15 July 2009

the protection racket

Many laws are justified by the need to protect ourselves from our own supposedly bad or coerced decisions. We have laws against drug use, prostitution, suicide, and so on. (And that's just for adults!) One problem with these laws is that we're often bad at making decisions for other people, usually because we don't take time to understand their situation. For example, we may want stop people in poor countries from moving to the cities to work in bad conditions, but this could be based on not understanding rural poverty.

Another problem is that "X is illegal" often slides into "X is immoral" and then "people who do X are immoral" and finally "people who do X are not fully human." (Or maybe the causality goes in both directions.) So that we get a "war on drugs" that is conducted with the same regard for human life as most wars are.

An only semi-relevant image that I was looking for an excuse to post. (Not the most relevant image, but I wanted an excuse to post it.)

But even well-meaning and compassionate thinkers, like Bob Herbert, get seduced by the idea of protecting people from their own supposedly bad decisions. Here is an article he wrote on legalizing prostitution. (This is even before Eliot Spitzer; I have a long backlog of blog posts.)

My reply articulates what I think is wrong with laws against prostitution.

Dear Bob Herbert,

I want to thank you for your excellent column on the under-discussed problem of everyday misogyny. Your focus on systematic aspects of culture was a welcome exception to the media's usual habit of viewing everything through the lens of a single scandal.

However, I don't think it's right for you to say that legalized or decriminalized prostitution is a step backwards for women. Obviously, decriminalization doesn't fix everything, but you should consider:

  1. That many organizations of sex workers and their advocates favor decriminalization. See for example among many other examples.

    You (and I!) should be careful of speaking on others' behalf, when they themselves may have different opinions about what's best for themselves.

  2. This recent study of (criminalized) prostitution in Chicago [S.D. Levitt and S.A. Venkatesh. An empirical analysis of street-level prostitution. 2007] indicates several serious problems with the criminalized regime. It indicates that prices are low ($30-80 per sex act), meaning that the law isn't seriously restricting the availability of prostitutes (just as drug laws have failed to restrict the availability of drugs). It also found that 3% of sex acts by prostitutes without pimps were given to police in order to avoid arrest. The article calls these "freebies," but they should be called acts of rape, that if not formally sanctioned by the state, are entirely made possible by laws ostensibly in place to protect women. Finally, the article observed that prostitutes were victims of violence on average once per month. While legalization wouldn't stop this, it is undeniable that it gives them much greater access to legal remedies.
  3. The above problems are inherent to any system in which prostitution is criminalized. However, the problems with Nevada could be addressed by further reforms: (a) the illegal prostitution in Las Vegas is partly because it is illegal within that county; and (b) many decriminalization advocates say it is better to allow prostitutes to work independently rather than only as part of brothels. Farley makes compelling points about PTSD, abuse and other problems facing prostitutes in legal brothels. But her research has been criticized for focusing on a non-representative sample of only the most marginalized prostitutes, and it not at all clear that legal prostitution is always as grim as she reports.
It's still great that you highlight the abuses of women under legalized prostitution in places like Nevada. But I wish you would devote a proportionate amount of ink to the places like Chicago where hypocritical prohibition often leaves women even worse off.

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