Vargas: Legalizing prostitution would do nothing to curb abuse, degradation of women

By Joe Vargas

With marijuana now legal in California and many serious offenses being reduced to misdemeanor offenses, I knew it wouldn’t take long for calls to legalize prostitution to start.

In a December opinion titled End the War on Sex-another prohibition fail Adam Summers called for the legalization of prostitution. He states, “Just because some — even a majority — may find something distasteful or immoral, it does not mean that ‘there ought to be a law’ preventing it.”

His libertine point of view, of course, is that consenting adults should be able to enter into contracts and agreements without government interference.

I wonder how many prostitutes Mr. Summers has met. In my police career, I met and even developed working relationships with “working girls.” The work is nothing like Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.” It is deplorable and in many ways degrades and robs the participants of fragile parts of their humanity.

But according to Mr. Summers, that’s OK. If a woman wants to degrade and do harm to her psyche, who are we to interfere?

Little girls play with dolls and dream of marrying their Prince Charming. They don’t dream of becoming a prostitute. Life, for most prostitutes, did not afford them that opportunity.

Surveys show prostitutes have shown a high rate of childhood sexual abuse and emotional trauma. The early abuse continues for these women as they enter the world of prostitution. Surveys report prostitutes are assaulted by customers, pimps and partners on a fairly regular basis.

Many prostitutes have been forced or coerced into sex trafficking by abusers. Legalization won’t stop that. More than likely, male abusers still will profit from trafficking their victims — this time, in legalized locations facilitated and regulated by the government itself.

Legalization would put lipstick on modern-day slavery and call it another step in the liberation of women.

Prostitution, even in legal forms around the world, is ripe for abuse. I spoke with Dianna Bautista from Shear Love International. Shear Love is a non-profit working in Thailand to assist women in transitioning from the sex worker industry to sustainable employment as hair dressers.

Bautista told me: “Even though the age of consent is 18, there is a lot of incentive for girls to be trafficked much younger. Legal prostitution creates an environment where little girls become a valuable commodity.”

She shared her story of tour buses full of middle-aged men from around the world unloading in the red-light areas. The passengers begin their sex tours shopping amongst the hundreds of sex workers.

“This is not empowering women,” Bautista said. “This is oppressing women to satisfy the sexual appetites of men. I don’t see anything healthy about an environment where this is legally allowed.”

Closer to home, I spoke with Lita Mercado, director of Victim Assistance Programs for the nonprofit Community Service Programs. Since 2006, Mercado has been working with Orange County law enforcement in the transition to a victim-centered approach in dealing with prostitution.

“The fact is, the vast majority of the women we run across are victims,” Mercado said. “They have been forced into this work and their history is one of acute violence, abuse and control.

“I know there are people who want to legalize prostitution, believing it is simply a vice. This makes me incredibly uncomfortable because I know what I know. We are not talking about girls who had perfect lives and suddenly decided on prostitution as a career choice.”

Added Mercado: “Sure, the Julia Roberts ‘Pretty Woman’ may be out there — but I haven’t met her.”

I asked Mercado about the argument that the “War on Prostitution” has not been working.

“I would agree that the way we approached the problem in the past wasn’t working,” she said. “Today we are taking a victim-centered approach. This has significantly changed the landscape of sex trafficking in Orange County. The number of victims of sex trafficking we’ve reached has doubled and the prosecution of the pimps and traffickers has also increased.”

I would say the idea that prostitution should be legalized is wrong. For those few who suggest otherwise, I would argue sex for money is illegal not just because it’s immoral, but because it’s just plain bad for women at every level.

Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain. You can reach him at jvargas@behindthebadgeoc.com.