Nicholas Kristof had a column in the NYT on Sunday decrying—and I join him in decrying—the sex trafficking of underage American girls:
But in the United States we see girls all the time who have been trafficked—and our hearts harden. The problem is that these girls aren’t locked in cages. Rather, they’re often runaways out on the street wearing short skirts or busting out of low-cut tops, and many Americans perceive them not as trafficking victims but as miscreants who have chosen their way of life. So even when they’re 14 years old, we often arrest and prosecute them—even as the trafficker goes free. In fact, human trafficking is more similar in America and Cambodia than we would like to admit. Teenage girls on American streets may appear to be selling sex voluntarily, but they’re often utterly controlled by violent pimps who take every penny they earn.
Arrest the pimps, throw the book at johns who seek out sex with minors, and fully fund social service agencies that help women, regardless of age, leave forced sex work, whether the "force" we're talking about is abusive pimps or socioeconomic circumstances. But if we were actually interested in decreasing the harms of prostitution—and not just interested in expressing our moral disapproval—we would legalize sex work. Not only would people forced into sex work be able to go to the police without fear of arrest, but health agencies would be able to license sex workers, regulate and inspect houses of prostitution, and require regular testing, condom use, etc., and take other steps to minimize the health risks to sex workers, their clients, and the wives who may not know their husbands are seeing sex workers.
And johns who don't want to buy sex from women who have been forced into sex work—and I get letters from these guys every day—would have the option of visiting safe and regulated houses of prostitution or patronizing independent-but-licensed sex workers. Not all johns are abusive assholes who don't care about or respect women; not all johns are scum just as not all sex workers are abused or enslaved minors. If there was an agency that provided a Good Whoremongering stamp of approval to independent or contracted sex workers—a stamp that said, "this isn't a minor, this isn't someone who has been forced into sex work, this sex worker has been tested and practices safer sex"—most johns would happily pay a premium to see women who had that stamp of approval.
The system would be abused. We have child labor laws that are regularly abused and no one argues that we should criminalize labor to prevent those abuses. No one who supports legalizing sex work believes that it would eliminate the abuse of sex workers—abuse that flourishes now under prohibition—but it would decrease the dangers and harms of sex work for providers and clients alike. It would be a far less abusive, and far less abusable, system than we have right now.