Why isn’t legalized prostitution more popular?

Some of this was new to me:

An in-depth look at the legal brothel regime reveals
that while the system is preferable, it is stunted by unequal
bargaining power between the prostitutes and brothel owners owing to
collusive arrangements with local sheriffs. But since a regulated
brothel system, with all its faults, provides a safer environment for
prostitutes and their customers than prohibition while maintaining a
sufficient barrier between the prostitution activity and the community
to ameliorate citizen complaints, I ask why this system is not in use
in other jurisdictions, specifically Las Vegas, Nevada. Using
public-choice analysis, the paper concludes that lower employment costs
for casino and hotel owners due to kick backs received by hotel
employees from prostitutes and their customers, the interests of rural
governments to maximize revenues from tourism generated by brothels,
and the interest of Las Vegas legislators to portray the town as
family-friendly maintains the status quo of illegality.

Here is much more, hat tip to www.bookforum.com.  The author is Ashlie Warnick, to whom I once taught macroeconomics.

Addendum: Here’s something else on the same general topic, call it a new installment in Markets for Everything, hat tip to Freakonomics blog.


This study illustrates the problem with the American tendency to not look outside the US - there's effectively a sample of one (Nevada - not the most typical place) for examining legal prostitution. So can any general conclusions can be drawn? Probably not.

Perhaps the author needs to look at other jurisdictions with legalised prostitution e.g. several states in Australia.

Prostitution is legal in some form or another in every Western country I can think of, including the UK, Canada, Australia, Belgium, Holland, etc. Americans have a tendency of thinking however things were, that's how they're supposed to be, and since prostitution has always been illegal, it always should be.

Anonymous, lot's of people are "lured" into risky, unpleasant professions by good pay: police officers, sewage plant workers, farmers. I fail to see how you would make prostitutes better off by adding the risk of jail time to the other unpleasantries they face.

In fact, anti-prostitution laws hurt prostitutes in a variety of ways. It's harder for prostitutes to maintain stable locations (thereby pushing them onto the streets), they can't turn to the police for protection, and in fact, the police themselves frequently extract "protection sex" from prostitutes. See this reason article for more:


"Prostitution" is legal in America as long as you video tape it, then it is called porn.

Maybe how prostitution is handled in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan might be instructive.


Since it is obvious that no state that was not totalitarian has managed to stop prostitution (Mao in China came pretty close although during the Cultural Revolution young girls traded sexual favors with party officials regularly) we should regulate it by license dependent on monthly disease testing; proper safety standards at sex houses; no street walking; tax it; etc.

This way prostitutes can protect themselves from pimps and gangs/mafia by going to the police, whereas in an underground economy they have no protection from economic predators.

Since it is obvious that no state that was not totalitarian has managed to stop prostitution (Mao in China came pretty close although during the Cultural Revolution young girls traded sexual favors with party officials regularly) we should regulate it by license dependent on monthly disease testing; proper safety standards at sex houses; no street walking; tax it; etc.

It is equally obvious that no state, totalitarian or otherwise, has managed to stop murder. Does that mean we should license it?

From a broader social context, I'd be very surprised if there weren't some element of social signaling involved. If one is in favor of legalizing prostitution, one is seen as being "for" prostitution. This would seem to signal sexual undesirability ("not that *I* would ever need to pay for sex...")

Bernard Yomtov,

To equate prostitution with murder shows you haven't spent much time thinking, or trying to think, like a libertarian. For a libertarian it is completely obvious why prostitution should be legal, namely it occurs between consenting adults. You can't say the same about murder, with murder someone's liberty is being violated.

Quite frankly it is no one else's business what consenting adults do with each other if they don't violate anyone else's liberty.

I wish to point out to both M Hodak and happyjuggler0 that I did not equate murder and prostitution. I fully understand the difference.

Rather, I was trying to show that Dragon Horse's argument is worthless, simply because it could obviously be used in the vastly different case of murder.

To review, DH says that since you can't stop it you should regulate/license/tax it. But that dodges the issue. If prostitution is sufficiently harmful socially then it should be illegal. If not, then questions of regulation arise. The argument that it should be legal just because law enforcement is imperfect makes no sense.

As to thinking like a libertarian, let me just say that, judging by most of the libertarian thinking I see on the web, I'd say it was something best avoided.

As someone who studies casinos (and a former casino employee), I've got to disagree with the author's conclusions, at least somewhat. I don't think that "kickbacks from prostitutes and customers" significantly impact the wage structures of casino resorts. While it's hard to say without a doubt that none of the thousands of people who work in casinos profit from prostitution, I can say unequivocally that I never, ever, saw or even heard about anyone getting a kickback for referring someone to a prostitute. Furthermore, many of the employees that would be in a position to refer customers--particularly bellmen and bartenders--already work primarily for tip income, so the casino neither gains nor loses, economically, if they receive kickbacks or not. So that can't explain why casinos don't support legalization in Las Vegas (and Reno).

So why don't they? The "Baptist" half of Warnick's argument is, I think, directly on point. Legalized prostitution would be a disincentive to more potential tourists than an incentive. Therefore, the casinos oppose it. I think the more important reason(and one that Warnick mentions) is that if prostitution were legal in Las Vegas, it might divert money from the casinos.

So why wouldn't casinos support legalization then just get into the business themselves? Again, it's the "Baptist" argument (most tourists would be put off by legal prostitution), but I can think of a good reason from a strictly business viewpoint: liability. Casinos are besieged with trip-and-fall cases everyday, and that's just because people can't walk through the place without hitting a snag in the carpet or slipping on freshly-polished marble (or faux marble). I can't imagine the kinds of lawsuits that legalized casino prostitution would bring.

Bernard Yomtov:

First off I'm not a libertarian and my primary argument is not "well we can't stop it so live with it".

I think sex between to consenting adult people should not be illegal in any situation. It is not the states business to dictate who I can have sex with and why. We are a little beyond sex being controlled by marriage as a way to maintain order between families. We do not live in a tribal society, the divorce rate is 50% and a lot of those people remarry.

If any adult wants to pay for sexual services I could care less. I do not consider prostitutes any better than women who go bar hopping and have one-night stands every weekend with a guy who spends a lot of money on them for dinner and drinks. The only difference to me is frequency of sexual contact.

That frequency can be problematic from the point of the sex worker becoming a disease vector. The more unprotected or even protected sex you have the more diseases you are likely to get. The solution to this is the regulation I talked about. This would make the situation safer than it currently is, from a public health perspective.

The other problem is pimping/sex slavery. These women have limited legal protection under the law so they fall prey to predators. Legalization and regulation would help with this. Would it eliminate it? No, but it would significantly change the equation for many women on the streets.

"To equate prostitution with murder shows you haven't spent much time thinking, or trying to think, like a libertarian."

This is a totally bogus argument. (And I'm on the presenter's side of the question, BTW.) To *compare* two things in no way is to *equate* them! The (quite valid) point Bernard made is that the formula "The State can't stop X so the State should legalize X" doesn't work -- just fill 'murder' in for 'X'. Advocates of legalized prostitution need some other argument.

Why is it illegal to charge money to do something that it is legal to do for free?

Mr. Terwilliger, you beat me to the punch.

To anyone who doesn't know,"Why is it illegal to charge money to do something that it is legal to do for free?" is a quote by comedian George Carlin. Penn & Teller refer to it on their prostitution episode of Penn & Teller's Bullsh*t.

I beleive that if the U.S. sets up a regulated, legalized brothel system using brothels like the one Penn & Teller visited in one of the few legalized areas of Nevada, much of the undesirable aspects of the business will fly out the window. The brothel in the show(due to it's open location)is surrounded by a perimeter fence and a gate with a "buzz in" system. Once inside, the client would be screened for STDs and then things would carry on normally until time to pay. Instead of a pimp, the client deals with a secretary who takes the payment. The money from the client then flows through the same monetary system as your $12.95 for a medium pizza at Pizza Hut and makes its way to the employee(formerly known as prostitute). The employees(just like in every business and especially for this one)are also screened regularly for drugs and STDs in interests of their safety and well being. If a psycho attempts forced entry to the brothel or other atrocities to the business or employees, they are free to call the police for assistance with no fear of being jailed themselves. Show me one illegal street hooker that has a life like that and I will show you *mythical creature here*. And since these legal establishments arise, police can focus on brothels running illegally and street prostitution, discouraging and eventually eliminating pimps.

In review, pimps who skim off the top are replaced with legitimate business, dangerous situations are replaced with a secure and safe environment, rampant STDs take a nose dive off the charts via the screenings, psychologically women employed will feel better in a safer environment and will be less likely to turn to drugs. Employees get a regular paycheck and can live focusing on the long term instead of living day-by-day.

This is how I feel about all this, we might not end up helping everyone by following this, but we darn sure aren't helping anyone by making it illegal.

Let me rake you Down I really want to take you down

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