Nicholas Kristof writes:
I changed my mind [on legalization] after looking at the experiences of other countries. The Netherlands formally adopted the legalization model in 2000, and there were modest public health benefits for the licensed prostitutes. But legalization nurtured a large sex industry and criminal gangs that trafficked underage girls, and so trafficking, violence and child prostitution flourished rather than dying out.
As a result, the Netherlands is now backtracking on its legalization model by closing some brothels, and other countries, like Bulgaria, are backing away from that approach.
A few points in response: first, "backtracking" could and should have been written as "still maintained as mostly legal throughout the country." Second, Germany offers perhaps the best model for legalized prostitution; by the way, here is one odd description of the German practice in Cologne. It’s not so offputting to make me favor a ban. Third, we should institute drastically higher penalties and enforcement for traffickers in children and their customers. Don’t blame adult transactions for that problem or think that is the best resource investment to stop it. Fourth, legalized prostitution may not be "popular" because it doesn’t appeal to the median voter, least of all to the median female voter. So the mere popularity of Swedish policy doesn’t make it a success; there is less consensual sex going on!
We all debate the topic without bringing up the delicate question of the benefits (or lack thereof?) to the customers. No one wants to say "I think guys should be able to [fill in the blank] more often and more easily," but that’s what at least half the story boils down to. (The other half is the possibility of female empowerment, etc.) Such a framing maybe sounds bad to you, but that’s a feeling we need to come to terms with and indeed question.
I see the costs and benefits of legalization as murky. Should government attempt to steer women away from the psychological tendencies implanted in them by child abuse? Indeed, should such steering stop at their choices to become prostitutes? When doing our cost-benefit analysis, should we count the preferences of the man sitting quietly at home or the preferences of the man as he approaches the end of the act? How should we count the preferences — if at all — of the bluenoses who don’t like the whole idea of legalization? After all, there are lots of them and they just don’t want legal prostitution. These are difficult questions.
When push comes to shove it is fundamentally a moral question and that for me means legalization or at least decriminalization. Ultimately you are threatening to jail or even shoot someone (should he or she try to leave the jail) because of a particular interpretation you have placed on their consensual sexual acts. I have to say "no way" to that one. Is barter a problem too? Andrew Sullivan pointed out that it is legal to pay two people to have sex and film them and sell the film; it just isn’t legal to pay two people to have sex and simply watch them. That’s what I call absurd.