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John Stossel: Legalize sex work

| Friday, Nov. 17, 2017, 8:57 p.m.
Valerie Scott (left) and Amy Lebovitch, two of three current and former sex workers who initiated a challenge to Canada’s prostitution laws, celebrate a Supreme Court ruling invalidating the laws on Friday, Dec. 20, 2013, in Ottawa.
Valerie Scott (left) and Amy Lebovitch, two of three current and former sex workers who initiated a challenge to Canada’s prostitution laws, celebrate a Supreme Court ruling invalidating the laws on Friday, Dec. 20, 2013, in Ottawa.

Who owns our bodies?

I think we do.

Therefore, once we're, say, 18, we ought to have the right to rent our bodies to someone else. But we don't.

Women who do that get arrested. So do their customers.

I refer to prostitution, of course. “Sex work” is a better term. Under any name, it's illegal in America, except in eight counties in Nevada.

Some feminists say sex work must be outlawed because prostitutes are exploited.

But does that mean women should not be allowed to rent their bodies?

“No!” says sex worker Christina Parreira: “I feel more exploited by these supposedly liberal women telling me that I'm being exploited.”

Parreira is a University of Nevada Ph.D. student who, to study prostitutes, became one.

She told me, “We don't need protection. We're consenting, adult women.”

She says the 60 sex workers she's interviewed do not say their customers treat them poorly. The men “want conversation, companionship ... texting in between their appointments,” she says.

“They want the girlfriend experience without the girlfriend hassle.”

But Julie Bindel of Justice for Women says that sex workers like Parreira, who speak to reporters, are atypical.

“They're so unrepresentative of the majority. ... Prostitutes are victims,” held captive by pimps, Bindel says. “All women on the streets are there because they have no other choice.”

But “they have a choice,” I said. “They could work at McDonald's, they ...”

She replied, “Many say, ‘McDonald's is a rubbish job. I'd rather be in the sex trade!'”

But isn't that the point?

No job is perfect, but we let people make choices.

Prostitutes who want their trade legalized say legality would reduce violence and sex trafficking by bringing victims out of the shadows.

“If, God forbid, somebody's going to assault you, (in legal brothels) you can call the cops. You can hit the panic button,” Parreira told me. “If you're an illegal worker, you're not going to call the cops because they're going to arrest you!”

Recently, a California appeals court ruled that legalization advocates have a right to challenge California's prostitution ban. During the legal arguments, a judge asked the state's lawyers, “Why should it be illegal to sell something that's legal to give away?”

That was a good question.

The state has no good answer.

Legalization has already been tried in places like New Zealand. It doesn't make the business perfect, but it helps.

Sociologist Ronald Weitzer of George Washington University writes, “Statutory regulations vary by country, but a common objective is harm reduction. New Zealand's 2003 law, for instance, gives workers a litany of rights, provides for the licensing and taxing of brothels, and empowers local governments to ... vet the owners, ban offensive signage, and impose safe-sex and other health requirements.”

Studies in the U.S. and Australia show reduced violence and fewer health risks among prostitutes where sex work is legal.

We don't have to cheer for prostitution, or think it's nice, to keep government out of it and let participants make up their own minds.

It's wrong to ban sex workers' options just to make ourselves feel better.

John Stossel is author of “No They Can't! Why Government Fails — But Individuals Succeed.”

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