The Trouble with Prostitution

Tom’s Civil Liberties Blog

See also: A History of Prostitution

Thousands of South Korean prostitutes protest sex trafficking laws.
Photo: Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images.

Last week’s resignation of Governor Eliot Spitzer (D-NY), following revelations that he was a regular client of one of New York’s most expensive prostitution rings, has resurrected the debate over legalizing prostitution.

I have no sympathy for Eliot Spitzer, and whether he faces charges or not is of no particular concern to me. As a former attorney general who had prosecuted prostitution rings in the past, he knew what the law said and he knew what the consequences of breaking the law could be–the legal consequences, the political consequences, and the consequences to his family and his supporters. He decided to take that risk, either because the experience was worth it for him or because he believed he would never get caught. Neither possibility speaks well of him.

Alan Dershowitz, who can always be counted on to say something provocative, spoke out in defense of Spitzer:

… But I feel that this is a America-only story that we have to put in perspective. You know, big deal, married man goes to prostitute! In Europe, this wouldn’t even make the back pages of the newspaper. It’s a uniquely American story. We’re a uniquely, you know, pandering society and hypocritical society, when it comes to sex.

I would challenge Dershowitz to name one major current European leader who is known by the mainstream press to be a regular prostitution client. I don’t know of any. Public disclosure of extramarital affairs is a little more common among European leaders, certainly–this was an argument made during the Bill Clinton sex scandals–but that has nothing to do with prostitution, except to the extent that Spitzer hired prostitutes while married.

So let’s drop all this foolishness about poor little Eliot Spitzer. He resigned as governor, and good riddance. The debate over legalizing prostitution should not be about protecting him. It should be about protecting the real victims of prostitution.

Hostile Work Environment

Contrary to the Three Six Mafia song, it’s easy out there for a pimp. Because prostitution is illegal, women are not in a position to go to the police if beaten–and a great many are. According to a 1998 study of 114 American prostitutes, every single one–114 out of 114, 100 percent–had been threatened with physical violence. 82 percent had actually been victimized by physical violence. 78 percent had been threatened with a weapon. 48 percent had been raped five or more times.

But they chose to work as prostitutes, right? They can leave the industry any time they want? Well, not exactly. 84 percent of those surveyed either were homeless or had been in the past. 75 percent have a drug problem. And as The New York Times‘ Nicholas Kristof writes (“The Pimps’ Slaves”), this is only the tip of the iceberg:

[Antitrafficking activist] Bradley Myles … says it is astonishing how similar the business model is for pimping across the country. Pimps crush runaway girls with a mix of violence and affection, degradation and gifts, and then require absolute obedience to a rigid code: the girl cannot look the pimp in the eye, call him by his name, or keep any cash …

Every evening she must earn a quota of money before she can sleep. She may be required to tattoo the pimp’s name on her thigh. And in exchange he may make presents of clothing or jewelry.

“When somebody wields power over you to kill you and doesn’t, you feel this bizarre thankfulness,” Mr. Myles said. “It’s trauma bonding” …

[W]hen the girls are black, poor and prostituted, there is either indifference or an assumption that they are consenting to the abuse … “It’s about race and class,” said Ms. Lloyd … Last year she worked with 250 teenage girls who had been prostituted, and not one of them ever merited an Amber alert.

In his first article reporting on the Spitzer scandal (“Do As He Said”), Kristof cites relevant statistical data:

Melissa Farley, a psychologist who has written extensively about the subject, says that girls typically become prostitutes at age 13 or 14. She conducted a study finding that 89 percent of prostitutes urgently wanted to escape the work, and that two-thirds have post-traumatic stress disorder …

The American Journal of Epidemiology published a meticulous study finding that the “workplace homicide rate for prostitutes” is 51 times that of the next most dangerous occupation for women, working in a liquor store. The average age of death of the prostitutes in the study was 34.

“Women engaged in prostitution face the most dangerous occupational environment in the United States,” The Journal concluded.

Under current prostitution law, the U.S. criminal justice system is complicit in this dynamic. Of the estimated 100,000 prostitution-related arrests that take place each year, an average of 90 percent of those arrested are the prostitutes themselves. Clients, such as Spitzer, are rarely targeted. And pimps are almost never targeted. The end result: Prostitutes operate in a black market industry full of violence, but are shut out of the criminal justice process by virtue of their profession and subsequently are not in a position to report any of it. If the system were tailor-made to encourage violence against prostitutes, it could not have been designed more efficiently for that purpose.

The Worst Criminals

But the United States is by no means unique in this regard. The first serious attempt to ban prostitution in Western Europe came about in AD 590, when King Reccared I of the Visigoths decided to eliminate prostitution in Spain by mandating that any woman convicted of prostitution be whipped 300 times and exiled from the land (which was, in effect, a death sentence). No punishment was specified for the clients of prostitutes.

The rationale for these laws is based on a very simple idea: That men have no control over their own sexual urges, and are therefore victims of predatory prostitutes. This stereotype dates back to the satirical plays of ancient Greece, in which prostitutes are portrayed as money-grubbing con artists, and was echoed last week when MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson mounted a half-defense of Spitzer:

… [M]en are pretty dumb when it comes to stuff like that. It’s kind of who they are. They’re dumb … And to see the press, a group that you know, frankly, has pretty unconventional personal lives, by and large, getting all high-handed about the fact that a grown man went to a prostitute is nauseating. [Laughs] … I just think it’s a shame – and here I am defending someone I detest and disapprove of – but I think it’s a shame when we go into these spasms of self-righteousness, when we all beat our chests, and say, look at the bad guy, we’re nothing like him, when in fact a lot of us are like him, frankly.

But no such excuses can be found for Spitzer’s prostitute, a 22-year-old aspiring singer who had run away from home at 17 and, like so many teenage runaways, ended up in the arms of a pimp. In contrast to the New York governor and former attorney general, she doesn’t have the luxury of being “dumb.” Instead, she is–in the words of the New York Post–a “busty brat.” Men are helpless, even when they’re middle-aged state governors, so the criminal justice system lets them off the hook. Women are Machiavellian, even when they’re teenage runaways with drug problems, so the criminal justice system throws the book at them. Meanwhile, prostitutes live under the shadow of unprosecuted violence and threats, men continue to hire and exploit prostitutes with relative impunity, and the priorities of our sixth-century Visigoth king are pretty much still in place.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Identifying the Victim

If we’re going to ban prostitution at all, we need to determine whether prostitution, in and of itself, is harmful.

It’s hard to make the argument that, all things being equal, the government has the right to interfere in a private citizen’s decision to buy or sell sex as long as the citizen is a consenting adult. But the practical reality of prostitution is–and always has been–that prostitution, while a victimless crime in theory, is not so in practice. The unsafe working conditions that come with most forms of prostitution inevitably seem to lead to violent and coercive environments. The Netherlands, which legalized prostitution in 2000, has been so unsuccessful in eliminating violence against prostitutes, child sex trafficking, and other problems pertaining to sex trafficking that Amsterdam has begun once again regulating prostitution in its infamous Red Light District.

Concerned about violence against prostitutes and the spread of the child sex trade, Sweden has tried a new approach: Crack down on pimps and johns, but leave prostitutes themselves alone. In a reversal of the U.S. system, the Swedish government has made it legal to sell sex but illegal to buy sex–or to sell women. Sweden has also instituted a wide range of new social welfare programs geared towards helping prostitutes transition into safer lines of work. According to a 2005 article by Marie De Santis of the Women’s Justice Center, the results appear to have been impressive:

In the capital city of Stockholm, the number of women in street prostitution has been reduced by two thirds, and the number of “johns” has been reduced by 80%. There are other major Swedish cities where street prostitution has all but disappeared. Gone too, for the most part, are the infamous Swedish brothels and massage parlors which proliferated during the last three decades of the twentieth century, when prostitution in Sweden was legal.

In addition, the number of foreign women now being trafficked into Sweden for sex work is almost nil. The Swedish government estimates that in the last few years only 200 to 400 women and girls have been annually sex trafficked into Sweden, a figure that’s negligible compared to the 15,000 to 17,000 females yearly sex trafficked into neighboring Finland. No other country, nor any other social experiment, has come anywhere near Sweden’s promising results.

But it would be a mistake to believe that a shift in criminal enforcement alone is enough to generate these impressive results. Jon Collins of the Guardian Unlimited cautions that the success of the Swedish model requires not only a deemphasis on arresting prostitutes but also a corresponding emphasis on providing prostitutes with a way out:

Sweden also had a widespread public debate on the issue to explore the benefits of the change, and ran public information campaigns about the realities of prostitution to support the law’s introduction. There was also significant investment in services to help women leave prostitution and to gain access to education and employment, and in the police and social services to allow them to implement the measures. [Swedish government advisor Gunila Ekberg] also stressed that ending the criminalisation of women in prostitution, at the same time as criminalising demand, has been crucial in Sweden’s approach. Replicating it would therefore require all of these elements to be in place.

I’m not entirely persuaded that the Swedish approach is the best one, but what impresses me about it is that it deals with the real moral problem of prostitution: The violence and exploitation that prostitutes themselves face, and have historically faced. Any response to prostitution, whether it is originates from a criminal justice perspective or a social welfare perspective, should focus primarily on this problem.

See also:

Monday March 17, 2008 | comments (10)
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