft that hopefully will spark a good discussion.

A Regulatory Scheme for Prostitution

  1. Every person who wishes to be a prostitute must be registered with and licensed by the state Dept. of Health.

  2. Doing business as a prostitute without a valid license shall be a Class 4 felony.

  3. All licensed prostitutes must undergo testing for all STD’s every 3 months. The prostitute shall submit the results of each test to the Dept. within 3 days. Failure to do either of these will result in the license being suspended.

  4. The Dept. shall maintain an internal database of all registered prostitutes listing their full name, business name, dates of registration and licensing, the results of health inspections, and any disciplinary action.

  5. The Dept. shall maintain a public, searchable database of all registered prostitutes listing everything above except for full name.

  6. All licensed prostitutes shall advertise and do business under their registered business name and no other.

  7. Licenses must be renewed every two years. Renewal shall not be automatic, but rather shall take into account the prostitute’s compliance with the regulations. Denial of renewal can be appealed to the Head of the Dept.

I think that a “safety rating” system makes more sense than registration, licensing, etc. The problem with legalizing prostitution is that 90% of prostitution can’t/won’t become legal. There’s the high-end range, where customers are paying hundreds of dollars an hour, and there’s the low-end range where - even if the girl isn’t strung out, underage, or an illegal immigrant - it’s still not a high income profession that’s being well-managed by entrepreneurial whiz kids. If you force them to go through a bunch of bureaucracy and paperwork, you’re going to end up basically where we are today. Technically 100% of everything is illegal today, but if the police don’t care about the top 10% - because it’s well-run and safe - then legalizing the top 10% isn’t that useful.

If you open up legalization to everyone, of legal age, then you’ve enfranchised a larger percent of the women. They can go to the police if they need help, because they don’t need to worry about getting caught out on their illegally run operation. If you further legalize it, regardless of age, and instead prosecute the customers who do something bad, then all women can come and seek help. For the sake of social safety, you can let the businesses post in proof of doctor’s visits, pay for inspections, etc. as their finances allow, and that allows customers to try and match their “need” and finances to the official safety rating, and I suspect that will help to grow a middle-class of prostitutes, since even for the low-end workers, they’ll see a sharp correlation between “I just got a checkup at the doctor’s” and income, and raise their prices to finance doctor’s visits more often.

It’s legal in plenty of countries, and their societies haven’t fallen apart.

Nope, just make it legal. There is absolutely no justification the government should be able to tell consenting adults that the can not exchange money for sex.
That said, I am in favor of having a system in place the would give the sex worker a choice of getting licensed through the state.

First institute a healthy social services system. Make health care and every level of education free and of high quality. Implement a guaranteed minimal income. Guarantee extra support to children and their mothers. Once that’s done, let’s see how many women still want to be prostitutes and then act accordingly.

Prostitution is legal in the state of Victoria, and is regulated by specific legislation.

To my mind, the regulation is to protect the sex worker as much as the client.

Sage Rat, you seem to be operating on the assumption that regulated prostitution would have a very expensive barrier to entry. Now it could be–but under a system such as mine, where entry is open to anybody who meets the requirements, it’s very unlikely to be.

Just for fun, I did a little searching for STD testing prices, and even if a government license cost a few hundred dollars, the total start-up costs would likely be under $1000. That’s astoundingly cheap for virtually any type of business.

Combine that with the stick of severe penalties for non-licensed prostitution, and I think that the vast majority of prostitutes would jump at the chance to get licensed–and most of those who didn’t would probably be driven out of business by the legal competition. After all, who would want to take a chance on a non-licensed prostitute when they can look up licensed ones in the government-run database?

I’m not normally a fan of regulation, but prostitution looks to be a perfect example of Akerlof’s market for lemons. In such a market, sellers have no good way to communicate quality to buyers, causing high-quality buyers to leave the market. This results in high-quality sellers leaving the market, and the effect trickles down until the market collapses. Government regulation can prevent this and make the market more efficient.

I’m not sure I follow. Are you suggesting that prostitution would collapse with out regulation? Because prostitution been around since the dawn of time.

Not that it wouldn’t exist, only that it’s a market where government regulation could possibly improve outcomes.

Because… people looking for prostitutes are like used car buyers? :smiley:

I think the main issue with a lack of “middle class” prostitutes is just that there’s no market for them. In the US today, the general attitude is that you should be able to just go out and have a fling and that having to pay for sex would be a pretty big personal failing. Prostitution as it exists now basically caters to two types of people: the dregs who don’t really care what society thinks who are patronizing the streetwalker types and people in positions of wealth and authority who patronize call girls because they need discretion and to avoid any entanglements.

In the past, there was more of a stigma towards having a casual fling (adulterous or not) but much less of a stigma towards paying for sex. The brothels used to be the domain of the “middle class” hooker and up until World War II they operated more or less out in the open even in places where they were ostensibly illegal. That they started getting shut down during the post war period when the sexual revolution was just starting up is a reflection of the shift in society’s attitudes, not necessarily just those of law enforcement.

I’d argue that these days independent sex workers operating via the internet occupy a similar “middle” position as the brothel workers of old, but other than in some big cities the market for them is tiny.

I would go farther and say that well-designed regulation would most definitely improve outcomes. The customers could be reasonably confident of not getting a disease, and the legal prostitutes wouldn’t have any fear of going to the police in a bad situation.

My proposed regulations contain provisions that would be helpful to both sides of the equation.

…I think that compulsory registration and licencing are terrible and dehumanizing ideas. I’ve spoken at length in these forums before about this.

I live in New Zealand, prostitution is legal here, no registration is required and health checks are not required nor mandated. And in the 13 years since prostitution law reform bill passed there hasn’t been a single case where registration would have made a lick of difference. The changes to NZ law were bought about by sex workers themselves: they pushed for the change and were the driving force behind what got put into the regulations. And it was this basic level of respect given to the people most affected by the change in laws that have, IMHO, made the law change a success.

Which is why I couldn’t endorse or support your ideas. They aren’t based on what what sex workers think would make them and their clients safer, but based on a very superficial view of the sex industry and how it actually works.

Well no they wouldn’t, and almost every survey taken around the world of sex workers bears that out. Sex workers very well might be students, housewives, the person who works at the local grocery store. I’ve met examples of all three, and many many more. They wouldn’t jump at the chance to get their name put on a public database or even a private one.

The big reason for legalization is to get prostitutes off the streets. Street-walking is a very dangerous was of life and legal brothels are much safer. Right now in Canada it is legal to sell sex, but illegal to buy it. This was supposed to make it safer for the prostitutes since they would not be afraid of arrest. I don’t know what genius dreamed this up (it is apparently based on a Swedish law) but it still leaves brothels illegal and keeps the prostitutes on the street.

I suppose high-end brothels might embrace voluntary health testing and low level ones not. I think that any legal regime that makes it hard to run a brothel will tend to keep prostitutes on the street.

That list is kind of ridiculous, especially in a line of business that will have a stigma for the foreseeable future. Good luck leaving this line of work if there is an openly available registry where your past is on display. At the moment they are talking about mandatory health checks for prostitutes in Germany and it is mainly considered to be to the detriment of the prostitutes (another thing the authorities can be difficult about).

With these kind of statues and additional costs, I’m sure most prostitutes will prefer the current situation.

I’m not sure I follow this logic at all. In Georgia there are literally hundeds of occupations that must be certified and/or licensed by the state. If the person cutting your hair, manicuring your nails or giving a massage has to be certified/licensed by the government, why wouldn’t a prostitute?

I don’t know anyone practicing those professions who consdideres the certification/licensure to be “terrible and dehumanizing”.

As per my post: prostitution still carries a stigma in society. It’s not something people want to have publicly available for all to see… especially if they don’t intend to stay in the job for a long time.

This also goes for very practical issues: try getting a mortgage or car loan as a registered prostitute. I’ve heard/read numerous stories from (legally) working girls in the Netherlands that encounter these kind of practical issues. Even while being in a legit profession.

…I don’t know any hairdressers who are compelled to go to a doctor every six months, pull down their pants and submit to a blood test. Do you?

People are fucking every minute of every hour of every single day. You don’t need to get certified to do that. NZ law requires sex workers to perform safe sex. Brothel operators need to be certified. But a housewife who may have a couple of clients per year does not, and I don’t have a clue as to why anyone would think that she would. And forcing her to register is a sure fire way to drive the industry underground.

If you are a sex worker in the United States there is every chance you might end up in jail. Sex workers in general have a history of horrible things happening to them both prior to entering the industry and also when they are working in the industry. Due to the way they are viewed by society sex work has always been something that has been looked down on. Sex workers are also (justifiably) suspicious of any change that lawmakers seek to make. They don’t trust them. And history has nearly always proven them right. Forcing them to register “just because hair dressers get certified” is silly. You need to firstly prove that there is a compelling reason for them to register (and 13 years of NZ reform show that there really isn’t any reason) then you need to get the Sex Workers trust so that they would willingly sign up to a register.

But at the moment you guys are throwing them in jail. Putting a sex workers name on a register isn’t the same as putting a hair dressers name on a register. For the sex worker, its simply another way for the State to keep in control of her/his life. To keep an eye on them. They don’t trust you. And they have good reason for that.

The law reforms in NZ were a real sea change for the industry. Things aren’t perfect now, and they never will be. But the industry is so much safer now. Policemen are now sitting in jail for crimes against sex workers. A sex worker took a client to court over non-payment and won. By empowering the industry by not taking the “do-gooder” route of registration/health checks, etc, sex work is slowly working its way out of the underground and becoming something not to be horribly ashamed about.

I shot this event as a photographer a couple of years ago.

It was a room full of beautiful people, some of whom were involved in the sex industry back in yesteryear. I will not share their stories, as they are not mine to share. But they were funny and heartbreaking and inspiring. NZ society has moved on significantly since those horrible days. But we still have a long way to go. And some places in the world are still living in those dark, dark days.

Laws where you are may be different, but in American it’s fairly common for both individuals and companies to do business under different names. My proposed system would allow Jane Smith to run a prostitution business under an entirely different name. Thus, no public history to follow her.