December 18, 2004


The movement to legalize prostitution seems to be alive and kicking—and right near my office to boot!:
At the Center for Sex and Culture in the hip South of Market area in San Francisco, prostitutes meet in support groups, hold fund-raisers and plot their next political move after having lost a ballot initiative in November that would have eased police enforcement of prostitution laws in Berkeley, Calif.

In New York, they are readying the first issue of a magazine for people in the sex industry for spring publication. And on the Internet, prostitutes have found a way not only to find customers but to find one another. They have formed online communities and have connected with groups in other countries.
Um, not to be an ass, but the very special subset of prostitutes at work here—those with internet access, for instance, or those with the time and energy to hold fundraisers—don't necessarily speak for all prostitutes. (Sort of like Iraqi bloggers.) Seems trivial, I know, but the "Is legalization of abortion A Good Thing?" debate, sadly, almost always confuses two obviously distinct groups of people:
A) Prostitutes who are fairly well-off, don't find their work all that horrible, and are inconvenienced or far, far worse by whatever prohibitions/lack of oversight/reluctance to report abuse exists.

B) Prostitutes who are where they are by dint of either poverty, trafficking, or other exploitation.
In the Third World, of course, (B) is overwhelmingly the case for most people, and legalization is a profoundly bad idea. Figuring out the relative numbers of group (A) and group (B) in the First World would seem pretty crucial for deciding whether to legalize here.

From the experience of other industrialized countries, group (B) almost always seems to be worse off after legalization. Australia's grand experiment, as I understand it, was derailed by poor regulation—essentially creating large cartels who controlled all the major brothels. So the barriers to entry were very high, helping group (A) but not (B), and women who wanted to strike out on their own had to prowl the industrial/docking areas, increasing the chances of abuse, disease, etc. Trafficking also shot up. Perhaps a better oversight committee could have prevented these problems, I don't know.

In the Netherlands and Germany, meanwhile, it seems the state hasn't offered nearly enough incentives for prostitutes to go ahead and actually register, especially those in group (B), who, among other things, often suffer discrimination at the hands of landlords after being "outed", etc. So illegal brothels continue to thrive. Both countries, meanwhile, removed many of the barriers to exploitation, pimping, and trafficking, an obviously boneheaded move that made group (B) worse off.

Then, there's Sweden, which decided, after 30 years of legalized prostitution, to put laws in place not against the prostitutes themselves, but against the actual buyers of sex services, as well as traffickers and pimps. The record here seems mixed, but it's also a bit hard to analyze any policy in a state with a robust welfare system in place. (Group B prostitutes will of course be better off because they belong to a larger subset of people who are better off under Sweden's social-democratic state.)

Arraying the various bits and pieces of legislation from different countries, we have what seems like the potential to construct a smart decriminalization policy—and maybe even a smart legalization policy—to benefit prostitutes in (A) and (B). But potential and two bucks gets you, &tc. It's hard to find a single successful example that helped both, and easy to find fairly horrific experiences.
-- Brad Plumer 11:53 PM || ||