Friday, September 10, 2010

Why Prostitution Should Be Legal

Recently, the Economist hosted a debate on the legalization of prostitution. I entered some "comments from the floor" and thought I'd better summarize my position here. I have also included at the end a list of video clips from an anti-pornography blog precisely because they may not agree with me.

tired-of-prostitutionLet me start with video playlist highly relevant to the economist debate. In a nutshell, the most important issue seems to be whether all prostitution is violence and coercion or not. Melissa Farley, Executive director of the Prostitution Research & Education argued against legalization, whereas Sienna Baskin, Co-director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Centre argued for legalization. A secondary issue was comparing the Swedish model vs. the New Zealand model of legalization.

In Sweden, only the purchase of sex is prohibited, selling being legal and taxed. However, if a landlord finds out that a prostitute is renting a dwelling, he is legally obliged to evict her. The Swedish government claims that this has resulted in a drastic reduction in prostitution. Critics claim that prostitution has only disappeared from the public eye and went underground, that the price of sex has dropped, that prostitutes are worse off and only the most violent johns continue to purchase sex. There is a Danish brothel right at the border with Sweden that caters specifically to Swedish johns.

world-prostitutionUnlike Sweden, New Zealand gave prostitutes a voice in both drafting the prostitution legislation and in assessing its results. The results seem very positive, except for trafficking into the country of illegal immigrants who have no protection under the law. This legislation resulted in an apparent increase in prostitution, but one has to wonder whether this is a true increase or prostitution has simply become more visible and more legal. Most people who have researched this implementation consider it superior to that of Netherlands, where apparently brothel owners hold the upper hand.

Let us examine a few studies and essays I consider relevant to this debate.

Pro Docs: [Canadian Sw v NZ] [Finland - Sweden comparison] [Sweden vs Netherlands] [Johannes Eriksson, ROSEA, Sweden, und ICRSE - International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, Amsterdam. Paper presented at Montreal Forum XXX]

Con Docs: [Challenging Men's Demand] [Prostitution on Demand] [Prostitution Hierarchy of Coercion] [Swedish Law] [Trafficking for Prostitution in Italy] [Trafficking Theory Vs Reality 2009] [Prostitution: a critical review of the medical and social sciences literature. Melissa Farley and Vanessa Kelly. Women & Criminal Justice 2000]

Others: [ilo] [Mirbeau, Octave, The love of a venal woman] [moral crusade]

Finally, here’s what I think in point form. These ideas might eventually coalesce into an essay, but there’s more research I need to do first.

  1. One trick opponents of legalization use to silence liberals is “what would you do if your daughter was a prostitute?”. It is hard for me to imagine that, as I don’t have a daughter and naturally assume there’s no way she’d become a prostitute if I had one. However, for me the question is whether I would use coercion to help her out of this, and the answer is yes, only if she is underage. If she is over the age of majority, I would try to convince her – giving up prostitution would have to be her decision.  (ECHOES)
  2. I believe in legalizing prostitution because I believe that the state has no business legislating morality. Insofar as prostitution is practiced by willing adults and no other laws are broken, there is no reason for anybody to interfere. In effect, the law should give such a commercial transaction the protection afforded to any other commercial transaction. I personally wish that prostitution did not exist and people who sell sex would have other, more dignified ways to make money, but it is not for me to decide on their behalf.
  3. To impose one’s views on others is coercion and is no better than the coercion used by some pimps on their victims. Pimps who coerce victims into prostitution are no different than people who coerce others into slavery – and there are laws against that.
  4. I am unconvinced of the assertion that all prostitutes are coerced. If that were true, the state would only need to arrest the pimps for prostitution to cease to exist.
  5. The idea that some people are coerced into prostitution and as such we need to outlaw prostitution is a non sequitur. People are forced by circumstance to take jobs they do not want in order to feed themselves and their families or to join churches they don't believe in to get better education for their children. They may be forced into marriages they detest, or live in countries they do not want to be in, but nobody is calling for banning marriage, churches or working. We deal with those cases on an individual basis.
  6. I agree with Ms Baskin that the Swedish experience remains irrelevant. Sweden has never had a significant sample size to judge the impact of its legislation: there were very few prostitutes even before the law took effect. The assessments coming out of their government seem contradictory and tainted by ideological bias.
  7. The only thing that differentiates sex work from other manual labor is our fearful attitude toward sex and the desire to impose our moral views onto others. No matter how you look at it, such a desire is informed by an elitist, condescending attitude toward sex workers.
  8. The belief that we can eradicate prostitution by legislating against it is naive at best, especially when one considers our experience with the "war on drugs" or Prohibition. Besides, recent studies have shown that even heavy drinking is healthier than not drinking at all; why couldn't the same be true about sex?
  9. Taking a choice away - even a bad choice - is never helpful, because the choices they are left with are even worse.
  10. Once we accept that sex work similar to other manual labour, we can look at the Chinese example. Sure, most Chinese workers are state slaves, but they prefer this to working in agriculture or living in abject poverty. No amount of preaching or morality-based legislation will improve their lot as much as they themselves do through their own powers. We endorse this status quo through our purchasing of Chinese goods, even though we may frown upon authoritarian capitalism. The Chinese spread this model of prosperity in Africa as well, where they are better regarded than the high-brow, aid-dispensing Westerners.
  11. There is a role for churches and those who take a polarizing view on sexual relations to play in this matter: rather than try to influence policy, they could make help, counseling and alternatives available to sex workers if and when they need it.
  12. Those "pillars of society" trying to control and outlaw prostitution seem to want to do so out of a selfish need to obscure hedonism and what they wrongly perceive as an attack on morals. Rather than trying to change others, they might find a shorter path to happyness (sic!) by increasing the fiber content of their diet.
  13. Perhaps the best way for prostitutes to combat these immoral attempts to control their destinies would be to form their own hedonistic church, careful to avoid the excesses that got Scientology banned, and search for Sexvana under freedom of conscience protections. LE: During the late 1980s, The Newhall Signal, a weekly newspaper published in Ventura County, California, presented a series of articles about the Church Of The Most High Goddess, founded by Mary Ellen Tracy and her husband Wilbur Tracy, where sexual acts played a fundamental role in the church's sacred rites. The articles aroused the attention of local law enforcement officials, and in April 1989, the Tracy's house was searched and the couple arrested on charges of pimping, pandering and prostitution. They were subsequently convicted in a trial in state court and sentenced to jail terms: Wilbur Tracy for 180 days plus a $1,000.00 fine; Mary Ellen Tracy for 90 days plus mandatory screening for STDs.
  14. Violence arises naturally in all workplaces. Not long ago, a Harvard graduate working as an associate professor gunned down a few of her colleagues.
  15. What irks me about the moral argument is how facetious it is. Prostitution IS demeaning and exploitive and there is no doubt that many sex workers feel this way, be they women, transgendered or men. But the same can be said about a wide variety of manual labour. Ask janitors and house maids what do they think about what they do - I would not be surprised if you find identical reports of exploitation, violence and shame. This holds true also about intellectual / cognitive-complex workers, starting with telemarketers, those working in tech support and ending with programmers - or code monkeys, as some like to call themselves. Ask lawyers articling, MDs in training or postgrad students working on their thesis if they feel 100% good about their work and you are bound to find at least a few whose "job satisfaction" approaches the levels found with prostitutes. We may even find some teenagers in middle or high class families feel exploited by their parents, even though they never worked in their entire lives.
  16. What makes prostitution different is our own perception, fears and insecurities about sex and especially about the sex that other people have. The more sex-negative our upbringing and our worldview, the more likely we are to have weird feelings about prostitution, feelings and emotions that cause us to be against it.
  17. This idea the prostitution is "new" and that such behaviors can be altered through legislation is wrong. Higher testosterone levels cause men to be bigger and more muscular and have more acute sex drives, which they generally tend to want to satisfy faster than women. This imbalance has naturally caused such exchanges to occur since the beginning of our species. Such exchanges (sex for food) have been observed particularly with Bonobos, where females generally hold a higher social status than males and less so with Chimpanzees, where the community is male-centered and females don’t get to say “no” too often. Incidentally, the "pansexuality" of bonobos is what researchers believe has eliminated violence in their society, whereas with chimps females are constantly harassed by the "boys" and beaten. (I was not saying that women have no sexual pleasure, but rather that most men have a stronger "need" for sex than women. That does not mean that women do not want sex and it explains why most sex buyers are men.)
  18. We humans tend to cloud the issue with our prejudices and social customs. Can the man picking up the tab for the dinner the precedes sex in an evening date be considered a john? How about the chivalrous man opening doors and giving up his seat in the bus?
  19. What makes a rapist a criminal is not their need for sex but rather his willingness to satisfy it while ignoring the victim's will. Furthermore, if I read studies correctly, some if not most rapistsperpetrators of sexual assault are unable to obtain erections during their crimes. It's not the sex drive that causes sex crimes to occur, but rather a pathological / sociopathic need to control / harm others.
    In any event, I am not arguing for legalizing prostitution because it's healthy or normal, but rather because I believe it to be a better deal for prostitutes and I don't believe that the state should legislate morals.
  20. “This is about girls and boys having the right to stable, safe, nurturing homes"
    I fail to see a connection between this "right" (which is rather an aspiration that cannot be achieved through legislation alone) and the legal status of prostitution. Making prostitution illegal or legal has nothing to do with such a right. Indeed, the two issues are parallel.
  21. Being poor means being vulnerable and that is true whether prostitution is legal or not. Taking the "prostitution option" away from those who choose to use it often forces them into options that are worse from their perspective (even though these options may be better from ours).
  22. To believe that criminalizing prostitution changes the situation is similar to believing that outlawing the name "Mr Burns" will eliminate all bad employers. There will always be vulnerable people and those willing to take advantage of them.
  23. The money wasted on trying to enforce unenforceable laws is better spent on educating potential victims and empowering them to make better choices. Criminalization drives prostitution underground, greatly worsening the victims' lot. It also decreases respect for the law and, like almost all the laws motivated by morality, ends up harming those it aims to help as they have less opportunities to escape their situation.
  24. A study has found that prostitutes “managed” by pimps earn higher incomes and spend less time incarcerated. Pimps pay apparently “efficiency wages”, otherwise prostitutes would not allow them to manage.
  25. Reading a Swedish government report on the effects of its legislation I gathered the following:

    "Street prostitution has been cut in half" and "Fewer men state that they purchase sexual services."

    Such statements suggest to me that prostitution has not been eradicated, but rather that it is less visible. I certainly hope that there has been a reduction in prostitution and, more importantly, in involuntary (forced) prostitution but I suspect that this is not the case.

    "There is no evidence that the decrease in street prostitution has led to an increase in prostitution elsewhere." This can be interpreted either as a success in reducing prostitution, or simply as proof that part of this activity is now completely out of the public eye.

  26. "Monitoring and evaluation were delegated to the Socialstyrelsen, which has produced three reports (2000, 2004, 2007). These acknowledged the difficulties in evaluating the situation and provided no hard evidence that the law had in any way achieved its objectives. The 2007 report states that street prostitution is on the increase after an initial decline and that customers and sex workers now use the internet and mobile phone to communicate. There is no evidence that the law has reduced violence, rather there is evidence it has increased. There has been a 40% increase over the last ten years in reported sexual offences." (wikipedia)
  27. Why are we punishing sex workers for the social stigma associated with their work, when "social" is really "us"?

Like I said, the argument against legalization seems incredibly weak and largely grounded in outdated morals. I need to read more and find either more arguments that contradict my beliefs, or a better, more persuasive expose of the existing ones.

[see also some ECHOES of this debate]

Sources / More info: economist-deb8, flickr, swe-crime-barometer, prostitution-db, Pro-rights, Augustin-Border, eco-hi-end, bbc-men, wwn-wilbur, NYT-wilbur, star-91, eco-ep, eco-uk, eco-policing, eco-trafficking, eco-ss, eco-sx-bus, eco-sx4sl, yt-anti-prostitution

Wikipedia: wiki-prostitution, sx-ind, escort, hist-prost, greece, rome, law, country, trafficking, slavery, children, violence, pascha, street, brothel, red-light, tourism, child-tourism, feminism, war-japan, war-germany

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