From the very beginnings of the United States, people have tried to legislate morality. One of the earliest examples is that of alcohol. In the early 19th century the women’s temperance movement started. For a short while, Susan B. Anthony and her suffrage movement allied itself with temperance women. But it did not take long for Anthony and others to realize that the temperance movement’s chief ally were the American churches who almost universally looked with disdain upon women’s suffrage. It was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) who were chiefly responsible for the passage of the 19th Amendment which outlawed the production and sale of alcohol. As we know this turned out to be a colossal failure. Not only did it feed into government corruption, but helped give rise to the crime mobs. While everyone seemed to agree that the nation had to deal with alcoholism, it was quickly apparent that outlawing the consumption of alcohol was not the answer.
The Volstead Act, which came into law at that same time was something of an offshoot of the temperance movement, having many of the proponents of the one proponents of the other. That law outlawed gambling and prostitution. Also in that same year, 1919, women’s suffrage succeeding in getting women the right to vote. Today most states allow some form of gambling ranging from the lottery ticket to casinos.
Finally we have the sex laws. In a 2003 decision, the US Supreme Court declared all laws against sodomy to be unconstitutional. Even so, 14 states still have laws prohibiting such acts. An argument for why those states have not changed those laws is that they do not any longer prosecute them. But in 2008 in North Carolina two men were arrested for engaging in consensual sex. And that brings into focus the conservative push to keep gay marriage from becoming legal in various states. Clearly churches have the absolute right to declare certain acts to be immoral and the law cannot challenge such things, meaning if they want to deny a gay couple from marrying in their church, that is their 1st Amendment right. But the state does not have the right to constitution laws with respect to religious beliefs, also a 1st Amendment prohibition.
In 1973 the US Supreme Court struck down laws which prohibited abortion with certain limitations. This was also decided as a First Amendment issue where a person has the right to make medical decisions with regard to the own body. I find myself in the strange position of believing in the right of each individual to make that choice, however, I found abortion to be reprehensible in all cases, to include pregnancies because of rape, incest and even where the mother’s life is in danger. But this is my own personal moral belief which I have absolutely no right to impose on any other individual. And for the record, I am not a member of any organized religion so that is not in play where my decision is concerned.
Now we come to the issue of prostitution. I find the very thought of men and women paying for sex disgusting. But here again I see this as a purely moral issue. I also believe that if a man or a woman wants to sell their body for sex, we should have no bars to that. I find it curious that prostitutes and their johns on the street are regularly arrested while “escorts” use that as a euphemism to sell sex. Nevada states that prostitution is legal in only one county in their state, but on cable tv there is a show called “Gigolos” which documents the work of four men who sell their bodies for sex to their female clients. It is an open practice that while technically illegal, it seems Nevada, or at least Las Vegas, does not chose to prosecute these people even while they are arresting the street prostitute doing the very same thing.
Of chief concern to the general public with regard to prostitution should be three things: public health, violence against women, and the attendant crime that follows street prostitutes. I think the first thing which needs to be done nationally is the total decriminalization of prostitution across the nation together with incentives to remove it from the streets. The Swedes came up with a great idea for removing prostitution from their streets which while imperfect, has greatly reduced it. When a john is busted for solicitation his name is printed prominently in the local newspaper. I would do the same in this country coupled with far stricter laws with regard to pimps, mandatory sentences with long jail terms.
Most women who prostitute have been victimized in one way or another. What makes it worse, they were victims at an age well under 18 when they could make adult choices. They are conscripted into the sex trade by force, by intimidation, or by circumstance at 13, 14, and 15 years of age. Our society, unfortunately, does little to help these victims when they are discovered.
The men who control these prostitutes are frequent engaged in the sale and distribution of drugs, engage in violence against the women they have power over, and against their johns. It is rare any of these crimes is punished. Our police departments simply do not have the manpower to even reduce prostitution and its attendant crime, let alone reduce it at all.
If governments move prostitution off the streets and into controlled facilities, the incidence of crime, disease and the sale of drugs should go down. This experiment is currently, since 2003, being tried in New Zealand. There are claims the incidence of street prostitution there has not gone down, however such problems can be overcome once you admit you have a problem and your old ways of attempting to deal with have met with absolute failure. Eradicating prostitution is impossible but controlling it is entirely possible, if we are willing to try.