It’s impossible to walk around Chicago and not notice these in-your-face billboards about the local sex trade.
As a Libertarian feminist who supports equal legal frameworks for men and women, as well as, a person’s right to sell whatever services she chooses to offer, I was intrigued. The Ugly Truth Public Awareness Campaign has as its goal the shifting of law enforcement’s attention to sex traffickers and people who buy sex instead of the prostitutes. Their message in a nutshell: stop jailing the working women and instead punish those who entice the women to work.
This campaign – as well intentioned as it may be – only gets it half right. The solution to the ugliness of modern prostitution is not to redirect the punishment, but to stop harassing all parties whatsoever. The campaign points out several appalling features of prostitution in Chicago, such as rampant violence against working women by both their pimps and their customers, but attributes these atrocities to the fundamental nature of prostitution instead of the context in which it exists. For instance:
“Violence is inherent to prostitution.” False. Violence is inherent to whatever happens to be illegal. For instance, the organized drug trade is arguably the most violent of all trades, not because “violence is inherent to drugs,” but because the only way to get drugs is to appeal to outlaws. If drugs were legalized, the world’s drug cartels would instantly disintegrate. Likewise, legalize prostitution and you drive pimps out of business.
“People who create demand for the sex trade are buying and selling human beings.” False again. Prostitution is a service exchanged for money, just like nearly every other profession. Masseuses provide the legal service of giving physical pleasure to people, while phone sex operators provide the legal service of bringing people to orgasm, but a profession that combines the two? Unacceptable.
Laws against prostitution boldly assert that a person’s body is not her own; rather, it belongs to the state. Since their bodies are not their own and selling their services is not legal, prostitutes are put in the unfortunate position (by government, no less) of having to work in the shadows with shady characters.
Think of it this way: what if you possessed something of immense value that lots of people really wanted, and you really needed the money, but you weren’t allowed to sell it?
You’d have to trade in the black market, where there is neither police protection nor order of law; there are only thugs, gangsters, pimps, and criminals. No wonder, then, that prostitutes suffer constant abuse and poor living conditions. They are no doubt treated as property by their pimps and johns, not because there is demand, but because the demand may only be satisfied illegally.
As a Libertarian, I don’t always like the decisions that people make for themselves, but I will respect their right to make decisions and reap the consequences, good or bad. I think it’s time to stop pretending that prostitution and its ills exist in a vacuum. Its legal status matters; legalizing prostitution would allow working women to work in legitimate businesses that protect and benefit their employees. This is not an argument in support of prostitution any more than it’s an argument in support of picking one’s nose in public. Rather, it’s an argument against government interference, particularly where that interference has caused a thriving and abusive black market.
The world’s oldest profession will never be eradicated. Ever. Like the failed War on Drugs, this campaign’s war on prostitution will necessarily fall short. I agree that we need to correct the ills of prostitution – perhaps with empathy, kindness, education, and opportunities for women who are stuck in this business. But perhaps the kindest thing we can do for women of the night is to let them come out of the darkness, organize in legitimate businesses that receive police protection, allow them to keep the profits from their services, and respectfully defer to their own choices about their bodies and lives.