I originally wrote this as a guest opinion piece for the Seattle Times. Although the Times didn’t publish it, I think it’s a subject worth addressing, particularly in light of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in New York announcing it would no longer prosecute prostitution.
I believe that just like adult-use marijuana, sex for sale should be legal, licensed and taxed. We’ve been wasting money prosecuting the sex trade for decades, and just like cannabis, the laws against it have had no effect. In my opinion, it’s one more example of people pushing their morality on others.
In 2012, voters in Colorado and Washington decided to go where no other state had ever gone. They legalized adult-use marijuana, reversing 70-plus years of policy that by most measures was a waste of time and money. The prohibition against cannabis consumption had virtually no effect on its price, availability or use and yet, in that same time period, taxpayers had to foot the enormous bill for enforcement and incarceration. Meanwhile, thousands of lives were derailed by drug offenses that never should have been considered crimes in the first place.
For many, including myself, the vote to legalize marijuana was not a vote to endorse its use. It was a vote to act in a pragmatic manner. Simply put, a lot of the “yes” votes came from people tired of appeasing moralists, as well as business interests — such as private prisons — that benefited from prohibition.
It’s time we take the same approach with prostitution.
Like marijuana, the sex business has been around for eons. It’s called “the world’s oldest profession” for good reason, and no amount of policing or moralizing is going to change that fact. And, like the previously illegal marijuana trade, prostitution is largely a “victimless crime” in that both the seller and buyer engage in the activity willingly and without any direct negative consequences to others.
By keeping the sex trade illegal, we fuel criminal gangs, waste our tax dollars and squander police resources. Sex workers, who are often abused and held against their will under the current status of the business, deserve better. They should be registered, licensed and allowed to work and pay taxes like the rest of society. With legalization, pimps would largely disappear — just like street corner pot dealers have in recent years — and the state would turn a fiscal negative into a positive. One more “victimless crime” would suddenly become a thing of the past, and a progressive state like Washington or Colorado could again lead the country in how we deal with a business that might be offensive to some, but a legitimate source of employment and income to others.
Of course, the state would need inspectors and a licensing agency. The state would also have to ensure that brothels were clean, well maintained and kept away from schools and churches (just like pot shops).
And just like pot shops, the business would have to ensure that only adults would be allowed to buy or sell the product. All these things can be done. With cannabis we’ve proven that we can make legalization work, and we should now do the same thing with the sex trade. Similar to marijuana, my support for legalization is not an endorsement of prostitution. It’s simply a practical way of looking at law enforcement.
Seattle has always been a progressive city. We’ve led the rest of the United States in many ways, both in business and culture. Let’s again show our fellow citizens that we are capable of dealing pragmatically with another controversial business, and that we can change course and rethink a losing strategy and work on smart solutions.