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Reform Efforts and Effects

The contemporary debate on prostitution has been influenced by three groups that want to change those laws enacted in the early 1900s: civil libertarians, feminists, and prostitutes themselves. For the most part, they have not been able to attract the attention of lawmakers to their demands, and they do not present a united front. The civil libertarians were the first to raise criticisms of prostitution laws. They focused on the content of prostitution laws and the way the laws were enforced. The policies represented by these laws appeared to the civil libertarians to be unconstitutional on several fronts. In making a sexual act a crime, the policies violated the privacy of consenting adults. The laws were vague and often made a person’s status (that is, being a prostitute) rather than a person’s act (that is, selling sexual favors) a crime. This violated due process guarantees. The laws discriminated against women. Some of the laws even defined a prostitute as “a woman who. . . .” Such laws clearly excluded men from prosecution for selling sex. Even more discriminatory, civil libertarians believed, male patrons of prostitutes were exempt from prosecution by law or by practice, even though the illegal transaction could not occur without their participation. The laws were vulnerable to review under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Beyond their questionable constitutionality, the policies they reflected were clearly ineffective in eliminating or suppressing prostitution, their original intent. Thus, the laws became vehicles for police to harass prostitutes, especially the poor hookers. In addition, they increased the power of pimps.