29 November 2008

For Prostitution

The Objectivist
Revisiting Prostitution
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 24, 2008

Prostitution is one of those businesses that is here to stay and yet, outside of the Eliot Spitzer scandal, receives little discussion. The case for legalizing it is surprisingly strong and yet there is little movement for doing so. Even in liberal San Francisco, voters turned down a measure that would have prevented the police from arresting prostitutes.

The case for legalizing prostitution is straightforward. On one version, if two persons wish to engage in a transaction that does not harm anyone else, then they should be allowed to do so. A second version focuses on rights. In prostitution, the customer, almost always a man, gives the prostitute money, something which he has a legal and moral right to do. The prostitute has sex with the man, which she (or he) also has a legal and moral right to do. Somehow, the combination of these acts is illegal. This ban does not cover payment to actors in pornographic movies for reasons that escape me.

One argument for banning prostitution is that we should protect prostitutes from themselves. This is an odd argument in that you might think that the state is not your father and hence should not be in the business of protecting you against yourself. One might also think that consistency should prevent such laws. After all, we allow adults to eat unhealthy things, smoke, get fat, drop out of school, and serve in dangerous wars. However, even for fans of paternalism, the issue arises as to whether prostitution is a bad for women.

This is a claim that prostitution is bad for the women (and men) who work frequently made. The empirical studies in fact show that the job has a distinct mixture of benefits and costs. The best window into this mixture is one of the few in-depth studies on prostitution that was done by University of Chicago economics professor Steven D. Levitt (author of “Freakonomics”) and Columbia University sociology professor Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh.

In Chicago, street prostitutes earned around $27 an hour, roughly four times their hourly wage in other jobs. In other work sectors, these women averaged around $7 an hour. Interestingly prostitutes who worked for pimps, or business agents as I like to call them, earned around $41 an hour. In a week, the average prostitute only worked around 13 hours per week , averaged 10 sex acts, and earned around $340 a week, which is more than they made through other work. My guess is that this light work week might be valued by women who can’t afford much day care and whose other work prospects are undependable, dreary, and don’t pay much. Surprisingly, another academic study indicated that in many cases prostitutes enjoy the sex.

The down side is that prostitutes are in a violent, unhealthy, and stigmatizing field. Levitt and Vankatesh’s study indicates that working street prostitutes report being a victim of violence (from customer or business agent) about once a month. They are also at risk for disease because condoms are used about 25% of the time. Prostitutes also get arrested, although fairly infrequently (1 arrest per 450 tricks). They get imprisoned even less frequently (1 in 10 arrests leads to a prison sentence). They frequently buy off the police with sex. Incredibly, around 3% of their tricks are given to the police to prevent arrests. This is a higher rate than freebie sex given out to gang members for protection. Other researchers argue that being a prostitute is stigmatizing and leads to diminished marriage opportunities.

Do the costs outweigh the benefits? This is hard to tell. It depends in part on what other employment and marriage prospects the women have and what they value. It is unclear whether it is worse than their other options. Even if prostitution is bad for the women, one wonders whether they would be better off were prostitution legalized, thereby allowing women to gain better access to medical professionals, honest cops, and reputable business agents.

The cost-benefit analysis is also unclear when we look at high-end prostitutes. Venkatesh’s research indicates that some of these women make a lot of money (around $7,500 per session or $10,000 per session depending on how elite their clientele is). However, their other opportunities are probably quite good. At this level, the women tend to be white, have a college degree (or are in college), and only take referrals. In addition, they are also exposed to violence (on average, twice a year).

A second argument for prohibiting prostitution is that it is necessary to prevent business agents from exploiting prostitutes. Levitt and Vankatesh’s study casts doubt on this argument. In Chicago, business agents allow prostitutes to earn substantially more money (50% more) per trick, turn fewer tricks, get arrested less often, and give less freebie sex to cops and gang members. In return prostitutes pay a flat 25% fee on all of their tricks.

A third argument for banning prostitution is that it carries with it negative externalities. A negative externality is a harm to people who are not part of the transaction. In particular, prostitution is thought to cause crime, tamp down property values, break up families, promote immorality, etc. Negative externalities usually do not provide a good reason to ban something as opposed to zoning it. For example, the state allows bars and industrial plants despite the fact that they are alleged to cause crime and noise and tamp down property values to drop. In an analysis of Chicago neighborhoods, prostitution did correlate with crime. In contrast, this is not true of the drug trade. In the absence of data, it is hard to assess the claims about family breakup and promoting immorality. Also, the externalities need not be all negative. When studied, many rapists report preferring voluntary sex. This might indicate that prostitution will reduce the incidence of rape, although this is pure speculation. In addition, the negative externalities might be outweighed by the gains to prostitutes and their customers.

A fourth argument is that prostitution will lead to the importation of foreign sex slaves, thereby leading to sexual slavery. However, Emily Bazelon in Slate.com points out that in countries that legalized prostitution (Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands) have not become awash in foreign sex slaves. Neither have the parts of Nevada in which it is legal.

A fifth argument is that hiring prostitutes is wrong and that the law should enforce morality. This is an odd view of the state for those who think liberty is important. In addition, it is inconsistent with laws that permit people to enjoy pornography, alcohol, gambling, and adultery. The real problem, however, is that it is hard to see what is wrong with hiring a prostitute. People hire others for pedicures, hair cuts, and massages, all involve human contact. Why is sex different? At least in the short run, the exchange of sex for money appears to be mutually beneficial, otherwise such exchanges wouldn’t occur. The proponent of this argument needs to explain why morality supports banning of prostitution, but not premarital and gay sex. Paying for sex may seem distasteful, but such aesthetic objections are no more telling on prostitution than they are with regard to sex with a fat person.

It is surprisingly hard to see why prostitution should be criminalized. The most obvious arguments fail or lack supporting evidence. Perhaps we should revisit this issue.


The Objectivist said...

In the case of mixed evidence, the tie goes to liberty. So the anti-prostitution crowd has the burden of showing that permitting prostitution is unjust or that its costs outweigh its benefits.

Because one of the benefits is the massive amount of pleasure it brings about, I would love to see this argument.

The Objectivist said...

The crime-and-abuse aspects are probably at least in part a result of its illegality. So the usual law-and-order argument needs to be supplemented by some evidence (conceptual or empirical) that these aspects would occur even if it is legal.

Data for Germany, Australia, and parts of Nevada are relevant here.

The Objectivist said...

An interesting issue is whether there is a gender split here. Women have a strong incentive to oppose prostitution for the same reason that manufacturers like tariffs. It eliminates competition for one (and not their most important) good.

you said...

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