D. Dowd Muska


Sex Trafficking’s Ignored Remedy

January 30, 2014

Seeking a career in government? Skip healthcare, welfare, transportation, and education. For job security, consider joining the battle against sex trafficking.

From D.C. to state capitals to local police stations, greater attention and resources are being devoted to what the FBI calls “the fastest-growing business of organized crime and the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world.” Politicians and bureaucrats have launched the usual responses: public hearings, press conferences, blue-ribbon commissions, task forces. Policy prescriptions are proliferating, too: tougher sentences for perps, the creation of special courts, fresh surveillance tactics for cops, social-media campaigns.

Sex-trafficking crusaders exaggerate the severity of the problem in order to garner coverage in a hyper-saturated media environment. But regardless of the accuracy of their data, anecdotes about “the most common form of modern-day slavery” (again, the FBI) can be harrowing. That’s why it’s unfortunate that the people who claim to care so intensely for sex trafficking’s victims ignore a powerful tool to combat the offense.

Prostitution enjoys government’s blessing in Columbia, Senegal, and Bangladesh. But unbeknownst to many Americans, turning tricks is legal, regulated, and taxed in a few developed nations -- most notably, Greece, Germany, the Netherlands, and parts of Australia. (Bonn, The New York Times reported in 2011, “has begun collecting taxes from prostitutes with an automated pay station similar to a parking meter.”) Late last year, Canada’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled that its country’s rules regarding prostitution were “grossly disproportionate,” and ordered Parliament to craft a coherent correction.

Not impressed by foreigners’ enlightenment and open-mindedness? It’s not necessary to look abroad to find “fallen” women operating on the right side of the law.

In 1970, a rural county in northwest Nevada, just outside Reno, adopted a brothel-license ordinance. The following year, legislators in Carson City set policy for the entire state. Casino pressure ensured that prostitution remained verboten in Sin City’s Clark County, but out in the sticks, the locals could decide for themselves whether to permit (quoting the statute) “house[s] of ill fame or repute.” Some do, some don’t.

Whatever one thinks about the morality of the services Nevada’s two-dozen cathouses offer, the regulatory structure enacted more than four decades ago has functioned splendidly. State health officials test prostitutes monthly for HIV and syphilis, and weekly for gonorrhea and Chlamydia. After 15 years of studying the industry, Barbara G. Brents, a UNLV sociologist, “found no evidence of trafficking” in Nevada’s brothels. Furthermore, “employees … feel safe, are free to come and go, and are bound only by their contract. … Workers report that they felt safe largely because the police, employers and co-workers were there to protect them.”

In several Nevada counties, bordellos generate a significant amount of tax revenue. (Lobbying by rural commissioners contributed to the failure of Harry Reid’s February 2011 demand that brothels be banned.) Kate Korgan, another UNLV sociologist, documented that the businesses “are amazingly integrated into their communities,” sponsoring sports teams, community cookouts, and 4th of July parades. Owners belong to civic organizations and often run for office.

Can legal brothels end sex trafficking in America? Of course not -- there will always be powerless females and predatory pimps. But a supply-side response promises to yield far more progress than crackdowns. Would men looking to “party” prefer a dingy dive with hookers of dubious health, or an up-to-code, debit-card-accepting pleasure dome staffed by working girls who are regularly evaluated by medical professionals?

The answer is obvious. But not to the “enemies” of sex trafficking. You’ll search in vain for a conference or publication on the subject that explores the legitimization of prostitution, much less recommends it. An unlikely alliance between the religious right and feminist left forestalls the libertarian perspective.

It’s a disappointing oversight. While Nanny Statists remain a scourge, the cause of personal liberty has notched big wins in modern times. The 18th Amendment was repealed. Richard Nixon ended conscription. Interracial relationships and homosexuality are no longer prosecutable. Attempts to censor Internet content consistently fizzle. The right-to-die movement is strengthening. In Washington and Colorado, recreational weed is allowed. Most Utahns now support medicinal marijuana. Isn’t it time for cities, counties, and states to rethink the demonstrably unsuccessful criminalization of prostitution?

“Commercial affection,” as Mel Tillis put it, may not be humanity at its best. But as is the case with alcohol, drugs, gambling, and pornography, prohibition is ineffective, breeds black markets, and creates incentives for expensive, limitless meddling by government.

Prostitution has never been, is not, and never will be rare. But it can be made legal, and thus, safe.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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