Nonetheless, the matter cannot be denied—although men were hunters and had an upper hand with their genetic predisposition to greater body strength, women had the highest of leverages— engaging in sexual activity in exchange for a form of payment or other gain. Prostitution may be defined as the act of “or practice of engaging in promiscuous sexual relations [especially] for money” (Merriam-Webster, 2018). Clearly, it is nothing short of a profession or occupation. However, when asked, many have not the slightest clue as to why prostitution is illegal in most parts of the world, including most of the U.S. Many state the obvious, and delve into topics of ethics, morals, and the dangers of health with transmissible sexual diseases such as HIV, yet the pornography industry is thriving and fits into both mentioned categories. So why is prostitution illegal? This paper will discuss why prostitution is legal or illegal in the U.S., and further examine the social, economic, and physical (health) underpinnings that encompass prostitution as an occupation—a functionalist perspective.
Analysis: A Functionalist Perspective
When viewing prostitution through a social lens, we are speaking of an umbrella term which covers culture, religion, beliefs, morals, tradition, expectations, and so on and so forth. Essentially, societal norms are heavily challenged when the topic of prostitution is conjured considering it touches base on both the act of sex itself as well as female rights, independence, and the possibility of upward mobility in which they can leave the home and their house-wife shackles. Coincidently, when speaking of prostitution, the average individual is quick to categorize prostitution in a negative social light. However, when viewing prostitution through a functionalist perspective, it is regarded as fulfilling a vital societal need, “if an act is not serving a societal need it wouldn’t continue to exist” (Study Mode Research, 2012). In shorter terms, if prostitution served no societal purpose, it would cease to exist, which is contrary to what both historical indications and modern prostitution trends point to (i.e. men who seek to ease their immediate urges, married individuals, and those simply desiring a different sexual experience). Prostitution is undoubtedly here to stay, and the fact that it is illegal only further ignites the social fire.
As previously mentioned, when asked why prostitution is illegal in most parts of the world and in the U.S., individuals cannot come up with a straightforward answer. Instead, most take an educated guess and claim prostitution is “wrong”, that “it is shady work”, or as one individual answered, “I simply always believed that prostitution was illegal because it involves paying for sex”. Again, none of these answers are sensible, straightforward, or logical for that matter. If we were to take these ‘answers’ one step further and analyze why people conjure up such responses, the obvious explanation would lie within a social framework—dependent on societal expectation and norms.
For instance, clearly, claiming that prostitution is “wrong” or “shady work” is simply not enough to make it an illegal activity or occupation. Using that reasoning, pornography is also wrong, and infamous ‘cam girl’ video streaming services are considerably ‘shady’ sine you pay to view and chat with a stranger via an electronic device, yet both are entirely legal and tremendously popular, trendy even. It seems that even when the answer is a mere “illegal because it involves paying for sex”, the individual is attempting to attribute sex, and receiving monetary compensation for it, to immorality and lack of ethics. More specifically, attributing a female’s source of income to an assumed lack of ethics or dignity for herself so as to selling her body for monetary gain. It comes as no surprise that most claims made against prostitution are religious arguments as well as those which oppose one’s strong ethical values and beliefs; all of which fall under the substantially influential social kaleidoscope.
Yet, under the eyes of policymakers and the legislative infrastructure—ethics and morals are the least of their concerns—regardless of their conservative or liberal position. So, what gives with prostitution being illegal? We shift into an economic framework to solve the riddle.
Not surprisingly, prostitution is roughly a $186 billion industry worldwide, and within the U.S. prostitution racks up a whopping $15 billion in revenue (Havocscope, 2018). Notably, since prostitution is illegal, these numbers are rough estimates from a collection of sources such as public health and criminal justice system records. Viewed from a functionalist perspective, prostitution at its most basic level, “is a job; a source of income needed to support oneself and family” (Study Mode Research, 2012). As previously mentioned, prostitution is a profitable profession and regarded as an occupation like any other, such as a masseuse.
Prostitution can be divided into three separate categories which include brothels, escorts, and the more familiar street prostitution. Brothels are locations which individuals seek in order to engage in sexual activity, more commonly known as a “house of prostitution” (Merriam-Webster, 2018). In comparison to street prostitution which takes a more free-lance form and goes unmonitored, brothels provide a premise for sex workers and consumer and may include regulation and policies at the expense and discretion of the brothel management. Escorts may be considered the classier version of sex workers as they are more established, organized, and uphold a certain degree of professionalism/etiquette (Difference Between, 2015). In contrast to prostitutes, escorts provide a service aimed at fulfilling entertainment purposes rather than mere sexual desires. Additionally, escorts may be labeled as legal as they are non-inclusive of sexual acts regardless if they take place. Both prostitutes and escorts may be reached via a brothel, though escorts typically require planning, booking, and are costlier.
However, this profession leads to inevitable dissonance within the economic realm—prostitution is an unregulated occupational field and hence cannot be properly taxed and accurately reported to the IRS, causing detrimental effects to the nation’s delicate economic infrastructure. This in turn explains why the legislative system and policymakers alike are against prostitution; it would be nearly impossible to fully impose regulations within the abstract spectrum of prostitution. Can legislators truly come together and set a universal price on fellatio, cunnilingus, vaginal sex, and anal sex? What about unusual sexual practices and uncharted sexual territory? How does one put a price on the thousands of sexual act possibilities? Will prices vary based on total time, consumer satisfaction, i.e.? Moreover, can the executive branch, the criminal justice system, and law enforcement collectively monitor what goes on behind closed doors?
One state in particular is defying such conventions—Nevada and 12 of its 16 counties have opened their doors to ‘pleasure-den’ brothels. In 1971, Nevada became the only state in the U.S. to legalize prostitution and paved the road to the what is now a total of 17 brothels (LA Times, 2015). Through the functionalist perspective which brothel owners view their enterprise, they claim that once prostitution is legalized, “you take out all of the criminal elements and get safer sex,” adding that their sex workers are indeed “educated young businesswomen” (LA Times, 2015)
Though prostitution is regarded as a profession, it may also bring about a set of unwarranted and undesirable health detriments. These physical drawbacks can bleed into and taint one’s mental and emotional well-being as well. Of the more obvious health risks, prostitutes and sex workers alike run the highest (occupational) risks of contracting HIV or life threatening STIs. Additionally, unwanted pregnancies and consequent abortions are also severe detrimental effects of working within the sex industry. Surprisingly, premature death is among the highest health risks; in a 30 year longitudinal study, results demonstrated that “by far the most common causes of death were homicide, suicide, drug- and alcohol-related problems, HIV infection and accidents — in that order”(NCBI, 2004). Unlike the tangible and visible physical effects of prostitution such as genital warts or ulcers, many prostitutes endure several silent mental hurdles—most notably, PTSD. By silent, I am referencing the fact that most of these mental and emotional unrests go unspoken and unheard of, almost as to say they do not exist in the first place. Ex- sex workers describe being able to remove themselves physically from the prostitution scene, but highlight how the psychological scars of, “an immeasurable and unimaginable extent of violence, humiliation, lies, and inhumanity” linger long after as they try to “accept the non-erasable past” (Digital Commons, 2018). Furthermore, this may explain why retired sex workers with PTSD or depression are often overlooked, not validated by society, or sometimes receive a response that implies sex workers ‘deserve’ it or ‘set themselves up’ to such detrimental mental and emotional consequences. Although not justifiable, from a rather functionalist perspective, one might argue that the violence and humiliation prostitutes face “cannot be real because it is legal that they can be sold for sexual objectification and (ab)use” (Digital Commons, 2018).
Be as it may, it should be noted and strongly emphasized that other job occupations experience roughly the same amount if not more detrimental health effects. This proves that a worker who sits in his cubicle from 9-5, or an elementary school teacher who works with toddlers may also place themselves at risk for unwanted health consequences whether they be physical, mental, emotional, or a combination of sorts. For instance, a healthy and youthful individual who lands a prestige corporate job might endure painstaking sexual harassment from chairpersons above them (emotional harm), or carpal tunnel which may require corrective surgery (physical detriment), or even experience hallucinations or delusions due in part to the heavy workload, long hours, and insufficient sleep (mental well-being compromised).
As we know now, prostitution is regarded as the first official profession known to the human race. Dating back to ancient times, prostitution served as a female’s instinctive/shrewd source of income or other gain, while the male counterpart relied on mere biological strength. In simpler terms, men had no choice but to be hunters and do the hard/dirty work, while women used their anatomical leverage against men and sought the easier tasks such as gathering. Undeniably, prostitution serves a vital function in society in and in the financial realm; one might even say it has played a part in holding a socioeconomic infrastructure together throughout history and in modern times. The question lies behind why prostitution is deemed immoral and labeled illegal in most parts of the world and in the U.S. When it boils down to a solid answer, taxes and involvement of the IRS, as well as legislative and executive branch efforts are the reason why prostitution is kept illegal—to protect a delicate economic framework. Disrupting such framework would imply the need for hundreds if not thousands of hours, dollars, and energy spent on policy and lawmaking, as well as the executive vigilance to carry out such laws, and not to mention the need for special health care services being routinely provided to sex workers to protect their safety as in any other occupation. In sum, the prostitution industry touches base with social, economic, and physical facets which coincidently tend to overlap when being viewed through a functionalist perspective.