Did you ever stop to wonder why prostitution is illegal? I did. Aside from explicitly religious moral reasons, I can't see why it is.
Pick your jaw off the floor. Got it? OK, then, I'll continue.
When you get down to the nuts and bolts of it, what is a prostitute doing? She…I know men prostitute themselves, too, but definite pronouns are less confusing…She is selling the use of her body for a span of time. Why is that illegal? It's her body. It's not like there isn't legal precedence for it.
Anyone who does physical labor, be it working in a coal mine, building a house, or being a body guard, is selling his body. His physical strength and endurance is an economic asset to himself, his family, and his employer.
Take athletes for example. They sell the use of their highly trained bodies to sports teams. They can be beaten up repeatedly and left with a multitude of lingering physical ailments when they retire. Nobody's arresting them (at least not for what they do for a living). Not only do they sell their bodies for competition, but they also sell themselves as clothing racks. Companies pay millions of dollars for a sports star to wear their logos or their brand.
Athletes aren't the only ones who sell their bodies as advertizements. These days, any ordinary Joe can walk around with an ad for GoldenPalace.com tattooed to his forehead. It's happened. There have even been pregnant women renting out ad space on their extruded abdomens. That's not illegal. It's capitalism.
Let's not forget the quintessential walking billboard, models. In fact, not only are they paid to use their bodies to show off clothing, they're paid to do so with sex appeal. Models use their sexuality as a business asset for themselves and for their employers, something they have in common with prostitutes.
Pornographic models are even more closely related. They're not just selling sexiness, they're selling eroticism. One might even argue that the goal of their work is to assist in bringing about sexual gratification for viewers. We Christians consider pornography vulgar and sinful, and rightly so, but it's quite legal (except under certain extreme circumstances).
What, then, makes prostitution illegal? What's the difference between a guy paying for a dirty magazine, looking at it, and pleasuring himself, and a guy who pays for someone else to arouse and pleasure him? From the preceding, it's clear that the selling of one's body, even for sexual purposes, isn't illegal. Nor is the purchase of goods and services rendered by another body. It must be the sexual act itself.
I suppose one could argue that prostitution detrimentally affects society in the form of broken marriages and the like. Then again, so do spending too much time at work or play, drinking too much, and adultery. When was the last time you saw someone get arrested for any of those?
Maybe prostitution is a public health hazard because prostitutes often carry and spread diseases. Well, there are a hell of a lot of people engaging in consentual unprotected sex and spreading diseases. Are we going to arrest them?
A common arguement is that prostitution is degrading to women. I could list a number of legal things that are degrading to women, but I'll refrain for fear of being mislabeled as sexist. Of course, for a lot of prostitutes, the job goes well beyond degrading when their pimps beat them or otherwise treat them as cheap property. Well, abuse is illegal on its own, so that's a red herring. Besides, this problem, and the health hazards, could be more effectively dealt with if prostitution were legal, which brings me to my next point.
Not only can I find little reason for it to be illegal, I can think of potential benefits of making it legal. In fact, legalization could help alleviate or ameliorate most of the problems mentioned above.
Prostitution's hard work and could permanently damage prostitutes' bodies. OK, give them health insurance. Better yet, force their pimps to pay for their insurance. As it stands, they're working anyway, but without insurance.
I mentioned that people sell themselves as billboards. Well, if prostitution were legal, the possibility of endorsement deals would open up. Condom makers, for instance, could endorse prostitutes. Another possibility would be clothing designers paying for their clothes to be worn on the job. There are other economic benefits, though. As a legal form of employment, prostitution would generate tax revenue through income tax collection.
How about the public health hazard? Well, that can be helped in two ways. The first is that legalization would put prostitutes and pimps into a legal employee-employer relationship that would be regulated by applicable laws concerning fair hiring practices, fair wages, etc. The second would be regulation. Corner hotdog vendors have to have 1) a sales permit that allows them to legally solicit on the premises and 2) a health permit that says that their equipment, methods, and raw materials have been inspected and found to produce safe foodstuffs. Why couldn't the same ideas be applied to prostitution? Permits for solicitation and health code certification could be required. Furthermore, periodic health screenings would help ensure not only the health of the workers, but also their customers.
As legally recognized members of the workforce, prostitutes could unionize. This would give them leverage against their pimps and result in better treatment and probably better pay.
Another considerable benefit of legalization would be spare law enforcement man-hours. If cops didn't have to investigate and arrest, lawyers didn't have to prosecute, and judges didn't have to judge and sentence prostitutes and pimps, they'd be free to pursue other, perhaps more dangerous, criminals.
All in all, the only harm I can see in legalizing prostitution is moral in nature. There are a great number of societal ills, as defined by religious morality, that open acceptance of the practice would cause. Since when is that a reason to make something illegal, though? If it were, there'd be a lot more we're not allowed to do, and we wouldn't be very free people. If, as a country, governed by representatives elected to wield legislative power by the free consent of the governed, we can agree that moral grounds are sufficient to make laws, so be it; prostitution should remain illegal. A corollary to that, though, is that the same moral grounds could justifiably be used to ban abortion and homosexual marriage. If, on the other hand, the electorate decides that moral grounds are insufficient by themselves for legislation, prostitution should be made legal.
Please realize that this post is a long out-loud thought. I'm not irrevocably attached to any of the preceding arguments. I just thought they'd spur interesting conversations. So, dear readers, what are your thoughts on this matter?
Addendum 02/08/06: A certain theme in the comments has convinced me that some clarification is needed. A representative sample:
"I was just aghast that so much ink (or pixels, as the case may be) would be spilled on a Christian website arguing that prostitution should be legal."
If nothing else, it is my hope that a rational debate about this matter would aid in Christians in the pursuit of moral legislation on non-moral grounds. If we could be convinced, and then convince the secular world, that there are good reasons other than divine writ to ban (or maintain bans) on practices like prostitution, we'd be well on our way to formulating and executing more effective plans for getting wholesome legislation passed. Learning how to argue better on secular terms would be an invaluable asset in our efforts to abolish abortion, for instance.