Concluding Thoughts

In his concluding remarks from the October Cato Unbound, Ilya Somin wrote:  

 …my critics and I do not accept the view that the voters have an intrinsic right to make political decisions on the basis of ignorance. As John Stuart Mill emphasized, voting is not a purely personal right, but rather the “exercise of power over others.” It must be done with at least some reasonable degree of knowledge and judgment.

That philosophy is as pertinent to this month’s discussion as it was to October’s.  As these essays have amply demonstrated, the case to criminalize sex work is not based on fact or even on partial information interpreted by those most knowledgeable about the subject; it instead relies entirely upon irrational and quasi-religious beliefs supported by folk tales, unverifiable testimony from anti-prostitution crusaders, bogus research, misrepresentation, and outright lies.  Yet this argument is touted by its proponents as not only equally worthy of consideration to the argument for decriminalization (which is supported by facts, sound research and the verifiable testimony of tens of thousands of sex workers all over the world), but even as superior to it.  When prohibitionists aren’t ignoring the evidence or dismissing the views of sex workers as “unrepresentative” or the product of “false consciousness,” they are indulging in circumstantial  ad hominem arguments, branding sex worker rights advocates as “pimps” because many of them have a personal interest in decriminalization.  This is a particularly odious strategy because while tremendous sums of money are available for prohibitionist activity, the majority of prominent sex worker activists (such as myself) are already retired and therefore no longer have an economic “dog in the fight.” Furthermore, there are few (if any) full-time salaried positions in sex worker activism, despite the prohibitionist myth of a wealthy “pimp lobby.”

The purpose of political debate, especially on a contentious subject like the one at hand, is not to convince one’s opponents; it is to present arguments, counter-arguments, and information so the members of the audience can come to a rational, informed opinion on the issue before engaging in democracy, that “exercise of power over others.”  The interactive nature of the debate process reveals the strengths and weaknesses of the participants’ positions and allows each side the opportunity to present evidence and arguments to counter the other’s claims.  The present political climate is so virulently anti–sex worker that prohibitionists are normally allowed to pontificate without opposition, and reporters credulously repeat their claims without as much as the pretense of fact-checking; the opportunity to refute the generally unchallenged prohibitionist claims, and to present the case for respect of individual rights, is therefore welcome indeed.

For over a century now, voters have had precious little information on the reality of prostitution and have made political decisions based on nothing but ignorance, religious morality, and personal prejudice; under those circumstances it’s no wonder that in many countries they have favored oppressive laws that endanger sex workers and deprive them of basic human rights.  But the power of the Internet has changed all that. The Internet has allowed us to speak up for ourselves, in opposition to those who claim to want what’s best for us while supporting systems that do nothing but leave us vulnerable to violence, state-sponsored and otherwise.  As time goes on it will become increasingly difficult for citizens, legislators, and judges to ignore the damage caused by sex work prohibition, just as it has become increasingly difficult for them to ignore the damage caused by its ideological sibling, drug prohibition.  An ever-larger number of people are realizing that the state should not be allowed to suppress consensual, private behavior with armed violence, so it is inevitable that the prohibition of sex work must eventually follow the prohibition of other private sexual behaviors into the rubbish-heap of history. I’m proud to be one of those who are working to hasten the day when it does.   

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Sex work is ubiquitous. Where a substantial demand exists, some people will inevitably try to meet that demand for a price. Retired call girl and madam Maggie McNeill reviews the various legal regimes that have been set up to regulate and/or prohibit sex work. She concludes that many approaches, particularly the most restrictive ones, increase the likelihood of harm to all participants. They tend to infantalize women and invest law enforcement with arbitrary and dangerous powers. She argues that the best approach is a regime of simple legalization, without licensing or heavy restrictions.

Response Essays

  • Prof. Ronald Weitzer argues that prostitution should be treated as a legal commercial transaction. He finds that much of the conventional wisdom on the sex trade is the result of generalizing from experience under legal regimes where it is criminalized. He argues that in a legally tolerant regime, many of the problems we observe today would vanish. He argues for a set of “best practices” that would entail some government regulation of sex work, including subjecting business owners to background checks and licensing, zoning regulations, and restrictions on advertising. These measures would make decriminalization politically palatable and protect against a possible backlash. He also finds, contrary to McNeill’s claim, that no country has fully deregulated sex work.

  • Dianne Post argues that prostitution is a form of exploitation, and that the only proper response is to abolish it. Prostitution, she argues, only exists because of material inequalities. Worse, it tends strongly to produce further inequalities – material, social, and political in nature. Prostitution traps women in economic dependency on men, and it encourages men to view women merely as commodities. Following this strong normative case against prostitution, Post looks at the empirical evidence, where she concludes that experiments with legalization have all been failures. She praises the “Nordic Model” approach to sex work, in which in which sex workers’ clients are prosecuted, rather than the women involved in prostitution.

  • Steven Wagner argues that the large majority of prostitutes are not workers at all, because they are not acting voluntarily: they are enslaved. The personal experiences of Ms. McNeill notwithstanding, many others have suffered horribly in prostitution, and even left-leaning governments like that of France under the socialists have justifiably outlawed the sex trade. Wagner likewise prefers the Swedish approach, in which prostitutes are not treated as criminals, but those who attempt to buy sex are.