This article appeared on SubStack on July 3, 2023.
Last week Maine legalized the sale—but not the purchase—of prostitution services, becoming the first state to enact such a law. (Nevada allows legal prostitution in counties with fewer than 700,000 residents; Rhode Island had no law against indoor prostitution between 1980 and 2009.)
Maine’s policy is a step in the right direction, but as with laws that legalize drug possession but not production or sale, removing criminal penalties from only one side of the market is a minor step that can be worse than no legalization at all.
Under partial legalization, the prostitution market remains underground, with all the attendant negatives: violence, corruption, and poor “quality control,” meaning greater transmission of sexually transmitted diseases.
De‐criminalizing only the supply side improves the well‐being of prostitutes. The risk, however, is that when other evils of underground markets continue, some observers assert that legalization has failed. This happens repeatedly in debates over decriminalized drug markets.
The ideal policy is therefore full legalization of prostitution that involves consenting adults. Child prostitution and trafficking are different stories, since both involve coercion (presumptively for children, as with statutory rape laws, or explicitly for children and adults when traffickers use deception and force). The most effective way to eliminate these components of the market is full legalization of adult, voluntary transactions.