Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The same old question ...

... posed by David T at Harry's Place:
Should We Ban Paying For Sex?
December 20, 2007

Here's a good topic for those of you who like to argue the toss:
Commons Leader Harriet Harman has told the BBC she wants the law to be changed to make it illegal to pay for sex. She said ministers were to look at how Sweden brought in such a law, and said a "big debate" was needed in the UK. It would counter international human trafficking which sees girls bought and sold by criminals in the UK, she added.

"Just because something has always gone on, doesn't mean you just wring your hands and say, 'Oh well there's nothing we can do about it'," Ms Harman added.

She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We do need to have a debate and unless you tackle the demand side of human trafficking which is fuelling this trade, we will not be able to protect women from it.
So, what do you think?

Should it be a criminal offence to buy sex, even from somebody who wants to sell it to you?

Should the law differentiate between the selling of sexual services, and any other sort of service?

Should the improvement of the working conditions of those who sell sex be tackled by unionisation and health and safety legislation, by the criminal law, or both?

How should the law treat the likes of Jeanette Winterson who famously claimed to have had been paid for sex in Le Creuset pans by married women?

Do you share the view of the Duke of Edinburgh - a man whose wealth results largely from a good marriage - who once said:
"I don't think a prostitute is more moral than a wife, but they are doing the same thing.”
The floor is yours.

Posted by david t at December 20, 2007 11:47 AM

The point of this proposal is that laws against prostitution should focus on targeting those who buy sex, not those who sell it. And if prostitution is going to be outlawed, this approach makes obvious moral sense. But that only raises the more basic question of whether trying to ban prostitution is a good idea in the first place.

It's not surprising that this is a perennial question, since it involves real dilemmas for which there are no simple answers. In some hypothetical pure-market scenario, it might be imagined that buying and selling sex is just one more type of formally voluntary contractual agreement. But it the real world, matters are always more complicated.

Leaving aside the larger social and cultural effects of prostitution--a topic that would require a long and complicated discussion in itself--in practice even the most benign systems of prostitution inescapably include a certain amount of abuse, exploitation, coercion, and stigmatization of so-called "sex workers." (Of course, some of them, along with the people they work for, may exploit and abuse clients as well--no contradiction there.)

That's especially true when prostitution is tied up with globalized human trafficking on a massive scale, often involving organized crime syndicates, which at the moment happens to be a burgeoning world-wide phenomenon. Unfortunately, there are many forms of slavery and semi-servile bondage around the world today, but it has been plausibly argued that "In the so-called advanced countries, the largest category is sex slavery, which is linked to legalized or tolerated prostitution." (In other parts of the world, it's just one category among others.) The victims of entrapment, coercion, violence, and exploitation in the international sex trade are overwhelmingly women and girls, though they also include men and boys. A century ago, during another period that also saw a big upsurge in economic globalization and international migration, this was called the "white slave" trade. Then and now, this whole phenomenon is one important element in what Bob Herbert aptly called an ongoing "war against women all over the planet". And, in practice, it's often very hard to control coercive and abusive forms of prostitution while letting (more or less) voluntary prostitution flourish.

On the other hand, there is the inconvenient fact that attempts to abolish prostitution by outlawing it have never succeeded--the most they can do is reduce it and/or drive it underground--and they invariably generate their own unpleasant side-effects, intended and unintended, that can easily make matters worse rather than better. Among other things, efforts to suppress prostitution always wind up including ... persecution, harassment, stigmatization, abuse, and exploitation of the women and girls (and men and boys) involved. Very often, the victims are precisely the ones who get punished the most.

All this suggests that, as a general rule, prostitution may fall in the category of things that should be neither ignored nor outlawed, but legalized and regulated--though, unfortunately, regulating prostitution can never eliminate abuses, especially when it's a big and lucrative business, and all systems for legally (or quasi-legally) regulating prostitution also tend to generate many of the pernicious side-effects I just mentioned. But is Harriet Harman right to say that "unless you tackle the demand side of human trafficking which is fuelling this trade"--by making clients legally liable--"we will not be able to protect women from it"? [Update 1/16/2008: For a skeptical response from David Aaronovitch, whose opinions are always worth paying attention to, see HERE.)

At the risk of stating the obvious, it's worth emphasizing that a crucial part of any solution has to involve reducing the conditions that drive individuals "voluntarily" into prostitution out of economic desperation and social dislocation and that make them vulnerable to coercion and entrapment--something that is always a good idea in its own terms. But even if we could accomplish all that tomorrow (which, in the real world, we can't), the basic questions regarding prostitution itself would still remain. And getting back to the real world ...

I have no simple or confident answers to these questions myself, only complicated and inconclusive ones. So for the moment I'll just pass them on for the rest of you to ponder, too. Any thoughts?

--Jeff Weintraub