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Prostitution Is Sad and Tragic…but Should Be Legal

While I focus on economic issues, particularly what’s happening with fiscal policy, I maintain my libertarian “cred” by periodically pointing out that victimless crimes should be legalized. Even if I don’t particularly like the activities.

  • I don’t approve of drugs and I’ve never used drugs, but I think the social harm of prohibition is greater than the social harm of legalization.
  • I don’t particularly like alcohol and I am almost a teetotaler, but I’m glad there’s now a consensus that the social harm of prohibition was greater than the social harm of legalization.
  • I find gambling to be boring and I worry about people who ruin their family’s finances by over-indulging, but the social harm of prohibition is greater than the social harm of legalization.

And now it’s time to dive into the issue of prostitution. Intellectually speaking, of course (even though people don’t like economists pontificating about sex).

It’s becoming an issue because some governments in the United States are looking to legalize sexual/monetary relations between consenting adults. Such as Washington, DC, which is famous for a different form of prostitution.

A D.C. lawmaker has proposed a bill aimed at decriminalizing sex work in the nation’s capital. David Grosso (I-At-Large) introduced the Reducing Criminalization to Improve Community Health and Safety Amendment Act of 2017 on Thursday. He said he developed the bill after working with the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition. “I believe that we as a society are coming to realize that excessive criminalization is causing more harm than good, from school discipline to drug laws to homelessness,” said Grosso.

And Hawaii.

Hawaii lawmakers are considering decriminalizing prostitution in the Aloha State after House Speaker Joseph Souki introduced a bill. …Transgender activist Tracy Ryan says she’s pushing the bill because transgender women in the sex trade are disproportionately impacted by criminalization laws. …Souki says he takes no position on the bill, but he introduced it as a favor to Ryan.

So what should lawmakers decide?

The Economist has a very sensible view on legalization.

…the sheer seediness of prostitution is just one reason governments have long sought to outlaw it, or corral it in licensed brothels or “tolerance zones”. NIMBYs make common cause with puritans, who think that women selling sex are sinners, and do-gooders, who think they are victims. …for many, both male and female, sex work is just that: work. …We have dissected data on prices, services and personal characteristics from one big international site that hosts 190,000 profiles of female prostitutes… The results show that gentlemen really do prefer blondes, who charge 11% more than brunettes. …Prostitutes themselves behave like freelancers in other labour markets. They arrange tours and take bookings online, like gigging musicians. They choose which services to offer, and whether to specialise. They temp, go part-time and fit their work around child care. …Moralisers will lament the shift online because it will cause the sex trade to grow strongly. …But everyone else should cheer. Sex arranged online and sold from an apartment or hotel room is less bothersome for third parties than are brothels or red-light districts. Above all, the web will do more to make prostitution safer than any law has ever done. …Governments should seize the moment to rethink their policies. Prohibition, whether partial or total, has been a predictable dud. It has singularly failed to stamp out the sex trade. …And prohibition has ugly results. Violence against prostitutes goes unpunished because victims who live on society’s margins are unlikely to seek justice, or to get it. …Criminalisation of clients perpetuates the idea of all prostitutes as victims forced into the trade. Some certainly are—by violent partners, people-traffickers or drug addiction. But there are already harsh laws against assault and trafficking. …When Rhode Island unintentionally decriminalised indoor prostitution between 2003 and 2009 the state saw a steep decline in reported rapes and cases of gonorrhoea. Prostitution is moving online whether governments like it or not. If they try to get in the way of the shift they will do harm.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that prostitution is sad and tragic in probably 95 percent of cases. But adding criminal penalties on top of the human cost doesn’t make a bad situation any better.

Prohibition may not stop prostitution, but it does make violence more likely.

Being a sex worker in the United States…means that you are likely vulnerable to extreme rates of physical, sexual and emotional violence, facilitated by the criminalization of the sex trade and the social stigma associated with those who engage in it. Sex worker advocates and the World Health Organization alike have recommended a fix that could dramatically improve sex worker safety, which has been proven to work in other parts of the world: decriminalize sex work. …in the U.S., …the rate of violence against sex workers is four times higher than it is in places where commercial sex is legal. …A study from the Urban Justice Center’s Sex Workers Project found 46% of sex workers experienced violence in the course of their work. Another study from SWP found that an overwhelming majority of street-based sex workers — 80% — reported being threatened or beaten. …Decriminalization of sex work would have a clear effect on sex worker safety, according to SWOP-USA communications director Katherine Koster, and it could be the key to reducing the threat of violence. …Koster told Mic. “When New Zealand decriminalized sex work, 70% of advocates, sex workers and social service providers who work with sex workers said that sex workers were more likely to reach out to the police if they experienced violence.”

Here’s a chart from the article.

This is simple common sense. In a legal market, it’s much easier for prostitutes to control their environment and to know the identity of customers. Both of those factors make crime more risky for bad guys.

Legalization not only would reduce violence against sex workers, it probably would reduce overall sex crimes.

 Does prostitution increase or decrease sex crimes? …Our research focuses on indoor prostitution. In states where prostitution is illegal, indoor prostitution usually occurs in strip clubs, gentlemen’s clubs, and as part of escort services. Indoor prostitution may increase sex crimes if prostitution reinforces the view of women as objects and therefore encourages violence against women. Alternatively, prostitution may reduce sex crimes if it is a substitute for sex crimes. In addition, indoor prostitution establishments may keep potential sex-crime offenders away from potential victims, leading to further substitution away from sex crimes. Our analysis benefits from a unique data set with daily precinct-level information for New York City (NYC). …We exploit exogenous variation in the date of registration of indoor prostitution establishments to provide causal evidence of these establishments on sex crimes using crime data at the daily level. …We find that the presence of an indoor prostitution establishment in a given precinct leads to a 0.4 percent daily reduction in sex crimes per precinct. …We find that sex crime is reduced since potential sex offenders are indoor prostitutes’ customers. …the results suggest that potential sex offenders prefer to use the services offered by these establishments rather than committing sex crimes. Furthermore, these results suggest that sex crimes and indoor prostitution are substitutes.

Unsurprisingly, former President Jimmy Carter isn’t on the right side. Though he wants to shift the punishment.

If paying for sex is normalized, then every young boy will learn that women and girls are commodities to be bought and sold. There is a much better policy option. …Pioneered in Sweden and adopted most recently in Canada and France, this strategy involves decriminalizing prostituted women and offering them housing, job training and other services. Instead of penalizing the victims, however, the approach treats purchasing and profiting from sex acts as serious crimes. …demand for prostitution has fallen dramatically under this model. Conversely, Germany and New Zealand, which have legalized all aspects of prostitution, have seen an increase in sex trafficking and demand for sexual services. Critics of the Nordic model assert that mature adults should be free to exchange money for sex. This argument ignores the power imbalance that defines the vast majority of sex-for-cash transactions, and it demeans the beauty of sexual relations when both parties are respected.

I actually like the world that Carter envisions. But wishing and hoping isn’t going to make the sex trade disappear.

Though prostitutes may get replaced by robots at some point. Needless to say, they don’t like competition.

Europe’s first sex robot brothel has been forced to move after real-life prostitutes complained sex dolls were stealing their trade. …the brothel, not far from La Rambla in the heart of the city has now moved to a mystery new location with a receptionist saying the address would only be given out to paying customers. Prostitutes who work in the city with Aprosex – the Association of Sex Professionals – objected saying a doll cannot match the services of a real person and denigrates real sex workers to merely being an object. …Janet, a prostitute with over 30 years in the industry, who works in the city’s Raval district said: “It is another strategy of the patriarchy that presents us as objects without rights or soul. A privilege of the wealthy classes.” …Municipal police in the Catalonian capital also launched an investigation into the legality of the brothel which offered clients sex with realistic state-of-the-art polymer sex dolls after it opened late last month. …The brothel offered the services of four life-like dolls which cost around £4,373 ($4,300, €5,000) to produce and are made in the US and made out of thermoplastic elastomer, charging punters around £105 (€120) for two hours.

Now that we’ve spent time looking at the serious side of the issue, let’s look at the quirky interaction of the world’s oldest profession and the world’s second-oldest profession. The Daily Caller reports on what’s being proposed in Germany.

The German Green Party wants to grant people with severe health issues taxpayer-funded access to prostitutes. Green Party Spokeswoman Elisabeth Scharfenberg imagines a system where doctors can issue prescriptions to sick people who can’t afford prostitutes on their own account. …The idea is modeled upon a similar system in the Netherlands, where people can receive need-based state grants with a medical note stating they can’t get sexual satisfaction any other way.

Taxpayer-financed hookers already exist in the United Kingdom, so I guess I’m not surprised that German politicians are contemplating something similar.

And since German politicians have figured out innovative ways of taxing hookers (the Spanish government has a more conventional approach), maybe it’s only fair that tax money gets plowed back into the industry.

In Nevada, for what it’s worth, prostitution gets a special tax loophole.

Meanwhile, Russia’s boss actually advertises on behalf of his nation’s streetwalkers.

President Putin bragged that Russian prostitutes were “without question the best in the world” yesterday.

Incidentally, since Putin already has recognized the Laffer Curve, he also should realize that it applies to…umm…adult entertainment. Indeed, excess taxation of prostitution has led to novel forms of tax avoidance in other countries.

By the way, here’s a tidbit from that Hawaii decriminalization story I already referenced.

The proposal also would end a state law that says police officers can’t have sex with prostitutes in the course of investigations.

P.S. Our left-wing friends have a strange fascination with prostitution.

4 Responses

  1. “this strategy involves decriminalizing prostituted women and offering them housing, job training and other services”

    So Carter wants to increase the rewards for prostitution. In cities where housing and job training/education are very expensive this could make the profession very remunerative indeed.


  2. on October 7, 2017 at 5:44 pm Bill Wallace, a Yankee apologist

    I thought that prostitution was not only legal but institutionalized. How do you explain our Congress?


  3. In my country (Japan), although prostitution is illegal, sex industry is one of the biggest business chances. also it is connected with and protected by yakuza (gangs). the thing is lots of men want sex even if they have their partners. i think it’s wise to legalize prostitution and protect sex workers


  4. Prostitution is distasteful in my opinion. However, if someone wants to pursue sex work, that is their choice.



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