These Boots Are Made For Walking

Not for sale: Human Trafficking. Photo by Ira Gelb.

Last week, as my keyboard was busy running it’s mouth on TNB, one of the Commentators posted an article that explained Bernie Sanders’ consideration of decriminalizing sex work in the US.

Much to my dismay and expectation, there was either silence or outright condemnation toward this idea in the comment section.  

This response triggered a thousand flashbacks to prior conversations that I have had that resulted in feeling unambiguous confusion. This familiar confusion has been my constant companion since my mid-teens, when I began to synthesize our society and the world.  

My companion of confusion has accompanied me as I studied our free society and what that means for individual choices. The singular question that stands as my companion’s omega: “how can a free society in the 21st century dictate personal relationships and private benign physical activity?”

My only respite to this familiar consternation was discovering that personal choice is not yet dead and there are several presidential candidates who are still open to deliberate this arcane prohibition.  

Encouragingly, most 2020 Democrats are either in favor of catching up with the rest of the world or they are unsurprisingly expediently silent. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Tulsi Gabbard are open to the discussion while Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke take no position, as The Intercept noted in March.

On the other side of the aisle, no prominent Republican has taken a policy position that would move this issue forward, but based on the moral careening of bribes, payoffs and lies that the party has witnessed over the past several years, it is this writer’s assumption that the “do as I say, not as I do” Republican party can realistically be opposed to sex work in name only.

Please don’t take my word for it, let’s delve into the facts, data and research on the topic. But first I will request some openness and intellectual honesty. If I may, I would like to set a few parameters so that the process does not end in circular arguments:

  • I am not advocating prostition for anyone unless they research it closely, understand the benefits and drawbacks, and make a rational personal choice.  Personally, it is an industry that I choose to avoid.
  • Sex work is not the same as human trafficking.  We are discussing a scenario of an industry with moderate regulation and oversight.  The employees would be contractually employed as either sole proprietors, independent contractors (paid via 1099) or W-2 employees.  The entities who employ these workers would be called employers and the term pimp would cease to exist.  The workers would pay taxes just as any barber, landscaper or farmer does.
  • This is not a conversation about children in the workplace.  
  • If you think that this issue is all about values, you are correct. Sometimes good people disagree and sometimes separate wholesome values align in direct opposition.  My personal family values design that I avoid this activity but the western democratic set of values that I cherish allow for liberty and personal choice. My argument is that there is room in our society for both sets of values.
  • Please, please, please do not ask me how I would feel if my mother or daughter engaged in prostitution.  The last thing I want to do is discuss my mother’s sexual partners (yuck). Furthermore, my daughter will not even date until she is well into her 30’s.  Before her first date there will need to be a several year courting period by a young man of my choosing and my final approval will be required (just kidding…not really).

So, why do I take a position for society that is contrary to my individual beliefs? Aside from the obvious Constitutional considerations, let’s look at the research.

In 2003 the New Zealand Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) decriminalized prostitution. This included street based work (individual proprietor) as well as through a brothel (employer/employee). After 12 years of this experiment the Christchurch School of Medicine released the results of a study on the effects of decriminalized prostitution. The study found that “90 percent of sex workers believed the PRA gave them employment, legal and health and safety rights. A substantial 64 percent found it easier to refuse clients. Significantly, 57 percent said police attitudes to sex workers changed for the better.”

The feedback from New Zealand directly corresponds with American research as well. From 2003 until 2009 Rhode Island decriminalized indoor prostitution. This meant that prostitutes could not walk the streets but brothels were acceptable. According to research completed by the National Bureau of Economic Research, during this brief time there was a 31 percent decrease in rape offenses and 39 percent fewer cases of female gonorrhea.

Corresponding to the New Zealand and American results, in Europe the Institute for the Study of Labor reported in 2015 that the decriminalization of prostitution in the Netherlands yielded very similar findings. In 1994 the Netherlands allowed both brothel prostitution and street prostitution. A 20 year study published by the Institute for the Study of Labor reflected that there was a 30-40 percent drop in sexual abuse with no discernible increase in any other types of violent or drug related crime.

Another argument that is often made is that sex trafficking will increase if prostitution is decriminalized. That claim, again, is not substantiated by the data. In 2002 Germany eased its prostitution laws. During that time convictions for sex trafficking actually dropped. While the lack of convictions could be a result of a lessened law enforcement emphasis of the trade, it more likely meant that there was no appreciable increase in sex trafficking after decriminalization.

Based on the aforementioned evidence, it is no wonder that Amnesty International, the World Health Organization, UN Women, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Foundations have all consistently called for an end to sex work prohibition.

Finally, I have saved my best for last. If you aren’t furious with me yet let me give you my final argument. On a personal level, we all know those men or women who engage in a relationship with someone who can provide financial perks. While love comes in different forms, like it or not, money is often a contributing factor in many relationships, monogamous and otherwise. If someone is in a relationship where there is a designated financial breadwinner, is it illegal if someone is in two relationships with two breadwinners? How about three breadwinners? Where does prostitution start and where does it end? Personally, I don’t know and I don’t want to care.

As Bernie Sanders and the rest of the aspiring candidates jockey for policy positions, we need to ask ourselves do we really want to live in a society where Big Government has oversight over our lives to such a granular degree that they inspect intimate relationships and compare them with financial statements?  

Given the data, does it matter?

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