President Ronald Reagan once quipped, “Someone once said that politics is the second-oldest profession. I have learned that it bears a striking resemblance to the first.”
Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that prostitution may soon be decriminalized in Washington, D.C. If the city council has its way, the nation’s capital, a monument to America’s historic role in defending the rights and dignity of every individual, will become home to a booming sex trade.
On Thursday, the council will hold a hearing on decriminalizing every aspect of the commercial sex trade, including pimping, buying sex, and operating brothels. If successful, the same city that excels at providing historic and educational sites and experiences for millions of visitors every year will also become a destination for sex tourism, catering to the basest of human appetites.
Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren released a policy plan ostensibly on issues related to the LGBT community. Buried in the lengthy proposal by the Massachusetts Democrat is this statement: “I am also open to decriminalizing sex work. Sex workers, like all workers, deserve autonomy and are particularly vulnerable to physical and financial abuse and hardship.”
Warren is partially correct — those trapped in the vicious world of prostitution are at high risk of all manner of abuse and exploitation. She is grievously wrong in her proposed solution, however. Legalizing the sex trade, rather than protecting participants, creates new victims while perpetuating the oppression of existing ones, and all under the approving sanction of the law.
Proponents of decriminalization argue that transactions between consenting adults are no business of the government’s, or that creating a legal market will allow for regulation to protect health and safety. The reality, backed by substantial data, should give us pause.
A survey of individuals involved in illegal prostitution in Washington found that 61% had been physically assaulted. Most of these assaults were perpetuated by customers. Even in legal industries such as strip clubs, women report frequent harassment and violence. Treating human bodies as products to be bought and sold inevitably leads to the mistreatment of those who are sold.
The benefits promised by advocates of decriminalization consistently fail to materialize. Reduced demand for human trafficking is frequently cited as a reason for legalization, but in practice it seems to have the opposite effect. Germany, for example, saw a 70% increase in trafficking over five years as a result of legalization, according to a London School of Economics study.
Decriminalization also creates increased demand. A recent survey of men found that 20% of men who would never buy sex illegally would consider it if doing so was decriminalized and they knew that they would not suffer legal consequences. Rather than protecting those who are being sold, a legal sex trade ensnares even more vulnerable participants and degrades its ever-growing number of consumers.
Over a century and a half ago, our country definitively stated that commerce in human flesh was incompatible with the ideals contained in the Constitution of human dignity and fundamental rights. That some in the nation's capital want to turn their backs on that promise is unconscionable.
Victor Hugo’s classic novel Les Miserables tells the story of desperate mother Fantine, forced into so-called sex work by poverty and abandonment. Hugo aptly describes prostitution in her case as “society purchasing a slave … from misery. From hunger, cold, isolation, destitution. A dolorous bargain. A soul for a morsel of bread. Misery offers; society accepts.”
His words ring true today. While undeniably different from chattel slavery, prostitution is its own kind of bondage.
Legalizing the sex trade is neither compassionate nor pragmatic. The city council of Washington, and all those who care about maintaining the nation’s capital as a beacon of freedom and justice, should reject it. When confronted with the immense suffering that the sex trade produces, we must not look the other way.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Examiner