Douthat on Prostitution

I’m having a hard time finding any sympathy towards Ross’s most recent post.  Here’s the relevant excerpt:

I think the “protecting vulnerable women” case against legalizing sex work is a perfectly reasonable supplemental argument for keeping the ban in place, but ultimately the case for the ban stands or falls on one’s view of morals legislation: First, whether it’s appropriate for the law to restrain people from activities that are freely chosen but ultimately self-abusive and morally degrading, and second, whether prostitution, female and male alike, is sufficiently self-abusive and degrading to warrant legal sanction.

The best thing that could be said about this passage is that it might just be naive.  Perhaps Ross doesn’t realize the extent of the abuse that ends up occuring in the sex industry, especially as it’s currently carried out under legal sanctions.  Given that Ross is a prominent political commentator, that kind of ignorance would be culpable.  Also, I see no reason to assume he is ignorant (odds are that he knows more than I do).

Instead, I think Ross is just letting a fancy story overwhelm common sense.  He talks about the state being a moral teacher.  Odd language aside, I have no problem with this.  These days, my thoughts on politics don’t rule out the state doing a little bit of moral education, but even the most gung-ho proponent of that idea should cast it as secondary to the state’s obligation to minimize harm.  In extreme circumstances you might let through a policy that results in people getting hurt, but the payoff better be enormous.  Ross talks about prostitutes doing violence to themselves, but that is ultimately a mere metaphor, and one which doesn’t outweigh the real question of what actual violence is being done.

What makes it more galling is the question of whether the noble goal of moral education is even one that the state can fulfill in these circumstances.  After all, prositution isn’t the sort of sin that laws are going to get rid of–making an ineffective symbolic gesture is all that this stance offers.

Note: I’m note really taking a stand here on the actual issue of legalization, though my gut reaction is that legalization would make the profession less dangerous.  What I am saying is that the clear priority ought to be what results in the fewest people getting hurt.

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4 responses to “Douthat on Prostitution

  1. I doubt barely anyone would propose legalizing sex slavery. I do not want the government to “restrain people from activities that are freely chosen but ultimately self-abusive and morally degrading,” as he puts it. Regardless, I support the legalization of prostitution for women’s sake. Criminalizing prostitution does not get rid of it; it just pushes it underground. When prostitution is legalized, legitimate businesses legally providing the supply of paid sex to customers using employees who voluntarily applied and are free to quit. When prostitution is criminalized, the market is given to violent criminals; johns must go to criminal pimps to buy sex, and criminal pimps often will use violence to enslave women as prostitutes. I firmly believe legalizing prostitution would drastically improve the conditions of prostitutes and drastically decrease the amount of sex slavery.

    Anyway, great blog! 🙂 I enjoy reading it.

  2. Scott,

    I’m not so sure that’s really the case. In places where prostitituion is legal, there doesn’t seem to be a drastic decrease in the amount of violence or coercion associated with prostituion.

    I still think legalizing it is probably one of the better solutions, but that’s because it’s the least bad alternative, not because it is necessarily a good thing.

  3. Thanks for reading, Scott.

    Unfortunately, it’s a rather tough issue. Here’s one summary of evidence that I’ve found useful, and you might also look at this article on israel’s situation.

    I’m still of the opinion that legalization would be better. There’s a danger of imagining that if you legalize, the policies would be drafted perfectly, but I still think that a lot of the problems described in Nevada or Israel stem from really terrible regulatory regimes. In Israel’s case, it was almost as simple as turning a blind eye to the trafficking of women.

    Another point is that if you don’t legalize, you’re stuck with a perpetual status quo–there’s very little you can do to change the situation. Whereas if you legalize, you can then keep trying to improve the system.

  4. Right. Ultimately, legalizing and regulating prostitution allows the state to do more to protect prostitutions from exploitation and violence.