Legalize prostitution signs Gail Orenstein/ZumaPress

The World’s Oldest Public Policy Puzzle

The controversy surrounding Amnesty International's decision to advocate for decriminalization of prostitution suggests that public opinion on this issue has not shifted greatly over the past century. It is time to reconsider.

NEW YORK – In 1893, the playwright George Bernard Shaw, an ardent proponent of women’s suffrage and equality, wrote Mrs. Warren’s Profession, a play whose title character is the proprietor of several brothels. The play justifies her profitable exploitation of the business of prostitution from a feminist standpoint.

The play is not salacious, and it contains no coarse language, but it was nonetheless eight years before it could be staged. Its opening in London in 1902 was staged in a small theater “club,” ostensibly limited to members. Its performance in New York in 1905 was raided by the police.

This week, Amnesty International announced that it had decided to begin advocating for the decriminalization of prostitution – a position espoused by Shaw. But the ensuing controversy surrounding the decision suggests that public opinion on the issue has not shifted greatly over the past century. It is time we reconsider.

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