Friday, February 22, 2008

On the decriminalization of prostitution....

Lurking in the shadows since 2006, the prostitution debate is back. From what I've seen, the argument for decriminalization has yet to really change in the past two years: Legalize prostitution to protect women. Proponents generally argue that prostitution, when no longer a criminal act, can in fact benefit women financially, and that just as long as it is made safe and secure, the net result is positive for society as a whole.

There are several problems with this argument that I should first address. For starters, how to make prostitution 'safe and secure' is notoriously unclear, as there is no fool proof way to prevent the spread of STI's and guarantee the safety of the prostitute. Second, the number of 'successful' prostitutes is infinitesimal to the amount of 'unsuccessful' prostitutes, even in countries like Germany and the Netherlands that have decriminalization. Third, the creation of First World prostitution zones provides a legitimate outlet for human traffickers worldwide. There's a lot more to be said, but I'd like draw attention to the one person who isn't discussed: The john.

Pro-decriminalization folks virtually always speak of the woman, though rarely the john. It's assumed that via decriminalization john's will simply become 'better customers', more responsible, more clean, more discriminating. And that's the extent of it; the rest of the discussion is of the female 'sex worker'. So what of the john? It seems that proponents realize that discussing the john is to draw the debate away from its strengths and toward its fundamental weaknesses. The john represents the failure of an adult man. He pays for something he should, in a sense, earn through courtship, maturity, love and commitment. His 'yes' to paying for sex is simply another moral failure in that man's life. He will take his experience of paying for sex with him wherever he goes - to work, to school, and to home. Now imagine men having easy and quick access to prostitutes. Only the artlessly naive could ignore the clear societal implications of decriminalization.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

The flaws in your reasoning are so numerous I’m not really sure where to start. I guess the one point you got right is that the primary argument for legalization or decriminalization is for the protection of the woman “i.e. sex worker”. First, in regard to STD’s, according to statistics from the CDC, if you exclude street prostitution, which only accounts for only about 10% of the women who support themselves in this manner, incidents of STD’s are about the same as the general population. In fact, casual, consensual, non-paid-for sex results in a much higher rate of STD transmission.

Secondly, the reason decriminalization protects the woman is because it removes the business transaction out of the domain of the underworld. Certainly, no one can “guarantee the safety” of a lady of the evening, but no one can guarantee the safety of a clerk in a convenience store either. Again, thinking beyond the stereotype “street hooker”, who is a public nuisance, allowing brothels to exist, subject to local zoning ordinances and regulations, provides as much safety as an office or retail sales environment.

Concerning the man (i.e. john), or buyer in the transaction, your na├»ve statements show how little research you’ve actually done on this subject. There are many reasons why a man will pay for sex – many will argue that a man always pays for sex and that the $200-$300 for an hour with a professional escort is a bargain compared to other alternatives. Other contend that a paid profession can give them satisfaction by “doing things” that their wives won’t, or don’t like to do. Some enjoy the fantasy of being with a woman that they perceive as being “out of their class”. Does this equate to “moral failure” on the part of the man? Possibly - but that determination should remain the domain of an individual and his moral authority. It is not the purpose of the institution of the state to prescribe morality standard for all.

Colm said...

Thanks for you post, Anon. I think it deserves a title: When in trouble, obfuscate. You've presented what look like actual rebuttals, but you never actually addressed any of the points I made. I, being the pinnacle of humility, honesty and charity, will attempt to do to your post what you failed to do with mine.

1) Regarding STI's, I think I'm missing something in your argument. I said that there is no way to guarantee the prevention of STI transmission, not that prostitutes by default are at higher risk for contracting a STI. But regardless, my point is that there is simply no way to guarantee that decriminalization won't result in a net increase in STI transmission, and we probably won't know anytime soon. Tracking the sexual partners of prostitutes is virtually impossible, thus making it (currently) very difficult to even estimate the effects of one infected prostitute spreading an STI to a larger group of users.

2) Legitimizing the business end of prostitution is no way to remove it from the underworld. Reports out of Germany and the Netherlands tell of women being 'pressed' into prostitution, and fearful to get out of the industry, even though in those countries prostitution is supposed to be a legitimate profession. Brothels will never be able to provide as much safety as a retail or office environment, again, because of the nature of the act. A sales rep selling shoes is not putting himself into a situation in which he is physically vulnerable, but a prostitute is always in this situation when the 'transaction' occurs.

3) Again, I think I am missing your point. You list reasons why a john will pay for sex, but don't pause to consider the larger ramifications of the john's decision. And then you admit that the act of paying for sex is a moral failure, but, by your reasoning, it is an isolated one. I'm confused. So it can be a moral failure of the man that can have larger negative effects on his life and the lives of those who know him, but that the rest of society shouldn't care? Can you please tell me just what part of the world you live in where the moral failure of one person doesn't detrimentally effet the rest of society, because I want to live there too. Unfortunately for the rest of us beneath your ivory tower, bad decisions lead to more bad decisions, and all of us, government included, have an interest in making sure the amount of bad decisions we make as a whole are fewer than the amount of good decisions.

PS - 'It is not the purpose of the institution of the state to prescribe morality standard for all.' Yes it is. If it wasn't we wouldn't have laws against stealing, murder, arson, sexual assualt and so forth.

Anonymous said...

I responded to your critic of my previous comments yesterday. In case they were lost somewhere in cyberspace, I’m posting them again.


It was never my intention to write a treatise in response to your summary dismissal of the concept of legalization and/or decriminalization of all prostitution. I simply hoped to point out that the conclusions you are jumping to have no basis in fact. If you chose to label that as obfuscation, that is your right; however, I will try to elaborate to make my points clearer.

1. You seem to be saying that, despite any empirical evidence one way or the other, decriminalization of prostitution may increate STD transmission. Logically, the only proven way to “guarantee prevention of STD transmission” is abstinence. Certainly, total monogamy will minimize the risk, but we need to be realistic about human behavior – that just ain’t going to happen. My point is exactly this; if you are going to have extra-monogamous sexual relations, you probably are less likely to be on the receiving end of an STD transmission with a professional escort who knows how to use, and insists on all reasonable precautions, rather than a girl you picked up at the bar, or a co-worker, or for that matter someone from your Sunday School class.

2. By using the examples of Germany and the Netherlands to rationalize your points, you have again jumped to conclusions rather than applying objective reasoning to understand a very real problem. Human trafficking, like all other black-markets is an economic issue. It is supply and demand based. As long as the demand is greater than the available supply, enterprising, but unethical, people will find ways to make money, even if it means exploiting others. However, if more and stricter laws are the answer, why is human trafficking even more prevalent in certain Asian and mid-Eastern countries where it is a capital crime? You are right; I’m not offering a solution here; I don’t necessarily have one, but I know it won’t be solved until we recognize the real problem.

3. Finally, I did not “admit that the act of paying for sex is a moral failure”. I cannot be the judge of anyone’s morality. Only you and your moral authority, that is God, the Church or who/whatever you’ve allowed to set your personal moral standard can judge your success or failure against that standard.. The difference in our philosophies is in how we distinguish between ethics and morality. Morality describes an individual relationship with his god (i.e. moral authority), while ethics are the relations between individuals and/or man-made institutions. That’s why certain fundamentalist Muslims believe they are being moral by killing (murdering) infidels. We allow our institutions, such as government to define a code of ethics (laws) that regulate how we are to relate with each other. Yes, I understand the connection that a butterfly flaps its wing….. and a tornado forms, but it isn’t the government’s job to regulate butterfly wings. By extension, it should not be the government’s job to oversee what happens behind closed door, on private property between consenting adults.

Colm said...

Thanks, once again, for taking the time to post. Although it's clear we disagree (wholeheartedly), I'm grateful for the discussion.

That said, I think that more should be done to eradicate all forms of prostitution before we contemplate decriminalization/legalization. A great deal of my animus against your position comes from my refusal to simply waive my hands up and declare defeat. Naturally you wouldn't call it defeat, but when we begin to roll back social taboos that were created to prevent very real problems in society simply to try to potentially mitigate the human disaster that is prostitution, we're opening a can of worms that could easily beget greater problems.

Now I'd like to stop here, but something just really bugs me about your comments. When you discuss the mitigating effect decriminalization may have on the transmission of STI's, you're simply making an academic point. As I said earlier, there simply isn't enough reliable data to base that claim on, and because of the inherent problems of trying to accurately analyze STI transmission among prostitutes, there won't be for a while. Now I've been known to jump the gun on things, but I think this time it's you that is basing a conclusion on speculation, rather than actual fact.

As for Germany and the Netherlands, I don't really see how refering to those respective cases is 'jumping to conclusions'. Those countries have given us in Canada the ability to judge for ourselves whether or not decriminalization is a worthwhile endeavour. That those countries' experiences have been far less than ideal should, at the very least, give us pause for further consideration. What's wrong with that?

And finally, ethics and morality are interdepent; one cannot exist without affecting the other. We can try to excise morality from ethics, but when we do, we erode the justifications for having thsoe ethics in the first place. Remember, the state is one of many expressions of public morality, ie, how we think we ought to order our associations as to produce the best possible results. So of course the state has an interest in what some of it's members do behind closed doors, the same way you have an interest in what your brother, husband, wife, children do when you're not around.