why prostitution isn't like pot

Both Andrew Sullivan and Dominic Holden have brought up the problems and possibilities of legalized prostitution in the last few days. This is a topic on which my own views--to borrow a phrase--have evolved. Quoting, er, myself from the comments section of Dominic's post:

My bias is definitely that [prostitution] should be legal (as should any voluntary exchange among adults that does not involve force or fraud).

However, my enthusiasm is tempered by some counter-intuitive research that found higher rates of human trafficking into countries where prostitution is legal.

So although it makes intuitive sense (it did to me, anyway) that legalizing it would improve conditions for sex workers and reduce incentives to trafficking, what actually seems to happen is that the market gets so much bigger that it incentivizes trafficking further.

In other words, this might be where the pot analogy breaks down: there is not a pent-up market waiting for pot to be legal. Most everyone who wants to smoke pot, does.

That doesn't seem to be the case with prostitution, at least based on the LSE study cited above.
I'm not really sure how to resolve this. I still have no philosophical or moral objection to any consenting adults entering into an economic exchange that involves sex. If that is the state's affair, it is difficult to imagine what isn't.

But it would be irresponsible in the extreme to be cavalier about the impact of such a policy shift on the lives of sex workers, generally, and on the young people potentially being coerced into sex work, particularly.

Clearly, the devil is the details. My sense is that the Australian system works reasonably well (though I don't know a great deal about it) whereas the Dutch system appears to be failing miserably at its stated goal of bringing the sex trade above-board and improving working conditions. The last time I strolled through the red light district in Amsterdam (summer of 2005) it was...pretty seedy. A lot of the girls I passed knocked pretty enthusiastically on their windows when they saw me, and it isn't because I'm some prize--I just looked a LOT less scummy than the average guy rolling through. Drug dealers plied pretty openly on the streets, and--most unsettlingly--it was often hard to tell whether the guys working "security" were keeping the dregs out or keeping the girls in. Based on Bindel's account, it sounds like it has only gotten worse.


RW said...

I've never used the services and have, to my knowledge, never even been in close proximity to the opportunity except once in Dallas when I was at a convention - but I was certain she was a cop looking to sting out-of-towners and walked away. But it seems to me a person doesn't have to have first hand experience with this to recognize that it is, after all, a seedy business.

My friends in the IWW have been, ongoing, trying to organize sex workers over the last few years with moderate success.

Problem being the guys who run the show are very much the capitalist pig incarnate. Akin to the robber barons of the 1880's. "Who gives a shit about the welfare of the workers,... it's my capital" kind of thing.

Ancient profession, pimping.

Brian said...

I haven't made use of anyone's services either (I guess that wasn't 100% clear from my post) but I can easily envision why people would, and would want to do so in a way that is completely non-coerced, safe (as is reasonably possible), and ethical.

I think that is a very difficult bar to clear when the sex trade is underground.

My intuition is that any potentially successful regime of legal prostitution would have to essentially outlaw pimping. All workers as private contractors, no one has a supervisor. Brothels working a bit like a lot of beauty salons (wherein contractors essentially rent the space but work for themselves). That kind of thing.

RW said...

Here's an interesting viewpoint from friends of the IWW...


Brian said...

The following was posted by Gino, then subsequently deleted because i tried to approve it from my phone while several beers deep:

I'd say the best scenario is to outlaw prostitution, but not enforce it very much, and keep enforcemnt limited to mainly the streetwalkers and traffickers... with life time penalties for pimps.

ya know, like leave the independent girls alone.

Bike Bubba said...

I'm thinking that the trick--your synthesis if you will--is that there is a very small minority of women that will who will do this willingly, while the male sex drive combined with a lot of men being incapable of a real relationship creates a huge incentive for some to "persuade the not-so-willing" to take part in the industry.

Or, put differently, the legalization side of the argument greatly misread human nature in this area.

And if this is correct, Gino is exactly correct that the penalty for kidnapping and repeated rape often used to "persuade the not-so-willing" should be severe. Quite frankly, a life sentence might be a little bit on the mild side.

Brian said...

It would appear that demand for sex work is a lot more sensitive to legal status than is the supply. If you greatly increase demand without a similar increase in supply, prices go up and you increase the incentive to meet demand by illicit means.

(It's almost certainly more complicated than that, but that seems a pretty good description of the data at hand.)

I think draconian penalties for anyone found to have coerced people (and especially minors) into the sex trade is a policy that would have very broad support. Of course, there you have the problem that (given the aforementioned profitability of the enterprise) you are likely to select for the most vicious and ruthless criminals in the human trafficking business (for precedent, look at the effect of the drug war in Mexico.)

Like I said, I don't have any easy answers here. I think we have to take a certain level of demand for sex work as a given. I would certainly prefer to respect the autonomy of (truly) consenting adults to the maximum extent possible, but doing so clearly comes with tradeoffs that might be simply unacceptable.

Bike Bubba said...

It's on the demand side, just like drugs. I'd have to guess that the demand for prostitutes is led by men who are pretty lonely and/or have not learned to have a real relationship with a real woman. Figure out why there are so many of them, and you've got the tools, possibly, to defuse pimping.

Brian said...

But the demand side isn't just like drugs. Drug usage rates are relatively insensitive to legal status. In contrast, legalizing prostitution seems to increase demand by quite a lot.

What is probably worth asking is: why is this so? Who is the marginal john that won't patronize illegal sex workers, but will patronize legal ones?

I'd argue that he's probably a married man who faces a two-fold risk of criminal sanction AND being outed to his spouse if he runs afoul of the authorities. It's much easier to keep that activity on the down low if you don't have to worry about getting busted by the cops.

Bike Bubba said...

OK, I see that difference. Why?

Well, first of all, employer drug tests already catch drug users. If you want a good job, you generally need to stay away from drugs, legal or otherwise. Second, I'm told by my doctor that not everybody gets "high" in the way users do. Morphine does nothing for me but kill the pain, for example, after surgery. In the same way, my dad had no reaction to burning ditchweed as a kid.

So with drugs, you'd expect the population of users to be limited to (a) those who don't need to be clean for their jobs and (b) actually get something out of it.

Sex, on the other hand, is undetectable by your employer, and almost everybody enjoys it. That said, I would still be able to guess that you'd be able to come up with some characteristics of johns, whatever they are, and ask "is there something wrong with us as a society that leads to this?"

And not much research on it. One interesting commentary I found had the researcher claiming that their control group included people who visited strip clubs up to once or twice a month. What they found was a profound lack of sympathy for the women involved.

marsha said...

I am still of the opinion that legalization is a good thing. No system will ever be perfect, and christ on a cracker, the Netherlands got it wrong. I think it is short sighted and silly to make these kinds of decisions based on the results of a single experiment. If we applied that criteria, generally, we'd get absolutely no where. The important thing is to learn something from their mistakes.