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Should prostitution be legalized? (asking for a friend)

A note from the editor:

When I was a college senior, one of my sorority sisters came back from summer break flush with cash. She told me she’d spent her summer working as a stripper and high-end escort. I was shocked. We were at an elite college, most of us heading toward relatively traditional jobs. Wasn’t being a stripper/escort a small step away from prostitution?  

But my sorority sister said she enjoyed the work, made good money, and that it gave her a sense of control over her sexuality (after a previous sexual assault, dating and hook-ups were difficult for her). 

I walked away from the conversation genuinely vexed. On the one hand, her decision to strip was linked to her assault (and I later learned that many strippers and prostitutes are victims of sexual abuse/assault). On the other hand, if it empowered her, who was I to judge? Also: she was an adult, capable of making her own choices. If no one coerced her into the job … shouldn’t she be able to?

Countries around the world are currently grappling with the question of how to handle sex work. And it turns out the issue is, well, complicated. Let's dive in: 


Your Mom: Fun fact: In 2003, Rhode Island accidentally decriminalized prostitution.

You: What do you mean “accidentally” decriminalized it?

Your Mom: A judged interpreted a legal loophole to mean that any sex between consenting adults was not a crime as long as it took place privately and indoors.

You: … which includes sex for money.

Your Mom: Exactly. But remember: the judge’s ruling only decriminalized it indoors. Which meant while outdoor solicitation was still considered a crime, massage parlors, escort services, and “online encounters” suddenly could operate legally – inside.

You: I now realize why my cousin randomly moved to Providence in ’04.

Your Mom: It took the state six years to close the loophole. But this period was a unique opportunity for researchers to see what happened when sex work was decriminalized.  

You: And?

Your Mom: For one, the sex trade grew: There was a rise in advertisements, a decrease in arrests, and at least anecdotally, an increase in sales.

You: Not surprised. It’s not like legalizing weed leads to a decline in cannabis consumption. 🤷

Your Mom: True! Additionally, however, reports of forcible rape declined by 31%, and gonorrhea in females declined by almost 40%.

You: Wow. And this was entirely due to the law changing?

Your Mom: Researchers couldn’t say with 100% certainty that the law was the cause, but they theorized that decriminalizing prostitution gave sex workers an improved bargaining position. It also may have empowered them to protect and defend themselves because they knew they wouldn’t be punished by police.

You: Sounds like a strong case for legalization!

Your Mom: Not so fast. First, there’s a difference between decriminalization (like in Rhode Island) and legalization. Decriminalization means getting rid of punishments for sex workers. Legalization involves creating new laws that regulate when, how, and where sex work takes place.

You: Like in Nevada?

Your Mom: Yup. In Nevada, prostitution is legal and regulated in areas with less than 700K people. About 20 legal brothels, including the infamous Moonlite BunnyRanch, are currently operating.

The Moonlite BunnyRanch

The Moonlite BunnyRanch. Source: Daily Mail

So is it working there?

Your Mom: Well, the regulations mean the women are over 18 and consenting. They set their own rates and can refuse clients. Sex is safer too, since clients must wear condoms, and the state requires regular STD testing. Plus, the brothels generate significant tax revenue for Nevada.

You: Well that all sounds pretty good.

Your Mom: On the other hand, most sex work in Nevada still takes place illegally.

You: 🤦🏼‍♀️ Why?

Your Mom: It’s 300% cheaper to hire an illegal prostitute than a legal one. Brothels also can’t operate in Las Vegas (too populated) where a lot of potential clients are located. And despite the brothels selling a “happy hooker” image, critics argue that sex workers in brothels are isolated, overworked, and taken advantage of by the operations’ owners. Many also were also previous victims of abuse or sex trafficking.



Take-Home Question:

When it comes to discouraging certain behaviors, what’s more effective: criminalization or legalization/regulation?



Header image: Laura Secorun Palet via



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