Prohibition will work great injury to the cause of temperance. It is a species of intemperance within itself, for it goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man’s appetite by legislation, and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes. A Prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded. – Abraham Lincoln
We say it over and over and over again; most of the problems deriving from prostitution only exist due to criminalization, or else are magnified by it. No business, no work, in fact no human interaction whatsoever, is completely frictionless; the possibility of mistakes, misunderstandings, missteps and malice exist no matter how legal, respectable and transparent the transaction. But when the State criminalizes a normal, consensual and common form of human interaction it is pushed into the shadows; solid information on the practice becomes difficult to obtain, unethical or evil people can infiltrate the business and use it as a cloak for predatory behaviors, and those who are victimized by such people have little recourse because if they speak up they are likely to be prosecuted by the state as criminals themselves. My readers are certainly familiar with the increased danger to prostitutes which derives from criminalization; the subject comes up in this column several times a month and is currently the subject of court proceedings in Canada. But today I’d like to examine two items which illustrate a few problems which affect (in the first item) clients and (in the second item) the general public.
The following is paraphrased from a story which appeared in The State Journal-Register of Springfield, Illinois on June 13th:
Stephanie Leifheit-Wilson (28) of Springfield pled guilty to theft and extorting more than $40,000 from a lawyer (not named in the story) who says he paid her and her mother, Joyce A. Stuebinger (45), to prevent them from disclosing photos of him in a sexually compromising situation. Wilson and Stuebinger (whose trial was scheduled for June 20th) claim to have seen pictures of the lawyer having sex with a girl who is 13 or 14.
Police got involved at 4:30 AM on February 16th, when the pair showed up at the lawyer’s home in a taxicab; the lawyer’s wife came to the door, but refused to let them in, and Wilson responded by shouting at her “I will go to the bar with the pictures and get him disbarred, you stupid bitch.” The wife called police, who arrested both women; she told the police a woman had called her home constantly in the previous months, repeatedly claiming she had pictures of the lawyer with a 14-year-old girl. Police seized a camera and two cell phones from the women, but Springfield Police Chief Mark Gleason claims that detectives have not looked at any images on the devices. Gleason says he has “discussed” the possibility of obtaining a search warrant with the state attorney’s office; “Something happened, because he was paying this money,” he said. But the State’s Attorney, John Milhiser, would not say whether he plans to seek a search warrant.
The lawyer told police that last summer he had sex with a prostitute he believed to be 18 or 19, but Stuebinger was hiding in the bathroom and occasionally opened the door during the session, possibly to take photos. Stuebinger and Wilson began demanding money soon afterward; he eventually paid Stuebinger about $37,700 and Wilson $4,620. Stuebinger threatened to tell his wife about the prostitute, which would have jeopardized his marriage. “I could not let that happen to her or my family,” the lawyer said in a written statement. “I have had a successful law practice…and I believe I enjoy a very good reputation among my fellow lawyers and have the trust and confidence of my clients and I could not jeopardize that as well.” Both Stuebinger and Wilson have criminal histories of theft and forgery.
Now, a number of things in this story would remain unchanged even if our profession were decriminalized; adultery is legal, but a blackmail threat involving a non-paid sexual encounter might’ve been just as threatening to the lawyer’s marriage and reputation. And any man foolish enough to ignore a closed bathroom door (not to mention continuing to plug away once that door was opened even once) was bound to get himself into some kind of trouble sooner or later; even if prostitution were legal underage prostitution wouldn’t be, and since he clearly didn’t bother with references he couldn’t have know the difference. However, if our trade were not underground there would be far fewer criminals masquerading as honest whores, because most clients are far more cautious than this one and their scheme would therefore be less likely to produce results. Also, if there were legal, reputable brothels and escort services gentlemen with reputations to worry about might be far more likely to patronize them than to pick up bargain-basement hookers of questionable age and ethics (or to send creepy text messages to amateurs, for that matter). And though a man caught with a legal prostitute might still have to deal with an irate wife, he would not have to worry about the prospect of losing his professional license or being “investigated” by sleazy cops who have already decided he’s guilty of “something” from the very start.
Approximately 100,000 visitors came to Denver, Colorado and Minneapolis, Minnesota to attend the 2008 Democratic and Republican National Conventions. Economic theory suggests that men in transit can shift demand for commercial sex work. We estimate the responsiveness of labor supply to these two conventions, focusing on a previously neglected but increasingly important segment of the prostitution market: indoor sex workers who advertise on the Internet. Using a differences-in-differences estimator of prostitution advertisements posted on a major classified ads website, we find that the conventions caused a 29-44 percent increase in advertisements in Minneapolis and a 47-77 percent increase in Denver. Given the key role prostitution plays in the transmission of STIs, these results imply that focusing public health resources on men in transit may be beneficial.
The amount of misinformation contained in this short paragraph is astonishing. I’m going to let the phrase “increasingly important segment of the prostitution market” slide because though it seems to imply that the authors think indoor workers used to be a minority, it doesn’t actually say that; it’s possible that they understand that streetwalkers are a minority and are merely referring to the growth of internet advertising. But what is clear is that these scholarly gentlemen have bought into the “gypsy hordes of hookers” mythology, transferring it from major sporting events to political conventions and supporting the claim by misinterpreting the significance of Backpage or Craigslist ads. The idea that the number of such ads can be correlated to the number of whores is itself a fallacy of the sort those familiar with the Schapiro Group’s shady methodology may recognize, since it pretends that each ad leads to one unique prostitute (a dubious possibility at best, even if one ignores fake ads placed by police). Even if that assumption were true, the notion that an increase in the number of ads directly corresponds to an increase in the number of available whores would still be false; since visitors don’t know the local escort boards, local girls might take out new and more highly-visible ads to attract their attention. But this boner, important as it is, pales into insignificance beside the claim that prostitution plays a “key role…in the transmission of STIs”; as I reported in Friday’s column, only 0.4% of STIs in the United States are related to escorts, the group specifically targeted by this study; the effect of conventions on STD transmission which could be ascertained by this methodology is therefore roughly approximate to zero.
What does this have to do with decriminalization, you may ask? It is precisely because our profession has been forced underground that myths of nomadic flocks of plague-bearing escorts can be taken seriously by even careless scholars such as these gentlemen. Had they taken the trouble to do any cross-disciplinary research, they would have discovered the work of numerous scholars who could have told them their “theory” was all wet. But it isn’t unusual for lazy academics to neglect relatively obscure research outside their own disciplines, and the reason prostitution research is obscure is because the subject is taboo and difficult to acquire grants for unless the “researcher” has a demonstrated anti-whore bias which can be counted on to prejudice her work. Criminalization contributes to both the dissemination of misinformation and the obstruction of proper research, and that affects our entire society.