One Person's Opinion

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Sunday, September 28, 2003
You might remember that I posted here a comment on a conservative who criticized Dear Abby and her readers for praising the friends of a 40 year old with a debilitating disease who procured the services of a prostitute (free of charge, as it turned out) to take his virginity. While reserving the issue of the morality and legality of prostitution for another post, I noted it was, at the least, overly rigid to take the position that the conservative blogger had taken, i.e., that advocating the utilization of the services of a prostitute in this situation was immoral. Rather, this was a perfectly moral solution to a real issue, because this particular guy was not likely to obtain sexual gratification through a normal relationship. (Indeed, he was living with his parents, who were social conservatives and who barred visits by his friend after they found out what happened. Even if the guy somehow met a girl (not easy when you are 40 and disabled), those parents were probably going to make it very difficult to consummate the relationship.)

The issue I left open-- the wisdom and morality of legalizing prostitution-- is an extremely difficult issue. Los Angeles, the city where I live, just passed a law that takes its prostitution ban one step further, with a ban on lap dancing in strip clubs. (According to the City Council, lap dancing leads to harmful conduct that spreads out into the neighborhoods around the strip clubs. I doubt that this is true-- more likely, the councilmembers were simply offended by the exchange of money for sexual gratification that constitutes a lap dance.)

Why is the legalization of prostitution such a difficult issue? For several reasons. First of all, as I just noted with the LA lap dance ban, the reason that it is illegal bears little relation to any reason that it should be illegal. Society wishes to express moral disapproval at the activity; that's why it is banned. It is also banned, to a certain extent, because people are rightly concerned with the urban blight that is caused by street prostitution. But one wouldn't need to ban all sales of sex just because street prostitution is undesirable-- if anything, the availability of sex in brothels, escort services, massage parlors, and strip clubs would decrease demand for sex on the street.

As with all laws based on moral disapproval, there is a fair amount of hypocrisy in bans on prostitution. Obviously, a lot of people patronize prostitutes-- otherwise, there wouldn't be so many of them in business. Further, most people don't disapprove of, or at least wouldn't make illegal, all sorts of informal exchanges of sex for money or something of value that exist in society-- people who have sex in exchange for a nice dinner, or an expensive engagement ring, or half of a rich old man's assets and earnings. But something about the direct exchange of sex for money seems vulgar and immoral to people in a sense that these other sorts of exchanges do not.

But before you think I am unsympathetic to the cause of keeping prostitution illegal, it should be noted that there are in fact strong arguments in favor of prohibiting the practice. First, as noted, street prostitution, in contrast to other forms of the practice, really is bad for the neighborhood, both because of the aesthetic effects of having prostitutes on the streetcorners and because of the secondary effects of drug dealing, prophylactics and litter, people going onto private property to have sex, etc.

Second, the feminist case against prostitution is strong and hard to rebut. There is quite a lot of prostitution that isn't consensual. Underage girls are forced into the practice in Thailand and other third world countries; women are trafficked from place to place and forced to work by violent pimps and managers who keep the profits; immigrants have their travel and identity documents taken from them and then are forced to work as slaves. Further, even nominally consensual prostitution is usually the product of desparate circumstances: drug addiction, inability to support one's kids, or escape from an abusive relationship.

All of this is awful for women. Only a Catherine MacKinnon-type radical feminist would say that it was exploitative for a middle class, educated woman to decide to sell a sex act to a gentleman for $2,500, but only someone with their head in the sand would say that there isn't exploitation of an immigrant sex slave in a brothel who is forced to perform unprotected oral sex on strange guys all day at $50 a pop, with $49.50 of it going to her "manager".

Further, prostitutes often become regular "Typhoid Marys" of STD's. Customers demand, and sometimes pay more for, particularly risky acts such as anal sex, unprotected intercourse, or oral sex without a condom. The ingestion of all of those body fluids from strange men, almost all of whom have multiple partners, is a recipie for disease transmission. Of course, the more exploited the prostitute is, the more likely she is to be forced to perform those acts. One of the many biproducts of the sex trade in Asia is an AIDS epidemic in Thailand and the Philippines.

But prostitution, "the world's oldest profession", is not going away. And like many things (marijuana being a nice example), when government makes it illegal, it gives up the chance to regulate an industry that cries out for regulation. It doesn't help matters that the only state that legalizes it, Nevada, puts such ridiculous restrictions on it (no brothels in the major cities; the workers basically have to stay out of the communities they work in) that most of the prostitution there is of the illegal kind.

How would one regulate prostitution? By aiming at the targets I outlined above: (1) no street prostitution, which really is urban blight, funds drug dealing and destructive habits, and spreads STD's; (2) regulations to prevent the spread of STD's, including requiring providers to register, to use condoms every time, and to be periodically tested, and (3) regulations to curb exploitation of women, including taxing (keeping the price high reduces the incentive to import sex workers under slave-like conditions, because such operations rely on volume which in turn is dependent on low prices), registration of providers, managers, and brothels (no more stealing workers' immigration documents), and strong and consistent crackdowns on anyone who advertises such a service without proper registration.

To make it work, the government might have to also apply the same requirements to other businesses, such as strip clubs and massage providers, where prostitution frequently occurs.

Anyone who doubts that such a system would be a distinct improvement need only come to Los Angeles, where prostitution laws are aggressively enforced, including by closing numerous massage parlors in the San Fernando Valley and by seizing and forfeiting the cars of those caught with street prostitutes. Nonetheless, on numerous streets in Hollywood and near downtown Los Angeles, there are tons of providers plying the trade.

The irony is, laws that reflect moral beliefs are often not the best manner of furthering those moral beliefs. One of the things that my proposal would do is make prostitution more expensive, which would probably mean that there would be fewer transactions. Thus, an opponent of prostitution on moral grounds ought to support it over the current system. But often times, moralists are more interested in seeing their preferences enacted into criminal statutes than they are in actually seeing less "immoral" activity among the citizenry.

Just as some get their pleasure from seeing a prostitute, I suppose others get some pleasure from knowing that such a transaction can send two people to jail.

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