Could Legalizing Prostitution Help With North Dakota's Human Trafficking Problem?


North Dakota’s elected leaders have been grappling with the issue of human trafficking. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, to her credit, has been leading the charge on this issue which sees women and even some men all but enslaved to act as sex workers.

It’s obvious why this is suddenly a problem in North Dakota.

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.

To address this issue the usual methods are being deployed. More spending on more cops and proposals for new laws with stiffer penalties. But what if North Dakota considered something a bit more bold?

What if we legalized prostitution?

That’s not as crazy a proposal as it sounds. In fact, it 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.

That’s smart, but why not go a step further and make the act of willing 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?

There is evidence to suggest that legalized prostitution can pay benefits in terms of lower crime and public health. A recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research took a look at Rhode Island where, due to a court decision, indoor prostitution was legal from 2003 to 2009. The study focused on the impact legalization had on rapes, sexually transmitted disesases and the composition of the sex trade in the state.

Not surprisingly, they found an increase in prostitution, but also a 31 percent reduction in rape and a 39 percent decrease in female gonorrhea.

Those are startling numbers, though I’ll not argue that legalizing prostitution is some sort of a magic bullet to solve problems with sexual crimes and disease. But we could free up a lot of resources to deal with issues like child prostitution and sex slavery by legalizing the sort of sex trade that takes place between willing sellers and willing buyers.

It’s a provocative proposal, to be sure, but one worth serious consideration. If we can reduce the total amount of harm being done to men and women in the sex industry, isn’t that worth it?