Further examination shows this argument to be unsound in every respect. Take the 'oldest profession' comment for example. This implies that prostitution has some kind of soundness as a system simply by virtue of being historic. Some women have always been fucked for money so it's okay. Bear baiting and gladiator contests are also historic but I'm sure no one would want to argue that we legalise those on that ground. Modern thinking has generally recognised many practices of yore as barbaric and cruel, and rightly so. So we may dismiss that 'old = good' line of reasoning. I'm not sure that being verbally, physically and sexually abused can be classed as a profession, anyhow.
This 'oldest profession' line also has about it the ring of inevitability: prostitution was and is and always will be. This is simply not true. There is nothing inevitable about prostitution. The way our society operates, the 'norms' it accepts and perpetuates, are social construct all. The sex industry seeks to naturalise inequalities between the sexes to strengthen its grip, to say this is how men are - needing a constant sexual outlet- this is how women are - able to make money for providing this 'service'. Once we see something as natural or inevitable, we cease to question its being or morality - something the sex industry desires us to do. Even if one were to argue that prostitution is inevitable, does that remove from us the responsibility to try and change that, to try and stop that, once we recognise it is deeply damaging? One might argue that domestic violence will never be completely wiped out, but does that mean we should stop trying, close the refuges, de-criminalise it?
Then the argument about prostitution preventing sexual assaults, a kind of safety valve if you will for the man who is desperate. To say prostitution is okay on the grounds that it stops more serious abuse is to offer up a group of people - prostitutes in this case - and say, let them be the victims here, we'll offer their blood to the beast in order that the rest of us, the majority social group, may be saved. It is to create a sub-class and justify their abuse as a means of protecting those with entitlement. We'll deny them their safety, their human rights, to ensure ours. Better them than us!
This argument implies that rapists and sexual offenders are in some way not responsible for their actions. It is a given that they will hurt people, so it is better that they hurt that woman over there than this socially acceptable woman over here. Do we really want to say that people's actions are pre-destined, inevitable? Doesn't that sanction them? Whatever happened to free will? And personal responsibility? If I hit you, it is because I decided to. My arm doesn't have a life force of its own. Similarly if a person rapes someone, that is a decision too. At the end of the day, the man who rapes makes a decision. He is not at the mercy of his penis! The man who sexually assaults makes a decision. As does the man who batters. The whole penal system is grounded upon this understanding that the individual is responsible for his actions.
If a man sexually assaults someone, he must be punished. The law exists to protect us. We can't offer excuses on his behalf, say he couldn't help himself, and classify abuse as okay because of the exchange of money. Pornography adds to the naturalising of this kind of thinking: that 'boys will be boys' and are fundamentally different to women, needing many sexual partners, visual stimulation and a constantly available sexual outlet, whether that be using women in porn or women in person, be they prostitutes or partners.
This argument also implies that johns are rapists and sexual aggressors. If this is the case, if we acknowledge that the Pretty Woman portrayal of the average john was just a tad optimistic, why should we then expect the prostitute to deal with him, and then also say, her choice, her problem? This argument makes prostitutes a 'necessary evil' as an outlet for the frustrated sexual desire of violent perverts.
Then we have the idea of regulating prostitution. To say we should legalise prostitution and regulate it is to imply that there is such a thing as safety for a prostitute. It is to say, if we put you in a nice room with a lovely bed spread, it's okay for you to be fucked: nothing bad will happen to you. In reality, you can change the setting but you can't change the nature of the act. Prostitution is all about power: the john has all the power because he has the money and has physical strength on his side. The prostitute is the object of his fantasies, his fuck doll to be used and abused as he will. The very nature of the act is aggressive.
There is no such thing as safe prostitution, wherever it might take place. At the end of the day there will always be an inequality there, a naked vulnerable woman and a man (or maybe more than one depending), her very presence there being for the purposes of his sexual pleasure, whatever that takes. And safety implies boundaries, limitations, and back up. Where are the boundaries when a john fucks a prostitute? When he slips off the condom when he's behind her, even on a nice bedspread, where is her backup? Does having a pretty receptionist or someone on the door help her when she's alone with him and he does as he wishes? Or when he fucks her harder because it hurts her, thrusts deeper down her throat to see her gag? He can just as easily rape her, just as easily hurt her, in a nice room with a nice bed spread as on the street corner. It simply offers a veneer of respectability to the punter, and to the pimp. The prostitute is not any better off. The onus will still be on her to swallow down what he did to her, not to tell, her shame not his, her fault for being there. The words he whispers in her ear, telling her all the sick things he wants to do to her, will be no different in that context, and the feeling of her body being violated, being used, having him inside her, will be no different for the woman. She is there for his pleasure, his sexual gratification, whatever that means. End of story.
In the context of legalised prostitution, the pimp becomes a business man, the john a client. Everyone breathes easy, without moral compunction, because the harms have become invisible. The damage done the prostitute becomes invisible because the language with which to address it has vanished. We already have little enough real vocabulary used in debating prostitution. Discussion tends towards vacuousness, limited as it is to abstract concepts of liberation, empowerment and choice. Keep it real people!
Demands to legalise prostitution and regulate it are purely in the interest of the pimps and johns. 68% of women in prostitution suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the same range as torture victims and combat veterans (see www.object.org.uk). Regulating prostitution isn't the answer. Throwing up our hands and saying it's inevitable isn't the answer. Educating people about the realities of prostitution, dispensing with the sanitised, meaningless bleating about choice, liberation, empowerment for women and offering real choices to women who find themselves facing desperate times are what is needed. Until women know the realities of prostitution, they will continue to be vulnerable to being groomed for its use. Until women see other options in the face of mental health problems, poverty and addictions, they will continue to be vulnerable. And until women recognise the personal nature of prostitution in all its glory - cum and fear and aggression and pain and degradation, physical and mental scars, johns who in no way resemble Richard Gere - many will continue to fight for the right of women to continue to be abused and damaged in prostitution.
Don't fight for that in my name. Know the truth: you are fighting for the rights of the pimps and johns. That's real madness.