Could Legalized Prostitution Be A Solution To North Dakota's Human Trafficking Problem?


The rush of workers in the male-dominated oil industry into western North Dakota has created a gender imbalance. It’s hard to estimate just how much of an imbalance – even US Census officials have acknowledged the difficulty in getting accurate estimates with the state’s booming population growth – but anyone who has visited the oil patch is well aware that there are a lot more males than females.

And as has been the case throughout history where there is a large unattached population of young men of means, prostitution has become an issue. More specifically, human trafficking, which to be perfectly clear is pretty much the abduction and enslavement of women (and, frankly, men too) for use as sex workers.

North Dakota’s leaders are working on solutions to the problem, but there may be one way to address the problem they’re not willing to discuss. That very few of our leaders are willing to discuss.

What if we just legalized prostitution, and pushed what is currently a black market into the realm of lawful commerce where, as unseemly as it is, it can be held accountable?

To be clear, this is sort of already happening. Prostitution is only a Class B Misdemeanor in North Dakota punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail. But not many hookers are going to jail. The state’s law enforcement officials are pushing “safe harbor” enforcement of the law, giving a pass to prostitutes in order to go after the pimps who are controlling these men and women.

But why not go a step further and make the act of prostitution legal, thus removing the power human traffickers have over their victims?

Which isn’t to say that I’m making a moral endorsement of prostitution. As a father to two young daughters I’ll admit that the entire enterprise makes me feel a little sick to my stomach. That being said, we need a bit of pragmatism on this issue. No amount of laws will ever make prostitution go away.

There’s a grain of truth in that old saw about prostitution being the “world’s oldest profession.”

So if laws prohibiting prostitution can’t stop it in any meaningful way, what are they accomplishing? Besides the empowerment of pimps and other monsters who profit from a black market in human flesh? If we push prostitution into the realm of legal commerce, we take business away from the human traffickers. Why go to an illegal prostitute when you can go to a legal one?

There’s a big market for prostitution. Some sex workers are making as much as $160,000 per year according to media reports. There’s nothing we can do to stem the demand, but we can change how that demand is supplied.

Wouldn’t it be better to have prostitution be a willing transaction between two adults, as opposed to a slave being rented out to a john?

Of course, North Dakota legalizing prostitution wouldn’t put an end to human trafficking. As Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem notes, these trafficking networks are national. “[T]hese are not localized enterprises, these are nationwide, even international,” he told the Associated Press.

But North Dakota could lead the way toward a more common sense sort of policy. Few of us want to condone prostitution, but the trade carries on whether we approve of it or not. So why not recognize that laws prohibiting prostitution are doing more harm than good by legalizing the voluntary sex trade as a way to undermine the involuntary sex trade?

Legalized prostitution wouldn’t mean an end to our problems. There would still be abuses. But if we could improve the situation, if we could perhaps shut down a few of these enslavement networks, wouldn’t that be worth it?