Is it a good idea for prostitution to be legal?

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Argument: Is it a good idea for prostitution to be legal?

Human rights lawyer Dianne Post and writer and filmmaker Bishakha Dattat talk about the question.

Dianne – No, don’t make prostitution legal

If prostitution is legal, women cannot be truly equal. The idea that one group of women is there for men to have sex shows inequality by gender, class and race. And it is against international law and human rights. If prostitution is legal, then other things become normal. For example, it becomes normal to do things against human rights including saying negative things to people, physical violence, kidnap, and rape.


Dtnne Post is an international human rights lawyer. She helped battered women and children in family law for 18 years. Since 1998 she has been working internationally in 19 countries on gender based violence. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. .

In Sweden, prostitution is officially violence against women and a way for men to have power over women. Prostitution is violence against one woman by one man. It is also an example of the inequality between men and women in general. It sees women as less important. If prostitution is legal, then violence becomes legal. When there is violence against half of the people in the world – women – then there are no real human rights. The system in Sweden does not ask for arrests of women, it does not blame women, it does not use the law to control women. It uses the law to control violence against women.

Bishakha – Yes, make prostitution legal


BISHAKHA DATTA is a writer and filmmaker in India. Her most recent book is 9 Degrees of Justice, essays on violence on women in India. Her most recent documentary films include In The Flesh: Three Lives In Prostitution. Bishakha is the executive director of Point of View, a Mumbai non-profit organisation for women’s ideas in media, art and culture.

I have a different opinion. People have sex for many reasons – for fun and pleasure, to have children, to become closer, because they think they should, to earn money or for other reasons. It is OK for adults to have sex for one, some or all of these reasons. This is very true in India, where I come from. In India many people are poor. In 2010, the World Bank said that 68.7 per cent of people in India live on less than $2 per day. We’re talking about more than 600 million people trying hard to find a way to eat two good meals a day.

Some of these poor people do sex work just as others do other badly paid jobs like working as cleaners, builders, or on a farm. For all of these jobs we use our body. We think it is OK for people to use their heads and hands and other parts of their body to earn money and so we must think it is OK for sex workers, too. The International Labour Organization (ILO) accepted adult sex work as work in a report in 1998 and asked for people around the world to accept sex work as a job. All other kinds of informal work are accepted legally as ‘work’. It is important now that we see adult sex work as legal.

Dianne - No, don’t make prostitution legal

We need to listen to the voices of the women. In a study in five countries, over 90 per cent of women said they wanted to leave prostitution immediately. Nearly 70 per cent of prostitute have serious stress and they are 15 per cent of all suicides. A Canadian report on prostitution and pornography found that girls and women in prostitution are 40 times more likely to die. Most women live for only 4 years after working in prostitution. And 50 per cent of the deaths are murders.

Most females start working in prostitution at 13 or 14 years of age. Children learn very young that their body does not belong to them but to others with power and money. In Canada, 70 per cent of prostitutes are from Canada and those groups are only seven per cent of the population. In dangerous jobs we usually try to make sure that people can work safely and with respect. We cannot make sure that prostitution is safe because prostitution is not safe. Women in prostitution tell us clearly they want the same in life as others: a good job, somewhere safe to live, medical care and psychological counselling. We need to help these women with drug treatment, education, training, housing and other support. The answer is to ask for equality for these women.

Bishakha - Yes, make prostitution legal

I completely agree that we should listen to the voices of women in sex work. And here’s what they say: in the first study across India 3,000 sex workers, about 71 per cent, said they started sex work because they wanted to. Many of these women, who are not organized, said they left other jobs because of low pay or the work was not regular.

The researchers say that those coming to sex work from other jobs often have just as bad or worse conditions for much less pay. So we can see that sex work can bring better pay. When adult women say sex work is a job which earns money and they are not forced to do it, we need to listen to them and not feel bad. When these women say that the harm in sex work comes not from selling sex, but from the shame because it is illegal, we must hear them.

All over the world, women in sex work are saying that adult sex work should be legal and that they should have rights, respect and acceptance. They want the right to vote and to have health services without shame. They don’t want the police to trouble them, they want their complaints of violence recorded. They want to have the right to be human, like everyone.

Dianne - No, don’t make prostitution legal'

I believe that the answer to poor jobs, low pay and bad working conditions for women is not to leave them to a lifetime of bad treatment. The answer is to fight for all women to have education for good jobs and for all people to have good working conditions.

Prostitution is a sign that there is problem. Prostitution is not the problem itself. The problem is a male society, inequality, discrimination, unequal sharing of resources, religious control, and fear of women. We need to think about not the result of the problem but about the real problem. We can and must do better for women. We need to do something about the real problem together.

The idea of stopping the demand for prostitution is one method. It is becoming a popular idea and it is successful. Giving women equal political power is another idea. In countries where women have more political power, violence against women is lower. We must educate boys differently. The White Ribbon campaign in Canada and a similar campaign in Mexico are bringing the message to men around the world. We must stop child sexual abuse and incest in the family and institutions like the church, sports clubs and the Boy Scouts. ‘Prostitution isn’t like anything else…everything else is like prostitution because it is the model for women’s condition’ (Evelina Giobbe, 1992). If we believe in a world with human rights where women and men share equal power, we cannot make prostitution legal.

Bishakha - Yes, make prostitution legal

I fully agree that all human beings should be able to have a good job with good working conditions. Richard Howard of the ILO recently asked: ‘Why is sex work not decent work?’ He answered that making prostitution illegal is a big problem and the wrong understanding of religious ideas is another problem.

In Sweden, it is a crime to buy sex and this is a problem for street sex workers. One report says that they have a more difficult time. They get more dangerous clients and the serious clients are afraid of being arrested. They have less time to see if the client is OK as there is a big hurry because the client is worried. If the client wants sex without a condom, many of the prostitutes cannot afford to say no. The police also make things difficult for them.

In New Zealand/Aotearoa on the other hand, adult sex work is legal. The situation isn’t perfect but it does make it possible for sex workers to have rights and services. It makes it possible for a sex worker to go to the police if she is raped. It makes it possible to get health services, like all other people. It seems such an obvious idea for human rights. I can’t understand why sex work is still not legal in other countries.

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