The Case For Legalizing Prostitution

Today’s Washington Post carries an interesting column by Syrian journalist Sami Moubayed where he makes a rather convincing case for the legalization of prostitution, citing his own country as an example:

For years, many in the Arab World have been sexually deprived. This is because of social restrictions, seclusion, bad education, poverty, etc… Some would argue that Islam is the reason for sexual deprivation, but I stand against such an argument. True, Islam limits interaction between sexes and calls for modesty in dress and conduct, but so does Christianity and Judaism. The other factors — mainly seclusion, lack of education education, and poverty — lead to a permanent psychological disorder. In many cases, people become obsessed with sex in its most primitive form.

Economic factors are very important: women enter the profession to make money because of poverty while men invest in it because they are unable to marry or satisfy their desires in a formal, legal manner. Many men, who live in societies divided along gender lines in the Arab World, start viewing women — all women — as nothing but sexual objects. Meanwhile, pornographic movies abound. Internet and satellite TV provide images that trigger the imagination and desires of sexually deprived men. No authority — no matter how strict or Puritanical — can control or curb such underground subculture.

Repressing these trends (such as the case in some Islamic countries) is not only unsuccessful, but actually fuels more dangerous sexual deviations. When men become obsessed with sexual desires, and have no outlet for these urges, they start doing strange things, such as viewing all women in a derogatory fashion. They can neither work or think properly, affecting overall production in society.

Contrast that with the case of Syria in the early 20th Century where, surprisingly, prostitution was legal:

Prostitution was legalized and professionalized under the Ottoman Empire. Back then there was fear in Damascus that the wandering soldiers would attack or rape young Syrians. That is why affordable prostitution centers were created for them in the Syrian capital, as a form of maintaining public security. This system was maintained when the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918. The destruction of World War I, along with the poverty imposed on the Syrians, however, made many young women turn to prostitution for a living and the years 1914-1918 are considered the worst in the past 100-years of Syrian history. When the French came to Syria in 1920, they professionalized prostitution in major urban cities of Syria. Prostitution centers were registered in government records, and guarded by armed men from the colonial troops of France, mostly, from the Senegal. Any woman found to be engaged in illegal sexual conduct for more than three times would be arrested and sent to the prostitution center. There she would become an “official” employee. She would pay taxes to the central government, and receive check-ups twice a week at the Ministry of Health.

With the rise of Arab Nationalism, though, the trend toward repression continued anew. Moubayed’s argument is, in some senses, unique to the nation he writes about. He contends that traditional Arab repression of sexual desire leads to unhealthy attitudes toward women and that legalizing prostitution, while it may not solve the problem, would at least have it out in the open where everyone would be safer.

I don’t know whether that argument is correct or not, but his central argument — that government regulation of an activity that people have shown a desire for seldom results in anything good — is applicable to any nation or culture.