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Tom Head

The Trouble with Prostitution

By March 17, 2008

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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:


March 17, 2008 at 5:54 pm
(1) Joshua S. Rubenstein says:

“He decided to take that risk, either because the experience was worth it for him or because he believed he would never get caught.”

Both could be true, you know.

March 17, 2008 at 11:51 pm
(2) Linden Potts says:

The whole time I was reading I was wondering if you were going to discuss the Bunny Ranch in Nevada.

March 18, 2008 at 12:20 am
(3) MountainMike says:

Let’s try NOT quoting out of context! The WHOLE idea is better than a “sound byte”.

“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.”

I agree. His own pleasure dominates his judgement… more so than his spouse, family (3 daughters), or career. He (Spitzer) has no more business in any government position than does a teenage boy. Same level of maturity here, I believe.

“Affairs” or problems with affections of the heart are easier to understand, but regular visits to a series of prostitutes indicates an ongoing problem, and is considerably more difficult to understand… and forget.

Spitzer is obviously a very good attorney, judging by his successful prosecution of Merrill Lynch and organized crime figures; but alas, he let his penis do his “thinking”.

I also have to remind myself that I have not walked in Eliot Spitzer’s shoes, so I should judge cautiously, if at all!

March 18, 2008 at 2:31 pm
(4) Terradea says:

I’m sorry, I don’t buy the argument that prostitution is a dangerous profession. It is a dangerous profession merely because it is illegal. Take away the crime aspect and you take away the victim aspect. Same with drugs. Laws that enforce a certain moral code create criminals and breed violence, and unless the U.S. wakes up from its practice of legislating morality, we will never be free from government sanctioned violence.

March 18, 2008 at 3:50 pm
(5) allison says:

Prostutition and drugs are illegal because they are potentially harmful to others. I will grant you that many legal things are harmful too but I don’t think we should legalize bad things just because of a technicality. Drugs are not good for you. Sex with strangers is not good for you either. What’s wrong with out society that we actually have people that want to dump laws that are actually attempting to make things better and safer?

Why is it an option to pity Spitzer? The guy did wrong. That’s all there is to this. How can anybody be on his side? I acknowledge that he has certainly fallen from grace and hope he rehabilitates but I don’t worry about how this affects him. I don’t even know if I worry about his wife if she’s willing to stay and work it out. I feel bad for the daughters. They might be enraged by this and have no choice but to stay knee deep in it if the wife chooses to stay with him.

March 18, 2008 at 3:51 pm
(6) Julina says:

so if prostitution became legal then risking being beaten or raped wouldn’t be dangerous anymore?

why are the prostitutes the criminals and not the pimps who see them?

and what exactly does it mean to sell sex legally but buy it illegally? do they mean that literally?

March 18, 2008 at 3:59 pm
(7) anony says:

I don’t think we are enforcing our laws enough! I don’t know where people are getting the idea that prostitution is a highly punished crime because it’s not. Look how long it took Spitzer to get caught and he’s a public figure. Just the fact that he thought he wouldn’t be caught tells you that it’s not enforced enough. He knew better than anyone! It may be against the law but people are breaking it left and right. Same with drugs. There’s no enforcement. It’s not the legalization that is causing a problem, it’s the lack of follow through. Get these druggies rehabilitated and punishing them is the only incentive! Same with hookers. It may not always victimize somebody, but it’s not a safe practice by any means. I feel sick if there’s anybody that really supports prostitution.

March 18, 2008 at 4:03 pm
(8) Sheely says:

Pimps are just as bad. The whole argument about hookers is almost laughable. Look how many operations are out there! Our society wouldn’t be more or less corrupt if prostutition were legalized. It would be the same crummy society. We’ll always have sickos that want to buy sex and shallow empty people willing to sell it. We will also always have the same old idiots that hunt around for sex the legal way. I don’t think that we should legalize it just because it makes no difference in society. Because the idea of saying it’s illegal is good enough for now.

March 18, 2008 at 6:21 pm
(9) Z says:

drugs and prostitution…its simple…if ppl stop buying…they wouldnt have anybody to sell to. Men would rather pay to have sex with someone because that person will “fulfill their wildest dreams” only because they were paid to do so. Some of us men, are acting like sex crazed animals and it makes me sick. Secondly, drugs…ppl would rather get high than deal with their problems…or get high to have fun or look cool rather than accept themselves for who they are and become comfortable in their on skin. We, as ppl period…have become weak and lost our way. We’re selfish and need to grow up.

March 18, 2008 at 6:49 pm
(10) Child of Thorns says:

Wait, if it was legal, a prostitute who was getting beaten would be able to go to his/her local police station and complain.
If you regulate it, then you could make it just like any other career. I bet if most careers were made illegal, they would devolve into the kind of oppressive structure that prostitution is now.

I don’t get why the state should be able to tell people that they cannot harm themselves. Welfare is not measured by physical health but by the absence of government or social control over the decisions they make. You cannot try and interfere to try and protect people from themselves. The same argument is used against suicide.
What do you really value, the mind that is able to reason and make autonomous decisions, or the unthinking body and how well it functions. If you take the second option, you also have to value other nonthinking life, such as lettuce and carrots. Giving those rights would seem absurd, but it is the logical conclusion of valuing the living body over the decision making mind.

March 19, 2008 at 4:25 am
(11) Ingram Powell says:

A man can break his vows to (and risk the health of) his partner any night of the week in any bar in the land without paying a prostitute.
If prostitution were legal, it would be no more “a vehicle for… exploitation of the poor” than Walmart or McDonalds.
It is its very ILLEGALITY that makes the life of a prostitute any more dangerous than that of a nurse.

March 19, 2008 at 6:21 am
(12) Tom Head says:

Wow. Good comments, folks!

Joshua: Both could indeed be true. What I meant to say was that either the experience was worth the consequences for him, or the consequences were so far from his mind that he wasn’t concerned about them.

Linden (thanks for posting here, BTW!): That’s a great example of a prostitution legalization model that is different from the Netherlands, and it definitely bears discussion. Then there’s Rhode Island, where it’s illegal to traffic in sex but legal to buy and sell it on an individual basis–the legalization of freelance prostitution, so to speak.

MountainMike: Good post. Spitzer’s man-child nature is by no means unique, sadly, but it’s not what I would have expected from someone with his history and background. But then I was astonished by Bill Clinton, too, whose affair with an intern under his supervision, over whose career he had unlimited power, struck me as extremely problematic from the point of view of ethics.

Terradea, Ingram: Illegality may contribute to the violence, but a cursory review of countries in which prostitution has been legal seems to reveal that violence against prostitutes is always relatively widespread. And it makes sense that it would be; if we look at the type of men who make up clients, e.g. men who want women to ride off alone with them and take orders, those sound exactly like the kinds of men who would be most likely to abuse women.

allison: The $64,000 question for me is not whether the laws attempt to do something good, but rather whether they succeed. Supporters of the war on drugs and prohibition on prostitution are overwhelmingly well-intentioned, in my experience, but if the effects of the policies are harmful, they need to be revised.

Julina: The way the Swedish model works is to criminalize pimps and johns, but not prostitutes. This is because the legislators who wrote up the law see prostitution as a form of institutionalized violence against women, and see the arrest of prostitutes as compounding that violence.

anony: In the United States, anti-prostitution laws do indeed let johns–and, for the most part, pimps–off the hook. It’s nearly always the prostitutes themselves who seem to end up arrested. It’s probable that no charges will ever be filed against Spitzer, and I agree that if we’re going to prohibit prostitution at all, that disparity is sad. (By the way, I second your ethical distaste for prostitution–whether it’s legal or illegal, it creeps me out.)

Sheely: I don’t think prostitutes are shallow and empty so much as poor, quite often drug-addicted, and in need of the cash, but I definitely agree that the reality of prostitution is not something that laws are going to fundamentally change. It’s all a matter of decreasing it by some degree, and/or (from my vantage point) ensuring that prostitutes don’t find themselves in dangerous situations with no law enforcement assistance.

Z: I don’t disagree at all, but people still hire prostitutes and people still buy drugs. It’s sort of like Prohibition–I personally think that getting drunk is incredibly stupid and irresponsible, but when our nation’s leaders tried to ban alcohol to address that problem, it did more harm than good.

Child of Thorns: You raise a good point about whether the Swedish model is too paternalistic–e.g., if it attempts to protect people from their own decisions. But I would argue that people who find themselves in difficult situations will make decisions that sometimes look more voluntary to us than they might actually be.

March 20, 2014 at 8:38 pm
(13) JS says:

One area overlooked is the adult film industry which flourishes L.A. and Miami. The men and women you see performing are paid to perform. But they aren’t beaten or you would see the bruises and black eyes on them. Being paid technically makes them prostitutes. Yet they aren’t prosecuted.

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