The legality of prostitution revisited

PHOTO: Prostitute

Don’t worry. Spitzer’s prostitution scandal isn’t the only topic I plan on writing about this month. I promise. In any case, we had a lively discussion about the legality and morality of prostitution in the comments for my last post, so I thought the issue was worth revisiting.

I want to start by repeating what I said last time. None of this means Spitzer shouldn’t be punished. He broke the law, even if I think the law is wrong.

With that said, I’m going to comment on a few satirical items from a Glenn Greenwald’s post:

* Sometimes, people use drugs (prescription or recreational), get addicted and then steal or act violently. Therefore, we should outlaw all drugs (rather than just outlaw theft and violence).

I think this is an excellent analogy to prostitution. You engaging with or being a prostitute does not harm the rest of us in any emotional, physical or material way. The same as if you were smoking marijuana, gambling or engaging in any number of other unseemly but victimless activities.

* Sometimes, people force women against their will to work as prostitutes. Therefore, we should outlaw all prostitution (rather than just outlaw forced prostitution and human trafficking).

We should be dealing with the “actual” crimes like theft, violence, human trafficking and so on. More importantly, having prostitution be illegal makes it more likely that there will be violence, human trafficking, etc. Just like with the drug trade.

* It’s possible to eliminate recreational activities that people have engaged in privately for thousands of years simply by making it illegal and then imprisoning the people who do it. Thus, we criminalize prostitution and drugs to ensure that nobody does those things.

This is similar to the argument made about abortion. If there is going to be prostitution, going to be drug use and going to be abortions, I would rather it be done safely.

* People who work at an unpleasant job in order to support themselves, rather than because they enjoy it, are the functional equivalent of brutalized, exploited slaves and therefore should be barred by others from choosing that job — when the job in question is prostitution, but not when it’s factory work or fast food cashier or large corporate law firm associate or massage therapist or porn actor.

No one should ever be legally forced to become a prostitute, and in a rich country like ours, it’s unlikely to be the only occupation available to a man or woman. If things ever get that bad, I’m sure we’ll have other bigger issues to worry about anyways.

* Sometimes, adults make choices for their own lives that other adults perceive to be bad choices. When that happens, the adults who know better have the right to step in, pass laws to restrict the bad choices, and even make the bad choices criminal — all for the good of the adults who don’t know what’s good for them.

I hesitate to make the slippery slope argument, but my libertarian side is always weary of banning activities that may be personally harmful but not outwardly so.

* People who respect the judgments which adult women make about their own lives and believe in their right to choose for themselves how they live are sexist and even misogynistic. People who believe that adult women don’t really know what’s good for them and need to have choices made for them by others are the people who respect women.

* The way you protect someone who is doing things you don’t like is to turn them into criminals and force them to do it underground.

Leaving aside the issue of sexism, the underlying assumption of a ban on prostitution (or drugs) is that individuals shouldn’t be trusted to make decisions thateffect their lives and no one else’s. The absense of that trust is in direct opposition to the core ideals of liberalism — in the classical sense — and libertarianism. You know, liberty and all that jazz. We should trust that parents and schools are capable of educating our citizens about the dangers of drugs and prostitution.

Flickr photo by Eleven Eight

8 Comments

  1. Ian

    Alright, well here we go…

    The biggest counter argument I can think of when it comes to the idea of legalization of prostitution is the Red Light District in Amsterdam. I myself have never traveled out of the country, however my family members who have seen this district say its one of the most depressing and enraging things to see in the world. So here are some pictures of this area to give you some idea:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/low/world/europe/721844.stm
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/worldnews.html?in_article_id=483075&in_page_id=1811
    This one I particularly like as its a place offering tours of the area:
    http://www.affiliate.viator.com/brochure/product_show.jsp?ID=1010&PRODUCTID=1016&CODE=2550LIN13&AUID=967

    You can just google image search this yourself and see what you find. So, me personally, I don’t want a district like this popping up in major American cities. Liberalism be damned, but I don’t think women should be put up for sale in windows. Talk about true objectification.

    While we are on the subject of liberalism, we should mention the other definition, which is actually the first one for the word liberal:

    liberal: favorable to progress or reform, as in political or religious affairs.

    So, good luck proving legalization of prostitution as reform or progress of our society. Have you not read Brave New World? Cause buddy your argument taken to the extreme sounds a lot like it, with the exception of birthing people through tubes.

    Let’s talk about this point: “Sometimes, people use drugs (prescription or recreational), get addicted and then steal or act violently. Therefore, we should outlaw all drugs (rather than just outlaw theft and violence).”

    Lets look at it this way: Some (many) drugs are addictive. You can actually die from heroin withdrawl. This is why we have methadone clinics and free needle exchange. These drugs, whether legal or not, cost money. When you run out of money, you are still addicted. Then what? Thats where a lot of drug related crime (theft, prostitution, robbery, etc) comes from. That won’t change when you legalize all drugs. So really, I don’t give a shit about personal choice when it comes to drugs like that. They create other problems. Pot is one thing, but this is different. I don’t see how this statement is “satire”. Its just stupid taking an argument out of context. Oh, and the methadone clinics and needle exchange programs, those cost tax payer dollars. So don’t say it doesn’t affect others.

    This here: “* People who work at an unpleasant job in order to support themselves, rather than because they enjoy it, are the functional equivalent of brutalized, exploited slaves and therefore should be barred by others from choosing that job — when the job in question is prostitution, but not when it’s factory work or fast food cashier or large corporate law firm associate or massage therapist or porn actor.”

    This has got to be the dumbest point you try to have this “satire” make for you. You are saying prostitution is merely unpleasant, and that its just a job like any other. I sincerely hope you don’t honestly think that cause I had a little more faith in your judgement. Now, while you may think of other jobs as getting fucked by the man, I think we both know there is an extreme difference. The only way this argument works is if you honestly see sex as just a mechanical act and nothing more. Once again though, I feel like this “satire” you are using is just creating strawman arguments or taking other arguments out of context and putting it with a snarky tone.

    I’m going to stop breaking this down point by point, because I really feel these points are kind of invalid or ill formed and the tone is insulting. One of the major problems I have with assholes like the guy you quote is they take the tone that if you disagree with them you must be a blind moron. I don’t care how you try and spell it out (or have others spell it out for you) but prostitution is not just another job and it is victimization of the women who do it. You can recover emotionally from working shitty fast food resturant jobs, but I don’t know about prostitution.

  2. Ian

    Actually, there was one more point I wanted to make, and I think its particularly relevant to other discussions we have had on this blog. You almost present this argument as though we as a society are debating whether prostitution should be made illegal, but it already is. In reference to other posts, I have made the point that people should be allowed to be governed as they see fit. That if some people don’t want to live in a democracy, that is their business. That we at least try to elect leaders who represent our beliefs and hope that they will make laws that reflect our beliefs. So, in this sense, prostitution is illegal because the majority of people in our society think it should be so. As long as a law isn’t unconstitutional, it is allowed to be made and I don’t see the Supreme Court striking down these laws any time soon.

    And while we are on the subject of previous posts, you should know that the UN even said prostitution should be illegal. From Wikipedia:

    “In 1949, the UN General Assembly adopted a convention stating that forced prostitution is incompatible with human dignity, requiring all signing parties to punish pimps and brothel owners and operators and to abolish all special treatment or registration of prostitutes. The convention was ratified by 89 countries but Germany, the Netherlands and the United States did not participate.”

    See, I wish we had participated, but then Vegas and all its money would be mad. If you read the wikipedia article, you can find a lot more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostitution_in_the_United_States

    I really liked this little part here: In 1916, 40,000 prostitutes died from syphilis. Victimless indeed.

  3. Chris

    You almost present this argument as though we as a society are debating whether prostitution should be made illegal, but it already is.

    I recognize that it’s already illegal. I’m just supplying an argument for why I think it shouldn’t be.

    That we at least try to elect leaders who represent our beliefs and hope that they will make laws that reflect our beliefs. So, in this sense, prostitution is illegal because the majority of people in our society think it should be so.

    Ideally our government is representative of the will of the people. In practice I don’t think that’s very true. For an old example, I would suggest you look at the prohibition of alcohol. If a majority of people in our society had really wanted that gone, would it have been repealed so quickly? What percentage of Americans drink today?

    And, for what it’s worth, people change and community standards change along with new information and the lessons of history. The lesson here is that, aside from whether or not you think prostitution is wrong, banning it doesn’t work.

    The UN is certainly not an unimpeachable authority and it also seems that the language you posted there is in reference to “forced prostitution.” I clearly stated I was against forced prostitution.

    Did you know that almost a million Americans die of heart disease each year? Perhaps we should ban junk food…

  4. And, for what it’s worth, people change and community standards change along with new information and the lessons of history. The lesson here is that, aside from whether or not you think prostitution is wrong, banning it doesn’t work.

    Absolutely. I think Ian’s point that many Americans oppose the practice is a good one. This can’t be ignored just because we might not have a problem with it. It’d be interesting to know how many people oppose it on its face and how many people just don’t want it in their backyards.

    Ultimately, I agree with Chris, though, that banning it, much like telling a child they can’t do something, is playing with fire. And it doesn’t work. Surely, we could come up with a more progressive system.

    In my mind, the other issue is whether this is a “serious” enough offense to force Spitzer to resign. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but what about ol’ Mr. Barry and D.C.? Surely, if he gets a pass, Spitzer could get one, too. Chris Kelly on Huffington Post about wanting Spitzer back – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-kelly/come-back-eliot-spitzer_b_91308.html

  5. Ian

    “For an old example, I would suggest you look at the prohibition of alcohol.”

    Yeah, where exactly is that these days? Right its not law anymore. Looks like the will of the people won out. I don’t see your point.

    “The lesson here is that, aside from whether or not you think prostitution is wrong, banning it doesn’t work.”

    Really? You know, I think that really depends on what your definition of “work” is. I say it works because it places a huge social stigma on those who would be prostitutes and those who would use prostitutes and gives government the authority to crack down on bad parts of town. You say it doesn’t work because prostitution still exists? Well murder still occurs, but I don’t see you saying that arresting people for murder “doesn’t work”.

    “Did you know that almost a million Americans die of heart disease each year? Perhaps we should ban junk food…”

    Perhaps we should, but be realistic here, eating a bag of Doritos and contracting syphillis are a little different. Lets not forget that it wasn’t just the prostitutes who contracted syphillis, it was their clients and anyone who had sex with their clients. Think STDs really aren’t a big deal, here, I am sure you have seen this in the news recently: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/12/science/12std.html?_r=1&ref=health&oref=slogin

    Before we open a new can of worms about sex education, let me just make this point: The more people someone has sex with, especially if these people are strangers who don’t have to be held accountable, the more likely these people are to contract STDs. That also means they can spread it into the rest of the population who don’t use prostitutes. Sure, prostitution exists now and these diseases still get spread, but the problem would be worse if it were legalized since more people would use prostitutes because they didn’t have to worry about getting in trouble. I don’t care how safe you are during sex, diseases can still get spread.

    “Ultimately, I agree with Chris, though, that banning it, much like telling a child they can’t do something, is playing with fire. And it doesn’t work. Surely, we could come up with a more progressive system.”

    Sure, right. Banning murder is like telling people they can’t do it. Murder must only occur the way it does because its illegal. That isn’t an argument.

    “In my mind, the other issue is whether this is a “serious” enough offense to force Spitzer to resign.”

    Forget for a second that the man is a huge hypocrite. Lets just remember, that prostitution, no matter how trivial you see it, is against the law. He broke the law multiple times while in office and thus shouldn’t be in office. He’s supposed to uphold the law, not break it.

    Chris, a feminist argument made by a former prostitute is that prostitution is rape enforced by poverty. While I won’t go to the extreme and call it rape, I do agree with the poverty part. Read about the woman Spitzer was with: http://edition.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/03/13/spitzer.kristen.intl/?iref=mpstoryview

    Let me just quote some highlights:
    “Writing on her MySpace page, the 22-year-old said she had been “broke and homeless” and had abused drugs since leaving home aged 17 to pursue a singing career in New York.”

    “Left my hometown. Left a broken family. Left abuse… Left and learned what it was like to have everything, and lose it, again and again.”

    Sounds like she really aspired to be a prostitute huh? Not like she did it out of necessity? How is this not exploitation of people like this?

  6. Chris

    In my mind, the other issue is whether this is a “serious” enough offense to force Spitzer to resign. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but what about ol’ Mr. Barry and D.C.? Surely, if he gets a pass, Spitzer could get one, too.

    Ryan,
    That article you linked to was interesting and made a good case for Mr. Spitzer, but ultimately I think it was the right move for him to leave. Spitzer made his reputation by taking down people using arcane laws and using other hard-nosed legal tactics. Seems like a case of karma.

    It’s much easier to argue that Bill Clinton should have stayed in office. He never walked the holier-than-thou line.

  7. Chris

    You say it doesn’t work because prostitution still exists? Well murder still occurs, but I don’t see you saying that arresting people for murder “doesn’t work”.

    Getting murdered isn’t voluntary by definition…

    Sure, prostitution exists now and these diseases still get spread, but the problem would be worse if it were legalized since more people would use prostitutes because they didn’t have to worry about getting in trouble.

    I wouldn’t suggest legalizing without heavy health & safety regulations. Anyone who operated outside of the legal avenues would be severely punished.

    Sounds like she really aspired to be a prostitute huh? Not like she did it out of necessity? How is this not exploitation of people like this?

    I’ll bet she could have gotten a job at McDonalds or WalMart…

  8. Ian

    “Getting murdered isn’t voluntary by definition…”

    That is taking my point out of context. My original point was to say take a crime that everyone can agree should be punished, we can’t say the punishment isn’t “working” because that crime still occurs. The point of the punishment isn’t to prevent the crime, its to punish those who commit the crime. It is the idea of repaying your debt to society for crimes committed. Prostitution doesn’t exactly carry a lengthy jail sentence, meaning it isn’t seen as nearly as bad a crime as say, murder. Still, its illegal, and it carries a strong social stigma and the government can act when necessary on prostitutes, pimps, whorehouses, etc. Thus, I say the system “works”, and it probably isn’t perfect, but it isn’t a failure.

    “I wouldn’t suggest legalizing without heavy health & safety regulations. Anyone who operated outside of the legal avenues would be severely punished.”

    And see now you have talked yourself into a box. Chris, if there is any sort of forced regulation, there will always be people working outside of it. This isn’t like drugs, where the dealers would probably disappear if people could get higher quality, cheaper, mass produced drugs from a government/commercial source if they were legal. This is something that takes no supply other than a body and if there was some market to be made on unregulated prostitution, it would be.

    “I’ll bet she could have gotten a job at McDonalds or WalMart…”

    Right, so let’s see $6.00 an hour (or whatever minimum wage is these days), or $5000 an hour? When you are trying to live in an expensive city and are down on your luck… I don’t know, I can see why a prostitute would choose that life and see it as a way out. That my friend is exploitation.

    exploitation: Utilization of another person or group for selfish purposes

    So $5000 isn’t a lot of money to a guy like Spitzer, but it is for the girl who is his prostitute. So he gives her the money and gets what he wants. And lets not forget that the sob story of Spitzer’s hooker is for a high quality one, and not your everyday streetwalker.

    I’ve been restraining from bringing this up, because I think it is kind of an unfair point to make. I don’t direct this at you Chris, but I know that a lot of people who defend Spitzer right now are the same people who were loving Vitter getting busted for the DC Madam business. If this guy were a Republican, it would be a really different story in the media and on liberal blogs right now.