Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Depths of Human Folly

I normally stay away from the headlines because what do I have to add to the din? But prostitution is obviously an issue of considerable public health importance, so I will say something. First, though, a bit of political commentary.

You can start an illegal war of agression based on a campaign of lies, causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people (at least) and squandering trillions of dollars; commit war crimes in the conduct of that war including rounding up thousands of young men at random and brutally torturing them; systematically violate laws intended to protect the constitutional rights of Americans, and claim that the president is not bound by the law or the constitution and has the absolute right to do anything he wants, including making people, including U.S. citizens, disappear forever into a network of secret dungeons, merely on his whim; and turn the federal justice system into a political hit squad, conducting malicious prosecutions to consolidate power. That's just for starters. And impeachment is off the table.

Or, you can call up for a little nooky while you're out of town. You're gone. What a country.

Now, the enterprise patronized by Client 9 -- widely reported to be Gov. Spitzer -- was not typical of the prostitution industry. The worker who serviced Client 9 appears to have been well compensated. She was treated with respect by the representative of management with whom she interacted, and there is no indication that she was coerced or exploited in any way. The company evidently had a condom use policy, and management was concerned that Client 9 had previously wanted to violate it. Not to worry, said the worker, she knew how to insist on it. It must have taken her more than an 8 hour day to go to DC on the train, spend two hours boinking the governor, and then ride back, but I'm guessing she spent the train rides studying up for her Ph.D. in early Sanskrit literature, or otherwise used the time productively.

So, why bother to prosecute this? The company's activities are totally discreet -- nobody's neighborhood is being degraded by street walking and cruising and open and gross lewdness. Nobody is enslaved, nobody has 90% of her earnings confiscated by pimps, HIV and STDs are not being spread, the workers are in little, if any, danger from psychopathic serial killers. But you see the implication here -- this is atypical prostitution.

So the issue arises perennially. Wouldn't it be better to legalize it, and regulate it, so as to get all that bad stuff out of the business? Competition from legal, ethically run businesses (if you consider that possible given the nature of the product) would largely drive the traffickers and the streetwalkers out of business, at least that's the hope. Decent pay, relatively dignified working conditions, and safety could be guaranteed, condom use enforced, and the interests of communities respected. Workers with drug problems could be identified, referred for treatment, and their licenses revoked. Of course they might respond by going back to the illegal market, but at least we tried.

Various countries, and one U.S. state, have experimented with forms of carefully limited legalization, with arguably okay results. The legal businesses have not driven out the exploitive, dangerous and offensive forms of prostitution, but perhaps it's because they haven't been permitted on a large enough scale. On the other hand, the legal businesses haven't always been paragons themselves, but maybe the authorities need more experience and a more aggressive and capable regulatory authority.

The principal objection to these proposals is that prostitution is immoral and society should not sanction it. Some feminists believe that it is inherently degrading to women, although not all prostitutes agree. Some argue that they should have a right to pursue their trade with safety and dignity.

Personally, I can't even remotely understand why somebody would want this particular service, but obviously a lot of people -- principally men -- do, always have, and always will. It is never going to go away. So I think we might as well try legalizing it.

What do you think?

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