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Prostitution's Real Casualties Aren't Secret Service

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I've been curious about a question I haven't heard in the stories about U.S. Secret Service agents misbehaving before President Obama's arrival at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia.

Why were world leaders meeting in a place with legalized prostitution?

There might have been a time — after I saw Toulouse-Lautrec's poignant paintings of life in Paris brothels, or Billy Wilder's clever Irma la Douce — when I thought of prostitution as a harmless enterprise between consenting adults.

But over the years, I've reported stories about prostitution — legal, illegal and winked at — in Chicago, San Salvador and Havana. I've visited cities, including Cartagena and Amsterdam, in which it's licensed.

Seeing prostitution close up can shake any idea you may have that it can be some kind of Julia Roberts romantic comedy.

The customers and hustlers are certainly eager participants. But the women — and the few men — I've interviewed usually seem to be drawn into that world by poverty, desperation or drugs. They often tell you it's a brutal, sad and dangerous life, in which the women are often attacked, robbed and abused.

If you walk down Amsterdam's famous red-light district, you don't see many apple-cheeked young Dutch girls in the windows. A Netherlands' government report says most of the young women who become prostitutes there are poor immigrants from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. The relief organization World Vision estimates that up to a quarter of the women who become prostitutes have been literally dragged into that life by sex traffickers.

To put the question in blunt, personal terms: Whether walking the street or working as an escort, would you want someone you love to live that way?

Prostitution is legal in Cartagena — which, by the way, also has graceful art, lovely beaches and lively cafes.

"It doesn't bother people at all," Mayor Campo Elias told the Associated Press this week, "because here, it's normal."

Advocates of legalization point out that banning prostitution clearly hasn't prevented a lot of people from seeking it. They say making the trade legal can equip governments to require regular medical exams for sex workers.

But I wonder if the people who planned this year's Summit of the Americas thought through the implications of bringing 34 heads of state to meet a place in which an enterprise many people consider an exploitation of women is practiced so openly.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


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