Ah, the “P” word, it seems to be everywhere in the news these days and, as always, a catalyst for heated debate. What a wonderful opportunity to bring arguments of sexuality, morality, economics, public health, religion and politics into play all on a single issue. The aptly named “oldest profession” has even garnered front-page coverage in both the venerable Wall Street Journal and New York Times in recent weeks. Forbes magazine as well ran a very controversial article last year titled “The Economics of Prostitution” summarizing the work of two respected economists (both women) who had the audacity to create a model for evaluating the economic benefits in deciding to take a wife or a whore! To a businessman such as myself, if I consider that the buying and selling of carnal joy has all of the characteristics of any legitimate business, including a whole host of customer satisfaction issues, then perhaps this is not so surprising. Prostitution is nothing new to the news though, and the question whether it should be a legal business or not has produced a variety of answers, or non-answers, around the world.
In India it is legal and in China it is not, but China has as many, if not more, prostitutes than India. The rest of Asia is a mixed bag, but the prevailing “model” there is usually tacit approval, even if strictly illegal by law, up to and including registration and taxation. Most of Europe regulates (or better to say, permits) some form of prostitution; often in open contradiction to legal statutes as is the case in the Netherlands. Closer to home, Mexican and Canadian prostitutes are protected from arrest provided the rules are followed and they operate within the boundaries set up for them, and South America is generally “prostitution friendly”. There seems to be no universal consensus as to whether prostitution is evil and should be abolished at all costs, or just a necessary vice that can be tolerated provided it remains within boundaries that are acceptable to society. Even our founding fathers were wise enough to leave this dicey subject up to the individual states.
The curiosity to explore our sexuality and to expand our sexual boundaries is a natural and mostly healthy urge. That surge of dopamine that blasts through the brain on orgasm is addictive for many, and there will always be a segment of society who, for a host of reasons, seeks out sex for the sake of sex. Some will even argue that the desire to have sex is no different than the desire to eat or to drink and patronizing a prostitute is no less wrong than a visit to the local diner, after all, both desires are more or less hardwired in the limbic system of the brain. Whether this reasoning is morally correct may well be debatable but I don’t think any amount of criminalization is going to make recreational sex go away, if anything, it just relocates the practice to another’s jurisdiction. One country often held up as a model by the moralists is Sweden, where it is claimed strict criminalization and severe punishment has drastically reduced the problem. I am not so convinced. A search on the web still turns up plenty of high end “escorts” plying their trade there, and a quick census of the red light districts in more “tolerant” countries like Estonia and the Netherlands nearby, or the more distant Thailand and Cambodia just might show the well-heeled Swedes make up a disproportionate percent of the crowd.
My own view is any decision to legalize or not legalize prostitution should be made mainly on the basis of its overall economic impact and the benefits to public health and safety and should leave out the politics of morality. The economic benefit would of course be the ability to legitimize and tax the probably large sums of money involved, and return some of it back to the overall society for more productive uses. It would also allow for a set of rules and regulations that would certainly reduce the health and safety risks that are rampant in its current “underground” environment. If the act is consensual, between adults of legal age, and both parties exercise their own free will, where is the harm? Those nasty and unsavory villains called pimps together with the blight of drug addiction, risk of sexually transmitted disease and the horrors of forced sexual slavery are the first to come to mind, but logically, these threats are the ones most likely to be eradicated, or at least better controlled, by legalizing prostitution. It seems to me our ability as a society to attack these most reprehensible issues would be more desirable, at least to the majority of us, than the abolishment of prostitution itself, a goal as unlikely to happen as is you or I finding a 1,000 carat diamond in our backyard garden.