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Harry Reid Wants to Criminalize Prostitution? Expect More Rape and Disease in Nevada

Senator Harry Reid wants to criminalize prostitution in Nevada. That's a very bad idea.

Democratic Senator Harry Reid believes the time has come to end legalized prostitution in his state of Nevada, the only state left in the union in which the world’s oldest profession is still legal (in 10 of the 17 counties). Reid, who is a Mormon, said before the Nevada State Legislaturein late February: “If we want to attract businesses to Nevada that put people back to work, the time has come for us to outlaw prostitution.” Adding: “[P]arents don’t want their children to look out of a school bus and see a brothel, or live in a state with the wrong kind of red lights.”

Thankfully, the vast majority of Nevada lawmakers—both Democrat and Republican—ignored Reid’s call to arms, deeming it a cheap attempt to “legislate morality.” What they apparently know, and what Reid apparently does not, is that legal prostitution is far superior to the alternative in nearly every way. It’s safer, healthier, more just, and smarter. And there’s actually a lot of research proving that.

To begin, let’s state the obvious: Prostitution—unlike theft or child molestation—is a business transaction between two consenting adults. It doesn’t violate anyone’s rights and, unlike, say, heroin, which can kill people when not used properly, most normal sex shouldn’t prove lethal. Prostitution should not be legislated.

As with any vice, when prostitution is legislated, it doesn’t go away, it just goes underground, where things become very dangerous indeed.

Because most prostitutes are working illegally, most of them also don’t go to the police when they’re raped or otherwise assaulted, which happens pretty frequently. In a survey of more than 100 San Francisco prostitutes in 1998, more than half reported having been physically attacked by customers, and 46 percent reported being raped by customers. Violent pimps are also given free rein in the illegal sex industry, with a 1991 study of prostitutes in Portland, Oregon, showing that hookers were beaten an average of 58 times per year by their pimps.

Besides violence, illegal prostitution also practically guarantees prostitutes and their clients will be afflicted with a bevy of diseases. About three quarters of the new syphilis rates in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2008 could be attributed to prostitution, according to the county’s department of health. By contrast, in a study of 350 women working in Nevada’s legal brothels—which are required to regularly screen all their employees for STDs—not one single worker had HIV, and the rate of gonorrhea was at about one percent. The reported yielded this conclusion: “A combination of licensing requirements, mandatory condom use, on-site AIDS prevention education for workers and promotion of low risk non-penetrative sexual practices is proposed as critical to the AIDS prevention success of the Nevada brothel system.”

Nevada’s system is far from perfect, of course. According to the Nevada Coalition Against Sex Trafficking: 81 percent of women working the state’s brothels don’t want to be prostitutes. But the fact remains that some women do want to be prostitutes, and the number of men visiting prostitutes doubled between 1995 and 2005.

In a perfect world, everyone would have jobs that fulfilled them, and one would hope that none of those jobs would be having sex with strangers for money. Alas, the world isn’t perfect, and prostitution remains. The least we as a society can do now is ignore the calls of puritans like Senator Reid and make prostitution a safe, legal, and imperfect job for the time being.

photo (cc) via Flickr user Larry Page

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