Free this vice
Political conventions are good for business, including the sex business. That’s especially the case in Tampa this year, as the city prepares for an influx of Republican delegates, more than 60 percent of whom are wealthy males. But this is hardly a partisan issue — my home city of Denver experienced its own spike in prostitution during the 2008 Democrat convention.
The vast majority of American cities take a dismal view of the “world’s oldest profession.” Detractors point to an industry characterized by violence, drug use and disease as justification to spend more resources pursuing violators. But before Tampa authorities spend too much time going after delegates interested in a bit of companionship, they should carefully consider the unintended consequences.
Prostitution, for the most part, is a symptom of poverty. People enter that industry because they are poor and don’t have better options to support themselves and their families.
This admittedly risky decision is rendered even riskier, however, when cities decide to take a “no tolerance” approach to the practice. For instance, cracking down on prostitution drives up the price of the service, increasing the profitability of truly awful practices like human sex trafficking. It also leads to more violence against sex workers unable to use the justice system to protect themselves against physical abuses by customers and employers.
In addition, research clearly shows that the criminalization of prostitution aggravates STD infection rates, because commercial sex workers in an illegal environment have less freedom to negotiate on prices. This makes it more difficult to require their customers to use protection, making the prostitute more susceptible to an STD and increasing the risk that other customers are infected.
Fixing these problems doesn’t require us to set aside moral objections to prostitution, but it does require us to treat this particular “vice” no differently than any other.
Studies have shown that decriminalizing prostitution allows sex workers to negotiate with customers and require basic safety precautions such as the use of condoms. They can also use the justice system to protect themselves against violent customers and no longer need a protector (or “pimp”) to ensure that customers will pay them and not violently abuse them.
It also reduces the incentives to engage in human trafficking, as customers no longer have a need to engage in a business transaction with sex workers forced into this industry.
Decriminalization of prostitution can be done responsibly through use of licensing, because the acquisition and renewal of a license could be conditional on clean testing for STDs and HIV. Indeed, studies show that licensing prostitution helps reduce public health concerns associated with the possibility of sex workers infecting members of the general population by serving as a vehicle of STDs or HIV between customers.
Criminalizing prostitution doesn’t resolve the problem of poverty and doesn’t save the prostitutes — it just makes a risky profession even riskier.
Municipal governments in cities like Tampa should let consenting adults do as they please and instead direct their resources to preventing involuntary prostitution where human beings are being violently forced to engage in a business activity they wouldn’t engage in freely.
Alexandre Padilla is an associate professor of economics at Metropolitan State University of Denver.