Brenda Myers-Powell’s Story Illustrates the Need for Legalization

Brenda Myers-Powell’s story illustrates why prostitution should be legal. Recently, the BBC published her powerful and horrific account of her 25 years as a prostitute in America. Read it, but be warned – it’s shocking, nauseating and full of violence, betrayal and agony. I laid awake for hours thinking about an innocent girl somewhere nearby who was living the same terrible nightmare that Mrs. Myers-Powell describes so vividly in the article.

Accounts by former prostitutes like Mrs. Myers-Powell always leave us with the same feelings of shame and anger on behalf of those that have lived a life of violence that most of us can’t even imagine. We always ask the same question: What can we do to make life better for this very vulnerable group? The best solution is to legalize prostitution. This view may be controversial and misunderstood, but the arguments supporting legalization need to be publicly aired and debated.

Several of the problems with and the ramifications of criminalized prostitution are described by Mrs. Myers Powell. First of all, prostitutes cannot report the violence they suffer from their clients and others for fear of being arrested or at the very least they are not considered to be credible. Mrs. Myers-Powell describes one police officer saying when she was hospitalized after being dragged at the side of a car for six blocks, “Oh I know her. She’s just a hooker. She probably beat some guy and took his money and got what she deserved.”

This is the voice of a society that sees the woman that sells sex as an immoral second-class citizen. But selling sex is not in any way an immoral action. After all people have the right to do with their bodies as the wish, as long as they don’t harm others. Furthermore, if people really believe that selling sex is immoral, then why is porn still legal? What difference does the camera make? Legalizing porn while criminalizing prostitution shows that the laws criminalizing selling sex are a product of the taboo surrounding it and are not determined by its moral value or the harm it may do to individuals. Selling sex is a choice some people make and we should respect their right to do so. In any case we are not helping prostitutes by throwing them in jail and denying them their constitutional rights.

Some argue that outlawing prostitution ensures that fewer will engage in the profession. However, this argument is fundamentally wrong. Individuals who have been pushed to the point where they are willing to sell sex for money are unlikely to be discouraged by the prospect of spending a little time incarcerated. More importantly, this misses the point: prostitution should be a voluntary, legalized profession.

Brenda Myers-Powell in a scene from ‘Dreamcatcher.’ (Green Acres Films)

Illegal prostitution creates a market that allows people to prey on prostitutes because they know prostitutes cannot go to the police. This is the basis for the horrific violence surrounding prostitution that Mrs. Myers-Powell describes in her article. What is arguably even worse is that a market is created for international sex trafficking. When the sex market demand cannot be met through voluntary exchange because prostitution is illegal, unscrupulous groups of organized criminals kidnap and transport women from third world countries to work as sex slaves in illegal brothels.

In 1999, Sweden recognized these arguments and made selling sex legal and only criminalized buying sex. This approach has since gained momentum and has spread to other countries. The problem with this approach is that it forces prostitutes to take unnecessary risks to get work.

Instead of being able to conduct ‘business’ in a safe environment, prostitutes risk going to remote places in strangers’ cars simply because customers avoid buying sex in areas where they risk being caught. Furthermore, this approach incentivizes customers to use trafficked girls since the criminals supplying these girls take great care to keep their business out of sight of law enforcement. So if we care about prostitutes’ safety, we should legalize prostitution. Although not a perfect solution, at least exchanges would be voluntary and prostitutes would have legal recourse and protection under the law.