Should Prostitution Be Legalized?

Does three make a trend? I can’t recall hearing much discussion of legalizing prostitution in the recent past, and suddenly this week I’ve seen three significant reports in the media. Are they straws in the wind? Could the legalization of prostitution be the next social reform to come to the fore?

First, last Thursday the Telegraph reported on a new study from the venerable free-market think tank in London, the Institute for Economic Affairs:

The sex trade should be fully decriminalised because feminism has left modern men starved of sex, one of Baroness Thatcher’s favourirte think-tanks claims.

A controversial new paper published by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) calls for Britain’s prostitution laws to be scrapped, insisting it is “inevitable” that men will resort to paying for sex as women become more empowered through participation in the workplace.

As IEA notes, the paper got plenty of publicity in the British media.

Then on Tuesday Amnesty International voted, as the New York Times put it, “to support a policy that calls for decriminalization of the sex trade, including prostitution, payment for sex and brothel ownership.” The full policy, which still requires final approval from the board, can be found here. The new policy

is based on the human rights principle that consensual sexual conduct between adults—which excludes acts that involve coercion, deception, threats, or violence—is entitled to protection from state interference (bearing in mind that legitimate restrictions may be imposed on sex work, as noted below).

And then today I see this in the Washington Post:

D.C. Council member David Grosso said he is considering introducing legislation this fall that would decriminalize prostitution in the city and provide sex workers with resources to be safe and get out of the business if they want to.

Grosso’s announcement comes on the heels of Amnesty International’s controversial recommendation Tuesday calling for “full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work.”

“It is something that my staff and I have been working on and thinking about for a few months now,” Grosso (I-At Large) said Wednesday. “Once the Amnesty report came out, it validated a lot of the concerns that I have of how we handle this in the District.”

I’ve heard journalists say that three examples make a trend. So maybe we’ve just spotted one.

In my long years of interviews and speeches on libertarianism, I’ve often encountered people who think that libertarians’ main interests are legalizing drugs and prostitution. Indeed, libertarians – including the Cato Institute – have been talking about the harmful effects of the drug war for a long time. But I’ve actually seen very little libertarian scholarship or activism around the issue of prostitution. There’s been some, but it’s been nothing like a major topic of discussion. The only analysis I can find on the Cato website is this Cato Unbound symposium.

Whether libertarians have led the way or not, I am intrigued to see these three straws in the wind in such close proximity. Who’s next?