Legalize Selling Your Body, Criminalize Buying It: Ann Woolner

Commentary by Ann Woolner

May 9 (Bloomberg) — Deborah Jeane Palfrey chose death over prison, where she would have spent years for laundering money and racketeering as the D.C. Madam.

She called herself the target of a “modern-day lynching” in a note she wrote before hanging herself in Florida last week.

Was Palfrey a victim of puritanical laws criminalizing a harmless and inevitable business? Or, however undeserving of death, did she earn those years behind bars for profiting off the sale of human flesh to pleasure others?

There are those who argue that Palfrey’s prosecution and the call-girl scandal that drove Eliot Spitzer from office were outrageous wastes of taxpayer money bringing unfair, even tragic, results.

They contend the sale of sex is inevitable, so you might as well legalize it, clean it up and tax it. Bring it out of the shadows to protect prostitutes and clients against disease and brutality. Mobsters and traffickers would have no place in a legal enterprise.

The problem with this argument is that none of it is true. Prostitution isn’t so inevitable that it can’t be curbed, as evidenced by creative attempts to do so.

Prostitution, in fact, has victims and plenty of them. It is a rare working girl who hasn’t been beaten, raped, robbed, coerced, exploited, trafficked or essentially enslaved. Often they enter the business barely teenagers who have been sexually or otherwise abused

Those ills aren’t eased by legalizing or regulating it. Places that have tried it found that de-criminalizing the flesh business encourages human trafficking and boosts the presence of organized crime, according to studies. There is no drop in brutality, either, and some indication it increases.

Sex Industry

“Anyone contemplating such a move has to accept that it means an expansion of the sex industry — both the legal and illegal sectors,” concluded an exhaustive 2003 study by the London Metropolitan University.

“Legalisation is a `pull factor’ for traffickers,” says the study, “A Critical Examination of Responses to Prostitution in Four Countries.” Those countries are Australia, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden.

Legal brothels beget illegal brothels to the point that the unlicensed venues far outnumber those that are government- approved. Both are staffed at least in part by girls and women shipped in from poor circumstances and essentially indentured to whoever brought them in or works them.

And where adult prostitution flourishes, so does child prostitution. That is on the rise in the Netherlands, the most liberal of the nations studied.

Different Approach

Only in Sweden, which took a different approach, did a change of law help.

That country in 1999 made it legal to sell your own body for sex, and criminal to sell someone else’s body or to buy sex.

The idea is to attack the demand for prostitution and stop those who profit from other people’s bodies. This reverses the usual approach, which lands the prostitute in jail while letting the john and the pimp go.

For the Swedish prostitute, there are substance abuse and other programs to help them leave sex work without punishing them. And by going after johns, law enforcement has a way to leverage their cooperation toward finding traffickers.

The law has sliced in half the number of street prostitutes and cut the number of customers by 80 percent, while foreign women have essentially disappeared, according to the 2003 study.

A key to success is an attitudinal shift. In Sweden, prostitution “is officially acknowledged as a form of exploitation of women and children” which is “harmful not only to the individual prostituted but also to society at large,” the government said in a 2003 fact sheet on the issue.

Experiencing Violence

That philosophy is anathema to women who say they should be free to choose sex work and don’t need rescuing based on some paternalistic notion that they are victims. But those who have chosen to enter and stay in prostitution constitute a relatively small portion by all indications.

Even high-end call girls experience more violence, more drug addiction and certainly more degradation than the average woman.

Women buy sex, too, of course. And then there is the matter of same-sex prostitution. But the most prevalent and likely the most abusive form occurs when men buy sex from women. We will save for another time the other permutations.

Audaciously, Sweden hopes to eliminate prostitution and encourage other nations to follow suit.

Impossible? A 13-year-old program in San Francisco aimed at johns arrested for the first time offers five hours of classes in how prostitution can hurt them, the community and the prostitute herself.

New Study

That changed attitudes and, more dramatically, conduct, according to a new study conducted for the Justice Department by consultants Abt Associates Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The recidivism rate was signficantly lower for those completing the so-called School for Johns than for first-time offenders who didn’t take the course. In fact, consultants at first didn’t believe that finding, says senior researcher Michael Shively.

“We tried to make it go away” by applying various theories and statistics to challenge the results, he says. But “the quality of the data and amount of the data is very strong,” he says. It leads to only one conclusion: education keeps some men from returning to prostitutes.

“I don’t think anyone would expect it to go away completely,” he says. That “doesn’t mean you throw up your hands and make it legal.”

There are too many victims for that.

(Ann Woolner is a Bloomberg news columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Ann Woolner in Atlanta at

Last Updated: May 9, 2008 00:04 EDT

1 Comment

  1. I love it when people who have no real knowledge of the sex industry opine about it.

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