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No Harm, No Foul

The other night I dropped in on the O'Reilly No-Spin-Zone. He was in the middle of an interview, and the spinner at the plate was ABC's John Stossel, who sometimes makes sense, just as O'Reilly is sometimes Catholic. They were discussing the current case of the D.C. Madam, who, it seems, is threatening to ruin some prominent reputations. She claims not to have been involved in prostitution, but O'Reilly and Stossel took it for granted that that is in fact what she was providing. But, said Stossel, so what? Who was getting hurt? he asked. Why are we trying to put people in jail for this sort of activity? Don't people own their own bodies? He lays his thoughts out at more length here.

I think he would say that his main thesis is given in the article's subtitle: "Outlawing Immoral Behavior Doesn't Make It Go Away." But who would make the claim that it does? We have laws against more serious immoral behavior, and we don't keep any of them on the books because we think the targeted behaviors are going away. So I think he's spinning there. He also says that he, like the rest of us, wishes to discourage immoral behavior, and that his preferred means of doing so is to legalize it:

...prostitution is plagued by violence and disease and often run by thugs because it's illegal. In much of Nevada, the sex business is legal. The sky hasn't fallen. In fact, Las Vegas keeps appearing on those "best cities to live in" lists. The sex business in Nevada is relatively safe and clean.
(I'm not sure what the "relatively" means. Maybe only unclean whores get prosecuted.) His primary concern seems to be with the best means of minimizing the ill effects of an undesirable behavior. But this begins to seem a guise in light of other evidence, as when we examine his contempt for the mores of former times:
Some who had sex outside marriage were whipped. And there really was a scarlet letter. Adulterers were forced to wear an "A," usually for life. The laws didn't stop adultery, cursing, or idleness any more than today's laws stop prostitution.
And he positively glows with admiration when Norma Jean Almodovar of COYOTE (Call off your old tired ethics) responds to his assertion that "this is degrading to women." Says she: "I don't think a lot of women would choose to scrub toilets for a living. Nevertheless, [even though] a lot of people might think that's degrading, we don't put them in jail."

Stossel thinks this is great stuff, apparently unaware of the insult that has just been delivered to every poor woman's honest labor.

Near the end, when he finally gets around to asserting that, "If adults want to rent their bodies to other adults, that should be their choice," the jig is up. I don't think that he thinks that prostitution is immoral at all. It's an adult, consensual transaction between two people who "own" their bodies and have a right to do with them as they wish as long as no one is getting hurt.

I guess it's the kind of 'hurt' we're talking about that would most divide us. I find it hard to believe that he would consider that what happens between him and his wife to be no different in kind than the bargain struck between a whore and her john, that the former relationship would not be injured by his indulging the latter. "But," he would respond, "illegalizing all immorality is unwise. Just as laws criminalizing fornication and adultery have, in most places, been de-activated, so in the case of prostitution should we apply this wisdom."

But I think he goes further than that. I think he believes, as regards certain immoralities, that not only should they not be illegal, but that we have a right to them. He says as much, and is far from alone in this opinion. I was just wondering if there were something, some injury, consequent to prostitution that justifies our demanding that the vice squads keep their night jobs.

Comments (13)

Since when is Sin City a fine place to live in?

Fine place to marry in, perhaps, but I doubt anyone would want his sons and daughters growing up in Las Vegas.

Frankly, one can only justify laws against prostitution as attempts to discourage the breaking of the marriage bond. Fornication and adultery are difficult to prove - that's why men were rarely punished for them. Prostitution requires some records of the money-making deeds. Thus, they can be banned.

Devalue the marriage bond, and prostitution is OK.


There's an important consideration here that people who say silly things like those guys don't get, but before I say it I want to add that I would advocate the illegality of prostitution even if this consideration were not in place. Given that it is in place, however, we are absolute fools if we legalize prostitution. End of introduction.

Prof. Donna Hughes, the only professor of "women's studies" I've ever heard of who actually researches something worth knowing about, has argued very persuasively that the majority of prostitutes, even in the U.S., are neither more nor less than slaves. This situation is getting notably worse in Western countries. In the UK, Albanian gangs control the sex market in London and traffic in women kidnapped from Eastern Europe under pretense of getting them honest work in Western Europe and England. They are quite literally beaten into compliance, imprisoned in basements, and forced into continued prostitution. They are sold from pimp to pimp, and if they complain or are troublesome, they are (get this) threatened with being *sent to Germany*, where prostitution is legal! This is very telling, as it shows that Germany has, with legalized prostitution, become a stopping place for trafficking and apparently a place where it is even worse to be a sex slave than England. During the World Cup Germany set aside large buildings as sex centers for the many tourists.

The claim that legalizing prostitution would enable us to stop slavery is endlessly repeated but false (as the German case shows). In fact, legalization provides the slaver with the opportunity to put a legal front on his business and not to be investigated by the police. If it is possible to keep women unwillingly in slavery where the activity itself is illegal, it is even easier where it is legal. The women can still be beaten or drugged into submission, and raids are harder to justify against a putatively legal business.

Tellingly, people who press for legalization have been among those who cooperate in New Zealand with _child_ prostitution situations in order to give "health advice" to the minor girls involved, sometimes merely advising them to try to get "inside work" and off the streets, which will supposedly expose them to less rough work. In debates on threads with legalization advocates, I have sometimes even found them more or less admitting enslavement but still advocating not rounding up or raiding the slavers because leaving them alone makes it easier to get "access to the girls" with medical treatment.

The whole issue is one I've researched only fairly recently and have been shocked by the foolishness of people who casually liken prostitution to other forms of work.

Prostitution intrinsically and irremediably disparages and devalues the foundational institution of civilized society, namely, the family, grounded as it is upon the stability and privileged status of marriage. Libertarians of various stripes may assert that there exists a right of some sort to such consensual transactions (Though I can scarcely imagine a more telling illustration of the worthlessness of a philosophical tradition than that it says, "I am my own property, an object, and I shall treat myself as a thing, and encourage others to do the same."), which, by the convertibility of rights and duties, entails the claim that society has a duty to defend the performance of acts destructive of the constitutive institutions of society. But then again, what else but absurdity could be expected from a political ideology that amounts to applied autism?

That such moral libertarianism should facilitate the slave trade is not so surprising; any social order which venerates as its highest ideal the lowest, namely, the satisfaction of individual impulse, will sooner or later require the enslavement and/or destruction of others. Abortion is also a fine illustration of the inhumanity of moral libertarianism and the cult of autonomy and self-creation. Moreover, there is also the fact that institutions such as whoredom bespeak an enslavement to disordered passions and desires, and those enslaved to the disorders of their own souls will, again, sooner or later, enslave others to preserve the illusion of their own liberty.

Paradoxically, from the perspective of finite man, liberty requires both limits and authority.

Good comments, including Histor's, who puts it very concisely.

I can't go along with any of it. On the empirical front, the legalizers assure us that certain problems will go away if we take their advice, but it seems a huge risk, even though they entertain few doubts. On the moral front, legalization grants moral sanction. Although I'm not opposed in principle to laws against fornication and adultery, those strike me as private transgressions whose participants seek to remain hidden, while prostitution is a business, a public transaction, and businesses like to flaunt, I mean advertise, their advantages. We'd soon see billboards in our neighborhoods recommending the superior satisfaction to be found at Madame Fleiss's House of Heavenly Delights.

Lydia, I wish sex-trafficking were higher on the list of things that law enforcement would like to exterminate. I wonder how much attention is paid to it. It's one of those crimes that make me want to bring the gallows into play.

One ex-prostitute has recorded her sad and obscene past: http://web.archive.org/web/20060301194549/http://www.waywardcatholic.com/archives/149 "Prostitution in Nevada - what it is really like"(She's rather explicit in her descriptions)

In her words: "...basically, brothel workers in Nevada are treated somewhat better than illegal aliens in a sex slave ring."

I am still amazed that Libertarian fantasies of free and rational actors are so casually applied to situations where base lust and economic desperation are the major forces at work.

Well put, Kevin. The Stossel types seem not concerned with motive, but with autonomy.

I'm going to read that thing you link to.

Hello, I'm new to the blog, but as far as the issue of criminalizing prostitution comes up,I wanted to comment because there is an important issue that hasn't been addressed.

Who is to be prosecuted? There seems to be a consensus here that the system of prostitution victimizes the women it employs, and I wholeheartedly agree with that. The problem is, law enforcement in this country combats prostitution by arresting the victim! That makes no sense at all and is in my mind very immoral. I am all in favor of heavily cracking down on the men (or madams as the case may be) who profit off the exploitation of women, but to punish someone for being a victim... what next, are we going to send people who've been burglarized to prison too?

Sorry for the rant, I hope I don't come across as the typical angry newbie!

If prostitution is illegal, it is of course illegal to be a pimp or a madam. The prostitutes themselves can be given immunity to prosecution in return for testimony. And it would, of course, be possible to set up laws so that the prostitutes themselves were not even liable to a serious penalty and so that far greater penalties were for those who operated brothels and acted as pimps.

Of course, in the case of outright slavery (which often is the case), the woman involved would be a victim simpliciter. But of course slavers do use the claim of prosecution as one of many weapons against their victims. They are the more likely to be believed by women who are illegal immigrants and know nothing either of the culture or of the law in the U.S. They may be afraid of the police because they are illegal immigrants.

At least it was a fairly reasoned rant, Ben. It's raving lunatics we can't put up with.

If it helps, I'm all in favor of going after the johns and the pimps, while treating the girls with discretion according to the desperation of their circumstances. That's because I have a heart of gold.

Prostitution is inherently bad for the women who are either tempted into it; still worse for those who are forced into it, of course.

If it could be supressed without unacceptable blowback from the measures adopted, it would be advisable to do so.

It's also probably impossible to supress with the means at our disposal. This is unfortunate but I think the evidence supports that hypothesis.

Prostitution is like pornography; it's a result of the radical disjunct between male and female sexuality.

This is where the genders really do differ; there's an overlap, but there's also a distinct difference in the curve.

Men, generally speaking, like lots of impersonal sex.

(They'd also usually like to have a committed relationship with someone they love. Yeah, it's contradictory. Such are the cruel jokes our natures play on us.)

But for most men, monogamy takes real effort -- and it would take a lot more if it weren't for the fact that getting a woman into bed usually takes considerable effort and psychological risk.

Note the percentage of infidelity among very powerful, very rich, and very famous men, who _do_ have women throwing themselves at them. It is, to put it mildly, much higher than for your average Joe.

Likewise, the reason gay men are usually so promiscuous is not that they're gay, but that they're men -- men who don't have to persuade women in order to have sex. All they have to do is persuade men, a much easier proposition. Likewise, while some lesbians are bed-hopping sluts, most are at least serially monogamous. The joke goes that a lesbian is someone who drives a moving van on the second date.

Pornography, apart from its specialized subgenres, is a lonely, horny man's fantasy of women with male libidos. Prostitution is an elaborate 'role-playing game' in which men bribe and/or coerce women into acting out the fantasy.

We can probably only clean up around the edges; do our best to crack down on sex-slavery and trafficking and the involvement of minors. As long as their are men willing to pay (and take considerable risks) to get women to have sex with them, it can't be eliminated.

Pornography, apart from its specialized subgenres, is a lonely, horny man's fantasy of women with male libidos.

That's a pretty good line, with the additional benefit of most likely being true.

As long as their are men willing to pay... Check your spellign Mr. Stirling.

As a sex worker, I deeply resent those who want to criminalize my honest work. I am not a slave, I am not a victim (except to the extent I am victimized by the law), and I am not coerced to do what I do. I do not do it because I am desperate, any more than most people work at their jobs because they are desperate. I have an agent who gets me clients, and in return I pay him a cut of those transactions. He is not a "pimp" and he is not exploiting me; he does not deserve to be demonized or criminalized any more than I do. We have a relationship based on mutual self-interest. Most of my clients are good, honest, kind people. Mostly single men, but a few women and couples. Some of them are stuck in unfulfilling relationships, some have more money than time, some are conventionally unattractive, some are disabled, etc. They have a right to pay for my services, and they do not deserve to be criminalized any more than I do.

I know and have met a number of other sex workers -- some of them love their work, others are basically in it for the money. But none of them are being enslaved. The media likes to sensationalize sex trafficking and make it seem much more prevalent than it really is. As best I can tell, it is a tiny percentage of the total. Sometimes other situations are confused with trafficking. For example, women from countries like Korea or China may pay a fee to be smuggled into the United States, where they work as sex workers in order to pay off the fee. This situation is not unique to sex workers, but common among poor undocumented immigrants in various trades. It will exist as long as there are poor countries, rich countries, and border controls preventing people in the former from migrating to the latter. It is risky and burdensome to keep someone as a slave, and why would a smuggler go to the trouble when there are many poor women who will willingly enter into the sex trade in order to pay their way to a country where there is more economic opportunity?

The solution to coercion in prostitution is to punish those who coerce and exploit, not those of us who are there by choice. When we don't have to fear being arrested and prosecuted ourselves, we -- especially clients -- are good sources of information to let authorities know when genuine exploitation is occurring. The arguments of Professor Donna Hughes (cited in a previous comment) and others who say that legalization or decriminalization would encourage slavery, are idiotic. What other industry attracts *more* crime and violence when it is legal? Compare the alcohol business now, with how it was during Prohibition in the United States from 1919 to 1933, when it fueled organized crime, violence, and the rise of powerful gangsters like Al Capone.

In my experience, most opponents of prostitution are fundamentally uncomfortable with sexual freedom and choice. Quiz them for instance about their views on a harmless activity like masturbation, and it will usually become apparent rather quickly how anti-sex they are. Of course in modern, developed countries this is generally (and correctly) seen as an outdated, narrow-minded, and intolerant view, and so they have come up with new, more reasonable-sounding concerns such as exploitation of women, to put a more socially acceptable face on their bigotry.

If you think prostitution is wrong, don't engage in it! Leave the rest of us alone! It's not your life!

Interesting that it took "Starchild", a prostitute, to say what I wanted to say. I'm all for going easy on the prostitutes and taking into account their various levels of desperation - but not to the point of denying reality. There is something in the whole sordid business for women, too, that appeals to the darkest corners of female depravity. There, I said it: female depravity. I don't like to think in those terms - in fact I hate to think in those terms, and I find the Victorian-era fiction of intrinsic female virtue to be almost necessary as social mythology - but the fact is that women are not exempt from the effects of the Fall, and prostitutes (save the very youngest) are seldom mere victims. Sex is the one domain of life in which women can, if they so choose, exercise a high degree of power and control over men. There can certainly be a perverse pleasure in this for women who choose to go down that road. And that is why it is so important for civilization that men learn to control their sexual appetites.

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