Seeing Prostitution

Embedded in the popular imagination as “the world’s oldest profession,” prostitution continues to be very visible in our society. Yet there had been little research into how the public actually thinks about this issue and what, if anything, they think we can or should do about it. Topos research provides the most comprehensive view of how Americans understand – and don’t understand – the sex trade, and the ways our society might address the issue.

Americans see “the woman” selling sex, not the systems or conditions that lead to prostitution. They see physical violence, but not the psychological and emotional trauma. Most see this life as a “choice” at some level – while the circumstances that complicate issues of choice and consent are unseen. These seen and unseen circumstances shape people’s understanding of the issue, their desire for collective action, and their support for specific solutions.

Voters are motivated by a desire to shrink prostitution, and overwhelming majorities (from 60% to 83%) support a range of solutions that will prevent people from entering prostitution and provide more ways out for those who are ready to leave.

A solid majority opposes full decriminalization, which removes all criminal penalties for those who buy sex and those who sell others for sex. Critics caution that full decriminalization grows the sex trade and puts more people in harm’s way.

Notably, voters are open to the idea of partial decriminalization (meaning making prostitution no longer a crime for people who sell their bodies for sex, while keeping criminal penalties for those who buy sex and those who facilitate prostitution and sell others for sex), and as they learn more, support significantly increases.

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