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Legalize prostitution

Paying for sex is common. Mexico has decriminalized it. So should the U.S.

March 13, 2008|Patty Kelly | Patty Kelly, an anthropology professor at George Washington University, is the author of "Lydia's Open Door: Inside Mexico's Most Modern Brothel," due out in April.

Eliot spitzer paid a woman for sex. And got caught. Depending on whose statistics you choose to believe, more than one in every 10 American adult males have paid for sex at some point in their lives. What's more, in 2005, about 84,000 people were arrested across the nation for prostitution-related offenses.

In other words, it's not terribly uncommon. It's a part of our culture, and it's not going away any time soon. Perhaps Spitzer's resignation will help convince Americans that it is finally time to decriminalize prostitution across the country.

Recently, I spent a year working at a legal, state-regulated brothel in Mexico, a nation in which commercial sex is common, visible and, in one-third of the states, legal. I was not working as a prostitute but as an anthropologist, to study and analyze the place of commercial sex in the modern world. I spent my days and nights in close contact with the women who sold sexual services, with their clients and with government bureaucrats who ran the brothel.

Here's what I learned: Most of the workers made some rational choice to be there, sometimes after a divorce, a bad breakup or an economic crisis, acute or chronic. Of the 140 women who worked at the Galactic Zone, as the brothel was called, only five had a pimp (and in each of those cases, they insisted the man was their boyfriend).

The women made their own hours, set their own rates and decided for themselves what sex acts they would perform. Some were happy with the job. (As Gabriela once told me: "You should have seen me before I started working here. I was so depressed.") Others would've preferred to be doing other work, though the employment available to these women in Mexico (servants, factory workers) pays far less for longer hours.

At the Galactic Zone, good-looking clients were appreciated and sometimes resulted in boyfriends; the cheap, miserly and miserable ones were avoided, if possible.

To be sure, the brothel had its dangers: Sexually transmitted diseases and violence were occasionally a part of the picture. But overall, it was safer than the streets, due in part to police protection and condom distribution by government authorities.

Legalizing and regulating prostitution has its own problems -- it stigmatizes sex workers (mostly by requiring them to register with the authorities), subjects them to mandatory medical testing that is not always effective, and gives clients and workers a false sense of security (with respect to sexual health and otherwise).

But criminalization is worse. Sweden's 1998 criminalization of commercial sex -- a measure titled "The Protection of Women" -- appears not to protect them at all. A 2004 report by the Swedish Ministry of Justice and the police found that after it went into effect, prostitution, of course, continued. Meanwhile, prices for sexual services dropped, clients were fewer but more often violent, more wanted to pay for sex and not use a condom -- and sex workers had less time to assess the mental state of their clients because of the fear of getting caught.

New Zealand's 2003 Prostitution Reform Act is perhaps the most progressive response to the complex issue of prostitution. The act not only decriminalizes the practice but seeks to "safeguard the human rights of sex workers and protects them from exploitation, promotes the welfare and occupational health and safety of sex workers, is conducive to public health, [and] prohibits the use in prostitution of persons under 18 years of age."

Furthermore, clients, sex workers and brothel owners bear equal responsibility for minimizing the risks of STD transmission. In 2005, a client was convicted of violating the act by slipping his condom off during sex.

And this brings me to clients. I have met hundreds of men who have paid for sex. Some seek any kind of sex; others want certain kinds of sex; a few look for comfort and conversation.

Saying that all sex workers are victims and all clients are demons is the easy way out. Perhaps it's time to face this fact like adults (or at least like Mexico) -- with a little less moralizing and a good deal more honesty.

As for Spitzer, if he had walked into the Galactic Zone, my questions would have been these: Was he respectful? Was he safe? Did he pay well? If the answer to all three was yes, then, well, I voted for him once, and I'd vote for him again.

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