Thursday, March 13, 2008

On banning prostitution (of a particular sort)

So, this Spitzer thing. Much commentary from male writers on the broader issue of prostitution and the merits of legalizing it; you may fruitfully begin your traversal with Ezra Klein or T. Cowen or even A. Tabarrok (whom I usually find odious).

My comment is simple and not at all original. There are many different ways of exchanging money for intimacy — physical or otherwise — that are not only legal, but mostly socially accepted, as long as one does them discreetly.1 Here are some of them:

  • It is legal to pay someone to go out on a date with you, and even be physically intimate with you (hugs, kisses, cuddling, etc.), as long as there is no explicit quid pro quo w.r.t. genital contact.
  • It is legal to pay someone to give you a sensual massage, as long as the massage does not involve direct prolonged genital contact.
  • It is legal to pay someone someone to strap you to a bench and strike you with a whip for your sexual satisfaction.
  • It is legal to pay someone to take off their clothes and dance in front of you for your sexual satisfaction.
  • It is legal to pay someone to perform arbitrary sex acts on camera with you, and then either sell or give away the video.
  • It is legal to have sex with someone who would not be having sex with you if you did not buy them many gifts and support their lavish lifestyle. (Fun personal note: I have a (female) friend who knows a girl who once said, quite frankly, "I am not going to sleep with a man until he has spent at least a thousand dollars on me." See also this Valleywag post. See also all four characters on Sex and the City, none of whom ever dated a $25k-annual-salary social worker as far as I know.)

The upshot is that everything is permitted, except the straightforward transaction of exchanging a modest sum of money for someone else to privately give you an orgasm by applying friction in the genital area. If you're sufficiently rich, or if your particular sexual kink does not require penetration, or if you like to have sex on camera, prostitution is legal for you. Laws against "prostitution" — which is to say, one very narrow subgenre of sexual commerce — are a hypocritical, hairsplitting exercise in moral hysteria and a massive waste of law enforcement resources.

Finally, I want to point out one more thing. The argument that (one narrow flavor of) prostitution should be illegal because it's closely linked to organized crime and human trafficking is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"Prostitution" is undoubtedly tied to organized crime in part because society frowns upon it so much that respectable businesses don't want to be involved in it. Organized crime is fundamentally inefficient, due to unprotected property rights, unenforceable contracts, illiquidity of capital, and all the other standard problems that come with operating a business without the protection of a well-run modern government. If a business like McDonald's or Starbucks ran brothels, they would drive organized crime out of the market pronto. People like Nicholas Kristof heap opprobrium on "prostitution" and then bemoan the inevitable results, namely that women and girls get exploited by criminals.

This is roughly equivalent to the scam whereby Republicans get elected and trash the government every couple of decades, and then point to their own incompetence as proof of their ideology that government doesn't work. It is like pissing on the rug, and then complaining that the rug stinks of piss.2

1 Bonus link: The Purchase of Intimacy, by Princeton sociology professor Viviana A. Zelizer, has been on my to-read list for a long time. Perhaps I will finally order it.

2 In fact, I hereby coin a new term for this fallacy of reasoning, akin to "poisoning the well" or "begging the question": "pissing the rug". To piss the rug is to endorse a course of action which leads to a bad outcome, and then blame those who disagree with you for the bad outcome. The grandest example of pissing the rug in recent times is, of course, the Iraq War apologetic wherein liberal war opponents are blamed for the bad consequences that would follow withdrawal. Oh, wait — Kristof did that too. Maybe we should just call it the Kristof Maneuver.

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