Examining Policy Preferences for Prostitution Regulation Among American Males: The Influence of Contextual Beliefs

Published date01 December 2020
Date01 December 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Examining Policy Preferences
for Prostitution Regulation
Among American Males: The
Influence of Contextual Beliefs
Christina Mancini
, Justin T. Pickett
, Kristen M. Budd
Stephanie Bontrager
, and Dominique Roe-Sepowitz
The arguments for criminalizing prostitution surround public concerns—moral order, public health,
and safety. For this reason, an understanding of attitudes about the nature and consequences of the
practice, particularly among American males, the presumed consumers of sex-related exchanges, is
needed. Specifically, how do contextual beliefs about the nature of prostitution (e.g., negative health
effects, victimization risk, age of entry) shape policy preferences regarding prostitution? Data from a
nationally representative survey developed to solicit sensitive information are utilized to assess
these attitudes among a large sample of American men (N¼2,525). Results show that paradoxically
most men approve of legalizing commercial sex exchange, even while believing the practice harms
prostitutes by increasing victimization risk and reducing their overall well-being. Multivariate analysis
indicates divides in opinion regarding legalization support. Implications are discussed.
public order crime, other, criminal victimization, crime policy, courts/law
With the exception of select jurisdictions in Nevada, the nearly universal prohibition of prostitution
suggests the perception that the exchange of sex for money is deviant (Birch & Ireland, 2015; also
Scott, 2011) and, as some would argue, particularly harmful to those who work within the sex
industry (Benoit et al., 2018).
But, is this premise shared among the American public, particularly
among men who as a group are disproportionately more likely to purchase commercial sex (Shively
L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA, USA
School of Criminal Justice, University at Albany, SUNY, NY, USA
Sociology and Criminology Department, Miami University, Oxford, OH, USA
School of Criminology, Criminal Justice and Strategic Studies, Tarleton University, TX, USA
School of Social Work, Arizona State University, AZ, USA
Corresponding Author:
Christina Mancini, L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, Virginia Commonwealth University,
1003 West Franklin Street, Richmond, VA 23284, USA.
Email: cnmancini@vcu.edu
Criminal Justice Review
2020, Vol. 45(4) 413-429
ª2020 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016820906601
et al., 2012)? Public opinion polls in t he United States hav e assessed broad p erceptions of pros -
titution, such as whether or not to legalize prostitution (Marist Institute Poll, 2016). Much of this
prior scholarship demonstrates that a few sociodemographic factors shape beliefs about policy
responses to legalization efforts (e.g., religiosity, fundamentalism, conservatism; see Cao &
Maguire, 2013; Stack et al., 2010). Comparatively, few investigations have systematically tapped
attitudes regarding the nature of prostitution. By context, we are referring to public perceptions
about the conditions of prostitution, such as its potential to result in health problems and victi-
mization. Additionally, the public might hold views concerning those who are involved in pros-
titution, such as the “Johns” or clients, perceiving, for example, that a large proportion of them are
married. Not least, they may hold opinions concerning the perceived autonomy of prostitutes, such
as the age at which individuals first enter prostitution, whether individuals voluntarily initially
choose to be involved in prostitution, and whether individuals can “desist” or, without interfer-
ence, no longer engage in acts of prostitution.
This is an important area to contribute to, given that public conceptions about the nature or
conditions of prostitution, particularly the extent to which it is perceived as dangerous or voluntary,
might shape their general policy views toward the legalization of prostitution (Levin & Peled, 2011).
This study seeks to address this gap by analyzing the extent to which the aforementioned conceptual
beliefs about prostitution affect support for legalizing prostitution. We focus on the adult male
population in the United States whom others have deemed the “beneficiaries” of prostitution and
as such are affected by policy changes (Cao et al., 2017, p. 1179).
To contribute to extant scholarship, we address two sets of research questions in the current
study. First, we examine the extent to which the public holds certain contextual views. Do a
majority of men view prostitution as resulting in negative effects? Do they, as a group, perceive
a higher rate of victimization among those who engage in acts of prostitution? Among American
men, what estimate is given regarding the proportion of “Johns” who are married? What is the
typical age of entry perceived among the public? What proportion of men judge an initial act of
prostitution to be voluntary? What percentage of men feel prostitutes can voluntarily desist from
engaging in acts of prostitution? Views about the nature and context of prostitution may affect
more general attitudes. Accordingly, for the last question, we test the following: What contextual
perceptions shape policy support for legalization of prostitution, controlling for sociodemographic
Previous Research on Attitudes Toward Prostitution
Perceptions of Context
Public opinion scholars have devoted substantial attention toward examining prostitution policy
preferences. Examining judgments about the nature or context of prostitution has been less of a
priority. Thus, we see an opportunity to contribute to the current public opinion literature centered
on understanding prostitution policy views. Understanding this dimension of public perception is
important as views about prostitution might determine judgments about legalization efforts (Levin &
Peled, 2011). Specifically, in this study, we seek to understand public perceptions of the negative
effects of prostitution, the potential risk of victimization to the prostitute, the percentage of clients/
“Johns” who are married, the extent of voluntariness of the exchange and continued “selling” of sex
(i.e., do prostitutes enter the exchange voluntarily and can prostitutes desist without interference,
from a pimp or trafficker?), and the age of onset of prostitution. Below, we rely on prior scholarship
to contextualize these dimensions of public attitudes.
414 Criminal Justice Review 45(4)

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