Many people are upset that Amnesty International finally came out in favor of decriminalizing sex work.
Not me. I think decriminalizing sex work is a step in the right direction. Sex workers’ lives are often miserable. Their underground status denies them police protection; instead, they are often actively abused by the police.
The philosophical rationale for outlawing sex work is at least more sound than the equivalent rationale for outlawing the drug trade, though. I’m in favor of decriminalization for both, but in the case of sex work I acknowledge that there are extremely valid reasons to feel squeamish about the tacit approval conferred by decriminalization.
Laws are just only insofar as they protect people. Driving laws are imminently just — letting people drive however they wanted would endanger the lives of everyone else on or near roadways. Whereas drug laws appear at first glance to be imminently unjust — if a burnout decides to loaf around his apartment, smoke a jay, watch some television, it would seem that no one else is harmed.
Only two arguments I’ve seen for outlawing drug use have any merit. One is that a person under the influence of a particular compound cannot be trusted to peacefully loaf in his apartment. Amphetamine use, for instance, both confers extra energy and impairs judgement (the latter effect is due mostly to lack of sleep, not a pharmacological effect of amphetamines themselves, but I think it’s fair to make this approximation since amphetamines impede sleep. This is especially true for the methylated analogues because that methylation slows drug metabolism; the half-life is so long that a single dose can prevent someone from sleeping for a day or two).
It’s reasonable to guess that people given free access to amphetamines would become unlawful.
Of course, we outlawed amphetamines poorly. They are all scheduled, meaning they are all illegal to purchase or possess without a prescription… but many flavors can be purchased in large quantities with a valid prescription.
In practice, this means that amphetamines are outlawed for poor people. Wealthy college students and medical doctors and tenure-track professors all have ready access. So the way amphetamines are outlawed in this country is clearly unjust, and rampant abuse among wealthy populations belies the notion that amphetamines lead to lawless behavior… but as long as you ignore the empirical evidence and just focus on the theory, the philosophical rationale makes sense.
The other argument for outlawing drug use is that compounds are so addictive, and so dangerous, that we should accept some harm to adults (imprisonment, the danger of participating in underground markets) in order to prevent children from ever trying drugs. Children, knowing that the laws make users’ lives awful, might consider that extra cost and decide that a first taste isn’t worth it. Additionally, the laws might reduce access, so there’d be less risk that a child ever has an opportunity to choose poorly.
Personally, I think this is a rotten strategy. There are viable alternatives that allow adult access while still keeping a good or service out of the hands of children. These strategies also tend to break down in markets for illegal goods or services. In many regions of our country it is easier for children to buy marijuana than alcohol. And we now have nearly a half-century’s worth of evidence that harm caused by the War on Drugs outweighs the potential paternalistic protection afforded to children.
The War on Drugs has led to heroin overdoses because illegal goods have limited quality control. Brutality & murder in impoverished urban areas because people without access to police protection depend upon reprisal to maintain order. Brutality, murder, rape, kidnapping, terror & more in huge swaths of Mexico, all clearly the result of U.S. drug policy. And millions of harmless people denied their freedom in U.S. prisons, effectively state-sponsored partial murders because those people forfeit the bulk of their adult lives.
But, again, that’s merely empirical evidence. None of that contradicts the theoretical justification for outlawing drug use, the idea that some harm to adults is acceptable in order to protect children. Perhaps our legislators simply care about children’s well-being much more than I do.
(Except, right, they don’t care about children in Mexico. Or those living in our nation’s dangerous inner cities. Or those who grow up without access to their incarcerated parents. But, give our legislators a break! Empathy fatigue is real! They can’t be expected to maintain the same degree of concern for everyone. Shouldn’t they be commended that they at least care deeply about the well-being of privileged suburban children?)
It felt necessary to detail those arguments because they also provide the motivation for outlawing sex work.
The feminist argument resembles the supposition that people allowed to buy drugs will then behave unacceptably. The idea is that men who are allowed to purchase women’s bodies will devalue women in general. I’m skeptical, though. After decriminalization, most bodies will still not be for sale. No one would be forced to participate in the sex trade. And just because you can walk into a sparring gym and pay a boxing instructor to let you take some swings at him does not mean that people think it’s fair game to throw down some bills and punch whomever they like.
It’s true that we live in a very misogynistic culture. Some misogynists might feel empowered to talk & act even more crudely if they were legally allowed to purchase sex. But it’s not as though misogynists are currently unable to purchase sex. And our current system denies sex workers protection against bad actors — decriminalization would confer dignity and allow them to demand more respectful treatment from their clientele.
And there is a serious problem with the “increase the cost of participation in the sex trade to protect people from it” argument. A major reason why people need to be protected from joining the trade is that it is illegal. Decriminalization would reduce the dangers. And even though current laws against sex work increase the cost of participation, there are still many people willing to pay that cost. There are individuals who want to buy sex. There are desperate people who need money. Ironically, the laws against sex work even reduce the amount of money that the latter group can earn.
(Some economics in brief: demand for most goods is based on price. If price increases, demand goes down. For purchasers of illegal sex, the risk of being caught is an additional cost. Which means that in every transaction they are paying in both dollars and risk. If the legal risk were instead zero, the amount of dollars that buyers would be willing to pay for identical services would increase.)
This is where my personal qualms come in, by the way. I’m willing to believe that some people are genuinely willing to sell sex. I’ve spoken with several people who enjoy working as massage therapists, and to my mind some types of sex work differ in degree, not in kind, from massage. A professional uses practiced touch to confer physiological and psychological wellness.
The problem is that people who did not want to but had no other options might also sell sex.
I’m in favor of decriminalizing sex work, but I think that if we do decriminalize sex work but make no other changes to the world, the result will be evil. Women will continue to be hurt in ways resembling those documented by Lydia Cacho in her book Slavery, Inc. (The book is great — if you care about these issues, it’s well worth a read. Also, if somebody ever starts printing heroic human rights worker trading cards, I’d definitely nominate Cacho to appear in the first set.)
Without a concurrent effort to address poverty, decriminalizing sex work could reasonably be construed as coercive. The impoverished might well feel compelled to participate in order to survive. If people have extremely limited options, making one option more attractive does funnel people into participation. It wouldn’t be entirely against their will, but survival impetus means it wouldn’t be entirely voluntary either. Ironically, their near-forced participation would also reduce the amount that all those desperate people could earn from each unwanted act.
(The other side of price equilibrium is based on supply — if supply of a good is high, like if many hungry people have to sell sex to have enough money to eat, the price has to be lowered to move the whole quantity. Poverty-impelled participants would undermine each other’s wages.)
Part of why this is so crummy is that we have sufficient resources to fix this. The productivity gains from modern automation and agriculture mean we could probably provide all people with food, shelter, and basic utilities (water will get trickier as time goes on) for free. The rudiments of survival don’t cost that much relative to modern production capacity.
And a guarantee of subsistence would make the idea of decriminalized sex work much more palatable. The idea of sex being traded as commerce isn’t so problematic in and of itself — as I mentioned, I see it as being on the same continuum as legal massage… or mosh pits, which also provide paid access to human contact. The horrors come from people feeling pressured to sell sex in order to survive.
In my opinion, a guaranteed minimum standard of living is also the most practical form for reparations to take.
I really enjoyed Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article about reparations (“The Case for Reparations”). It wasn’t at all pedantic or abstract — which means that I was clearly not the intended audience — but I enjoyed it all the same. One of his main aims is to show that people alive today have been victimized by the long legacy of racially-motivated abuse in the United States. Which means reparations would be not only an acknowledgement of long-past wrongs, but would also serve to ameliorate very recent & ongoing harm.
In his article, however, Coates did not address who would pay or how reparations might be fairly distributed. To my mind those practical considerations are of utmost importance in deciding whether the idea is at all viable.
I think it is. I think that a global wealth tax used to fund a minimum standard of living for all people is plausible, philosophically justifiable, and would have meaningful economic & psychological consequences for the decedents of oppressed peoples.
I wrote about some of the underlying principles in my previous post about the creepy parallel between gene duplication and oppression — the idea that our cultural & technological heritage is the product of exploitation because subjugation of the world’s many allowed a free-riding few to pursue goals other than subsistence. This has rough equivalence to the way advancement comes about in evolution — gene duplication produces free-riding DNA sequences that are allowed to drift because the original copy takes care of required function.
But the basic idea behind using a wealth tax to fund reparations is even simpler: wealth begets wealth. Initial inequalities in distribution (which probably even existed amongst “egalitarian” hunter gatherers) will, over time, magnify into dramatic unfairness. Wealthy heirs earn far more by renting their property than our hardest workers possibly could via effort alone.
I’m not sure anyone still thinks that communism is a reasonable fix for this, though. As much as I dislike Ayn Rand’s writing (although it’s fascinating to me that many feminists and conservative Christians both like her books… this despite repeated depictions of Rand’s ideal men sexually assaulting her ideal women and Rand’s clear disdain for Christianity), I agree with some of her arguments against communism. Knowing that you can’t profit from your efforts saps motivation. Absolute equality undermines personal value. And it seems just plain strange to have your net worth instantly decrease whenever a stranger has a child.
More reasonable, to my mind, is a tax on total wealth. This would not devalue effort because it ignores income; the tax would be based on current holdings. Taxation at any amount less than the rental income rate would still leave that maxim “wealth begets wealth” untouched… the only change would be that wealth would beget slightly less wealth. (A reasonable rate of return on wealth right now, like if you buy some certificates of deposit, is about 3%. Historically 5% is standard, and the largest property holders are often able to attain rates of 8% – 12%. If you’d like to read a little more about this, you could check out my previous post on wealth tax, automation, & human trafficking.)
A global wealth tax would be philosophically justifiable as an acknowledgement that all current holdings can be traced back through time to violence and oppression. For instance, no one created land (this isn’t entirely true — China has been constructing islands, and you could argue that draining the weather-buffering swamps in Florida and Louisiana was akin to creating land — but for most places, though most of history, it’s true enough).
It’s pretty easy to see land entitlement as having resulted from violence. Humans migrated into new territory, killed off the dangerous animals that were there, then were murdered in turn by a new wave of human migrants, who were then murdered by new migrants, over and over until the conquerors were sufficiently powerful to defend their property and stop the cycle of theft.
Or there’s the case of the United States. Our current wealth reflects our long history as a global superpower, but that history began somewhere. First European settlers massacred the Native Americans. Our meteoric rise was then propelled by cotton. And how was the United States able to dominate the world’s cotton market?
Our nation’s rise as an economic superpower was due to the brutal exploitation of black laborers.
Murder of those who resisted their enslavement. Rape to propagate an imprisoned people.
Because wealth begets wealth, and because economic reparations were never paid, all current wealth in this country can be traced back to that initial evil. Our nation’s initial prosperity came from sin. Everyone who enjoys good fortune here today benefits from & is thereby marked by crimes whose reverberations have not ended & will not end on their own.
I’m not saying that no one did honest work later. Obviously hundreds of millions did. Your parents presumably did not oppress anyone in order to purchase their house.
But that doesn’t change the legacy. If they were lucky, your parents received a decent education — their schools’ funding did not materialize wholesale from the aether. They presumably received a loan to be able to purchase a home (the Coates reparations article has some excellent documentation for historic and contemporary harm perpetuated by both our nation’s banks & federal lending policies). The original inhabitants of the land on which that home was built were murdered. The national prosperity that makes that land more valuable than an equivalent parcel elsewhere was bled out of generations of slaves.
It’s too late to seek forgiveness for sins perpetuated against those who are now dead, but economic reparations could serve to make current wealth clean.
There is, of course, the question of who should benefit from reparations. History is sufficiently tangled that I don’t think any attempt at strict accounting of whose ancestors were harmed & how much would be fruitful. Nor do I think an accounting of that sort is necessary. In contemporary times, the most egregious harms result from our failure to provide for the children of the poor — in our country, not only does wealth perpetuate itself, we have policies that go a long way toward guaranteeing that poverty will perpetuate itself as well.
This could be ameliorated by providing all people with a minimum standard of living. Children can’t learn when they’re hungry. It wouldn’t cost much to offer all students a peanut butter & jelly sandwich (or a calorically-equivalent hypoallergenic meal) at the beginning of each school day. Instead we let them sit in classrooms with rumbling stomachs & agitated minds and chastise their teachers when they fail.
Children who work long hours to help their parents pay rent (please scroll to the bottom of this article and read the final 10 paragraphs — the rest is good too, but I’ve picked out the most heartbreaking section for you) can’t learn well either. Even children who simply stay awake worrying what’ll happen to their families are at a major disadvantage. If you’re worried about having enough money to survive, you can’t really think about anything else (feel free to check out Mani et al.’s “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function” if you haven’t seen it yet, or see this recent post).
If food & shelter & basic utilities were guaranteed, we’d cut down on those worries. Poor people would be given room to breathe and think and plan.
(Are you one of those people who likes numbers? Here is a tiny bit of math to support my claim that this is feasible. I’d say $500 per month per person is reasonable to provide food, shelter, and utilities — honestly, this amount comes close to cutting it in Bloomington IN, and that’s without any dedicated infrastructure for the project. For most of the globe, $500 might be a vast overestimate. With a world population of seven billion, that puts us at needing $3.5 trillion per year if all people wanted to take advantage of the crappy minimum offerings. Under a twentieth of the gross world product. And, regarding a wealth tax, it would take approximately a 1.5% tax on wealth holdings to fund that full amount. That’s well below the historical 5% rate of return for capital.)
This implementation wouldn’t explicitly target blacks. Maybe that’s a bad thing, because it wouldn’t make the apology aspect of reparations explicit. This nation, as a collective, has done wrong and should atone for it. But our nation’s blacks do suffer the slings of poverty more severely than other citizens (largely because we still have policies in place that ensure that they will), so a serious program to address poverty would benefit many who’ve inherited that legacy of mistreatment. And the impoverished masses in other countries generally reside in areas that were once (or are still) exploited by our world’s now-wealthy nations. Their plight reflects past theft of their resources.
And, getting back to sex work — many of the problems that will come from decriminalized sex work would not arise in a world with guaranteed subsistence.
People might feel compelled to sell sex against their wishes if the practice is decriminalized and they need money to survive but have no other way of obtaining it. Many of the current ails of sex workers result from their criminal status. But without addressing poverty, it is likely that sex workers will still be denied police protection because they’ll still be considered criminals. Instead of being criminals by virtue of being sex workers, they’ll be considered criminals because of immigration status. Impoverished people have long been trafficked to regions with decriminalized sex work and held hostage by the threat of fines, deportation, and reprisal against their families.
Which obviously sounds grim. But I don’t think those are inherent consequences of decriminalized sex work. Those are the consequences of impoverished desperation amongst people with few options. Similar economic motivations underlie participation in unethical organ markets (which I wrote about for my first post to this website).
Still, I’d like to thank Amnesty International. Their advocacy for decriminalization is sorely needed. But I expect to hear many more horror stories akin to those documented in Cacho’s book unless we make a sincere effort to combat poverty. Micro-loans or not-quite-enough-to-live-on food allotments are not going to cut it. People need to know that they’ll at least survive if something goes wrong.
Also, how did I type up this whole post without including the Balzac epigraph from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather? I’ll include it here — please pretend you read it earlier, to punctuate any of the above paragraphs where it would’ve been appropriate.
“Behind every great fortune there is a crime.”