It’s interesting, in the aftermath of the Spitzer scandal, to watch people debate on what they think of prostitution. It gets a lot of people confused on what a policy stance should be, especially people who are uncomfortable with (a) knee-jerk libertarianism, (b) faux-moral condemnation, or (c) the government having prohibition on what consenting adults can do with their bodies, especially related to sex.
Two things of note, related.
1) From the libertarian post above:
Legalizing prostitution expands it, the argument goes, and also helps pimps, fails to protect women, and leads to more back-alley violence, not less.
Name one industry that has been characterized by more violence and mayhem when it was legal than when it was illegal. For that matter, name one job, other than being a mercenary, that involves as much violence as, say, the drug trade1. You can’t, because this argument makes absolutely no sense. Violence goes hand-in-hand with illegal industries because there is no legal way to enforce contracts, and because people engaged in illegal activity are understandably reluctant to report other crimes that took place during their malfeasance.
“Legalizing it would make it safer for the women.” Makes sense on the first approximation. However what legalizing it in practice (and I might argue in theory) for the USA means making it safer for the pimps. Having a giant regulatory apparatus would add a fixed cost, in cash and in time, that would give a huge advantage to business operators and people with money up front – ie, pimps, who would naturally want a big cut of what a woman earns in this capacity. See some horror stories from Las Vegas in this regard. It would be like what Tony Soprano does – give us a cut (ie taxes) and you can set up an escort shop on our property. I’m skeptical that that would translate into a safe or respectable work atmosphere (whatever that may look like).
Also, is there a real incentive to go on the books? At the very high and low end of prostitution, you would see incentives to keep it hidden. Either because the clients have too little or too much – that article, by Venkatesh, is shocking – money, and wouldn’t want to pay the fees or have their names on the record. Or the women won’t go on the books – there would be legal liabilities to hiring drug addicts from a company’s point of view, and elite girls, per the article linked right before, are paid in part of secrecy. In other words, we’d have the same problems we have now, but on a much larger scale. (Also, obviously, it would make it safer for the men hiring).
Also, as to the “enforce contract” portions of the libertarian critique (which is powerful in other contexts), is that the biggest problem would be rape, and it is sadly clear how that would pan out. Rape trials are ghastly spectacles for women as it is; I can’t see courts turning favorable to the testimony of a prostitute saying she was raped by a client.
2) I have been disappointed by not seeing much from the wonkish side of the blogosphere (including, surprisingly, from Cato). The best, and it is pretty good, is from here. I think he’s very negative on the Swedish model, which is surprising (it’s way better than what we have now):
I used to think the most promising approach was Sweden’s. There, prostitution is considered “an aspect of male violence against women and children” and treated as such. Legislation, passed in 1999 as part of a broader “violence against women” bill, partly decriminalized the selling of sex while making the buying of sex illegal (pimping was already outlawed). On the other hand, prostitutes are still punished in various ways—known sex workers can lose custody of their kids, for one. And although the bill provides funds to help prostitutes who want to get out of the business, many sex workers say the aid is inadequate. Worse, because prostitution is not supposed to exist, there are now fewer drop-in health centers available for sex workers.
The actual effects of the law are still murky. Prosecutions of male buyers and johns went up dramatically, and street prostitution in Stockholm has dropped by two-thirds since 1999. But it’s unclear whether the sex trade was simply pushed underground, as was originally feared. Official statistics give conflicting answers. Some studies estimate that the total amount of prostitution has remained unchanged, although one Stockholm non-profit estimated that about 60 percent of prostitutes took advantage of the social service funds and succeeded in getting out of the business. My sense is that there’s just not a lot of reliable data here.
I think it’s unfair to force causation of the sex trade going online to a bill that just happened to be passed in 1999. It was likely that the sex trade would go online anyway, regardless of any bills passed. It’s now all over craigslist in places that hasn’t necessarily taken an aggressive stance one way or the other.
I’m still not certain how the law should change. Your thoughts?