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If there is one area in the criminal law that arouses the most anxiety concerning public morals, it is sexual conduct (Scoular and Sanders, 2010). The range of sexual conduct covered by the law is so extensive that the law makes potential criminals of most teenagers and adults—especially with the increased availability and variety of cybersex (Neumann, 2010).

A traditional justification for such legal complete control of sexual behavior is to protect the institution of the family. A number of state laws control acts that, according to many people, would otherwise endanger the chastity of women before marriage, such as the variety of laws on incest, adultery, and prostitution (Quinney, 1975). In addition, a complex set of federal and state laws controls the advertising, sale, distribution, and availability of contraceptives; the performance of abortion; voluntary sterilization; and artificial insemination. Because of the complexity and extensiveness of legal controls on sexual conduct and related matters, this section will be limited to a discussion of the legal control of female prostitution. In the United States, estimates of women who make some or all of their living as prostitutes range from half a million (Clinard and Meier, 2016) to a million (Aday, 1990).

It is now recognized that laws throughout the world against prostitution discriminate against women (Matthews, 2008; Munro and della Giusta, 2008). Many women’s groups in America and abroad maintain that a woman should have the right to engage in sexual relations for pay if she so desires (Weitzer, 2011). However, law enforcement authorities do not share that position, and there is still a tendency to regard only the women as offenders and not the men who are almost always their clients.

State laws vary on prostitution (Meier and Geis, 2006). In many states, solicitation is considered a misdemeanor punished by a fine or a jail sentence of up to 1 year. Frequent arrests, however, may result in a charge of felony. There are three broad categories of arrests for prostitutes: (1) for accosting and soliciting; (2) on a charge of “common prostitution,” which can be subsumed under disorderly conduct or vagrancy; and (3) detention under health regulations (La Fave, 1965:457-463). Law enforcement of prostitution is sporadic, and much of the control is limited to half-hearted efforts at containing prostitution.

There is a fair amount of discretion involved in the control of prostitutes. At times, there is practically no enforcement; at other times, police conduct special campaigns directed at streetwalkers in certain neighborhoods. In general, most of the police control of prostitutes is aimed at the individual practitioners and streetwalkers (Canter et al., 2009). High-class call girls are relatively immune to legal control. So are those who use the Internet to make appointments and to screen clients.

Laws against prostitution are attempts to control private moral behavior through punitive social control measures. However, Great Britain’s important Wolfenden Report (1963) from several decades ago noted that prostitution has prevailed for many centuries and cannot be really controlled by criminal law. As long as there is both a demand for the services of prostitutes and women who choose this form of livelihood, said this report (Wolfenden Report, 1963:132), “no amount of legislation directed towards its abolition will abolish it.”

One day, perhaps, community leaders and law enforcement officials will agree with this statement and will recognize that legal efforts to control prostitution are futile in a free society (Wright, 2009). Some nations have already reached this recognition. For example, prostitution is legal (with some restrictions) in Canada. Similarly, in many European countries, prostitutes ply their trade legally, pay taxes, receive health and retirement benefits, and take regularly scheduled vacations (Weitzer, 2011). The decriminalization of prostitution in the United States would allow police agencies, who already mostly disregard much prostitution, to deal with more important matters, and it would probably help lower the number of sex crimes. Opponents of decriminalization argue for continued or increased legal control of prostitution for several reasons: (1) they believe prostitution is inherently immoral; (2) they believe prostitution leads to other crimes, such as drug addiction, blackmail, and assault; and (3) they believe prostitution objectifies and victimizes the women who engage in prostitution.

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