In Legalizing Prostitution: From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business Ronald Weitzer argues for the decriminalization of various forms of indoor prostitution. Weitzer states that there are options to criminalizing all forms of prostitution and provides arguments to why controlled indoor prostitution, governed by laws and with emphasis on safety and personal independence, is safer and brings higher levels of job satisfaction than illegal prostitution. Weitzer also states that street prostitution brings many problems (such as lack of safety, violence, abuse, drug abuse, trafficking, pimping, public disturbances etc.) and thereby supports organized and legal prostitution over street prostitution.
Weitzer describes and discusses prostitution in general, and criminalization and decriminalization through various examples in a multitude of countries and states. He does, however, focus most of his attention on case studies of three cities that offer Red Light districts and in which indoor prostitution is decriminalized; Amsterdam (Netherlands), Antwerp (Belgium) and Frankfurt (Germany).
Weitzer's defines sex work (p. 3) as involving: "...the exchange of sexual services for material compensation as well as the selling of erotic performances or products. It includes acts of direct physical contact between buyers and sellers (prostitution, lap dancing) as well as indirect sexual stimulation (pornography, stripping, telephone sex, live sex shows, erotic webcam experiences").
Of course one would prefer prostitution to be safe for the women involved in it. However, Weitzer's arguments fail to convince me. Weitzer provides proof to the claim that legal indoor prostitution is beneficial to the workers in comparison to illegal street work. Despite this, decriminalizing prostitution apparently does not mean that outdoor illegal prostitution will disappear. Weitzer blames this fact mostly on costly license fees (and other fees involved in for example running a legal brothel). Even so, in places where the fees are cheap and easy to come by, illegal prostitution still exists and is fairly common.
The main problem that I personally have with the book is the fact that Weitzer puts little emphasis on discussions of normalized sexualization of women, the belief that women should sexually service men and that women are on sale in prostitution and the possible consequences that decriminalization or legalized prostitution can have on how men view women in general. In my opinion, Weitzer provides a pretty naïve and glamorous picture of decriminalized indoor prostitution when he discusses "the girlfriend experience" and "romance" (using these concepts to argue that indoor prostitution is superior to street prostitution): "Indoors, social and physical exchanges are potentially more varied, more mutual, and more "romantic" (p. 31) and "In a sense, the customer buys a kind of relationship with an escort rather than just sex- one that may evolve over time into a genuine emotional connection, albeit one that is paid for"(p. 33).
I also think that any book on the topic should seriously discuss sexual services and the buying of people in a sense of what is morally justifiable. For example, are sexual relief and physical contact a human right? To Weitzer it appears so. Is the paying for sex something that is justifiable if it even contains a small chance of exploitation or damage to another person? For example, Weitzer writes that: "Only 3 percent of brothel workers...reported that they had been "raped or bashed" by a client in the preceding 12 months..." (p. 95). Although this number is much lower than for prostitutes working on the streets, the use of the word only diminishes the seriousness of rape and violence.
Weitzer also appears to claim that pornography does not lead to a negative view of women or sexualization of women, which among other things is heavily discussed in Anticlimax: A feminist perspective on the sexual revolution by Sheila Jeffreys, where Jeffreys provides evidence that it indeed does. Since prostitution is female dominated, any discussion of the topic should touch upon the use of women for the pleasure of men and whether or not sexual relief is indeed a "human right" or in its essence simply exploitation.
Another issue that I have with the book is the fact that it, in my opinion, focuses more on the rights of men to sexual services (that are also cheap and easy to come by) more so than the safety of the women involved (although Weitzer does discuss the topic of safety extensively). For example, when discussing potential benefits of legalization Weitzer writes that: "Costs to consumers are likely to decline with legalization, though this may not be viewed as a benefit to providers, whose cost per unit transaction may decline" (p. 85).
On the upside the book is well balanced and includes discussions the author has had with many different authorities, with prostitutes, brothel owners and the police (to name a few). Weitzer also does a good job describing the surroundings that he sees and the book makes for an interesting read. I also appreciate the photographs of the Red Light Districts since these help the reader form an opinion and further the reader's understanding of what such a district looks like.
The book is suitable for use in the classroom on topics of sexuality and would make for great discussions concerning whether or not prostitution (in its various forms) should be illegal, legal or decriminalized.
© 2013 Elin Weiss
Elin Weiss has a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology and a Master's Degree in Women's Studies from University College Dublin, Ireland.