Here’s what happened in Vegas: shortly after we checked into our hotel, the room phone rang. After I picked it up and said “hello,” a man started talking. Within a couple of sentences I realized I was being propositioned. The next moments are a little blurred, as I was too startled to make a snappy reply and just hung up on him. I’m sure if my husband had picked up the phone he would have found himself talking to a woman with the same offer.
The next day, as we approached our hotel on foot, a sleazy guy in shades offered my husband a card. Doug glanced at the picture of the lingerie-clad female and shook his head. We’d already seen fliers with similar pictures in free newsstands up and down the strip.
Strangely enough, prostitution is illegal in Las Vegas. It’s in the rural areas of Nevada that selling sex is permitted, regulated, and taxed. Elsewhere in the United States, prostitution is technically illegal but tolerated. The old movie cliché of the sanctimonious mayor or police chief getting caught in a brothel is true enough in reality, as we’re reminded by Eliot Spitzer’s attempt to re-enter the political scene, stage left.
Spitzer, as you may recall, was driven from the New York governor’s mansion after admitting to regular patronage of Kristen Davis’ establishment. (Davis, in a quirky twist of fate, is now running against him for New York City controller.) If Spitzer were a likable fellow, or at least not such a blatant hypocrite, he might have weathered the sex-scandal storm, but he wasn’t, and he didn’t. Now he’s back, along with an unwelcome outrider: calls for legalizing prostitution from both left and right.
A reasonable libertarian case can be made. First, prostitution’s label as “the world’s oldest profession” isn’t far wrong, as we know from the Bible (Judah the patriarch being the first identified “john”). It can’t be eradicated and, so long as both parties are free agents, may be classified as a victimless crime. “Victimless” does not mean harmless—adultery is equally if not more harmful, but not a crime. Nor is the production and distribution of most pornography. So it’s hypocritical to single out the act of sex for money, especially since enforcement is haphazard or deceptive (as when female police officers dress up as hookers to entrap potential johns). Criminalization only intensifies the evil effects, such as violence against women and the spread of disease, while legalization would allow regulation and containment.
Makes sense. And like a broken pencil, it misses the point.
The same arguments pertain to the legalization of drugs and gambling, with similar objections. Mainly, whatever you legalize you get more of. Prohibition is often trotted out as a rejoinder to this argument: Didn’t criminalization of alcohol encourage more drinking? Actually, no. Though Prohibition spiked crime rates, it accomplished its aim in bringing down alcohol consumption, which climbed right back up after repeal.
Abolishing laws against prostitution itself will result in more laws about age restrictions, procurement, and other unintended consequences, none of which is likely to be better enforced than the current laws on the books. Legalization will make the business more open—even in your face, like the call girls on Las Vegas fliers. Pimps are not likely to become less violent or manipulative; just more numerous. Nor will underage recruitment or trafficking be alleviated, but more likely increase. It’s the nature of the business: youth commands a higher price.
Jacob Sullum of Reason magazine argues that the sex market can become a more honest and peaceful place with legalization, like the regulated brothels in Nevada. But prostitution is inherently dishonest and subversive; it divides body from soul and commodifies the body (1 Corinthians 6:18).
Legalization, which confers a certain aura of respectability, will not make the lie true or confer peace where there is none. The law, in its blind, blundering way, gets this one right.