Mark Draughn blogs and tweets as Windypundit, and has been reading this blog for at least five years (and maybe more). He’s a staunch ally and has written some good pro-sex work articles on his own blog in the past, so naturally I had to ask him to do one for me sooner or later.
Anyone who follows sex work issues has probably seen reports claiming that prostitution hurts the economy. Sometimes the accuracy of these claims depends on subtle issues of data and methodology, but often you can deconstruct these reports by watching out for a few basic economic issues. (A disclaimer: I’m not a trained economist. I like to think that I’m an amateur economist the same way some people are amateur astronomers — I lack the breadth and depth of the professionals, but I pay attention to what they’re doing, and I try not to say anything that will make people stupider.) The big problem with this narrative is that anti-prostitution crusaders use it to buttress the argument that prostitution is a bad thing that must be stopped, yet when you look at how they’re calculating the costs of prostitution, it turns out they’re implicitly assuming that prostitution is a bad thing that must be stopped.
Thus the first thing to note when you see one of these reports is that they almost never mention the economic benefits of prostitution. Anti-prostitution crusaders would no doubt object to the very idea that there are benefits of prostitution, but if you begin your analysis by assuming away all benefits of prostitution, then of course your analysis will show that prostitution hurts the economy. Sneaking your preferred answer into the calculation is no way to reach an honest conclusion. Economically speaking, we know the sex trade has benefits for the participants because they keep doing it. One of the foundational assumptions of economics is that people are smart enough to make choices that will improve their lives. Obviously that isn’t literally true in all cases — people make mistakes — but it’s close enough, because people making choices about their own lives (a) can understand their situation better than anyone else, and (b) have the most to lose from deciding unwisely. Most people don’t make perfect decisions, but it’s hard to see how distant cops, politicians, and do-gooders could make better decisions for thousands of people they barely know.
Actually, these reports sometimes do mention the benefits of prostitution without realizing it, usually when emphasizing the size of the “prostitution problem”. Prostitution is a service produced by sex workers and consumed by clients. We know prostitution provides benefits for clients because they are willing to pay money for it, and we know the value of those benefits must be at least as large as the payment, otherwise clients would not agree to the price. Therefore, when a “cost of prostitution” story says men are spending billions of dollars on sex workers, we can safely assume that sex workers must be producing billions of dollars of valuable sexual services for the economy. (That kind of thinking may sound strange if you’re not used to it, but it’s the same reasoning economists use for every consumer product in the economy. If people willingly buy it, it must be worth at least what they’re paying.) The benefits don’t all go to the clients, however, because as long as sex workers are free to refuse services, they can bargain for a share of the benefits in the form of payment. Since sex workers are assumed to be smart enough to make choices that improve their lives, we know they wouldn’t participate in commercial sex unless they received benefits that exceeded their costs.
The assumption that participants receive a net benefit allows us to take a shortcut when calculating the costs of prostitution to the economy: We can omit the benefits that participants receive from prostitution as long as we balance the account by omitting the costs as well. Or to put it the other way around, if a report fails to include the benefits of sex work to participants, then it should not include any of the costs to participants either. If you find such unbalanced costs in a report, you can ignore them. This leaves one major set of costs remaining: The costs of prostitution that are borne by non-participants. These are almost always some kind of government expense, for which the burden ultimately falls on taxpayers. For example, if sex workers are more likely to receive financial assistance from government anti-poverty programs, then the additional costs of those programs fall on taxpayers, and they are genuine costs of prostitution. Even for these legitimate costs, however, there are a few things to watch out for:
- Only excess costs count. If the average sex worker costs some program $5000, we can’t count it as a cost of prostitution without first subtracting the baseline per-person cost of non-sex-workers. If that’s $3000, then the excess cost of prostitution is only $2000 per sex worker.
- Co-factors matter. If women tend to have higher average medical costs than men, then sex workers will have higher average medical costs than the general population simply because sex workers are more likely to be women. You have to subtract out the excess cost of being women to get the true excess cost of being sex workers.
- Causality matters. If a study discovers that sex workers have disproportionately poor health, leading to higher medical costs, that doesn’t tell us if they have health problems because they are sex workers, or if they are sex workers because they have health problems. If the latter, then their medical costs are not attributable to sex work.
Much of this can be sorted out with statistics and good data, but not everybody does the hard work. For all these costs, my guess is that sex workers already pay more than enough taxes to cover the costs they impose on society, and they’d pay even more if sex work was decriminalized. I doubt that sex workers are nearly as much of a burden on society as, say, ethanol producers, auto manufacturers, or Amtrak.
That brings me to the last category of government expenses, for which sex workers shouldn’t owe a frickin’ dime. I’m talking about the cost of fighting prostitution, which can includes things like the costs of arresting and jailing sex workers as well as the cost of taking care of a sex worker’s children while she’s locked up. If we were talking about crimes such as murder, the costs of catching criminals and isolating them from society would be part of the cost of their crimes, as would the cost of caring for their families while they are in prison. With sex work, however, those costs only materialize if we actually decide to fight prostitution by treating it as a crime, but making that decision is the whole reason we are talking about the economic costs in the first place. It doesn’t make sense to argue that we should fight prostitution because of costs that only arise because we are fighting prostitution. Furthermore, although I said earlier that we can ignore costs of prostitution borne by sex workers, that doesn’t apply to the heavy non-financial costs paid by sex workers who are imprisoned or who lose their children after being arrested. Nor does it apply to the violent costs borne by sex workers who are attacked or killed in situations which would be avoidable if they could operate in the open and depend on the police for protection. Not only should these costs not be held against sex workers, but they are the basis of a strong argument that decriminalizing prostitution would reduce economic costs.
Finally, many readers of this blog are sex workers or are otherwise familiar with the sex trade. This means you are in a good position to answer a very important question about any “cost of prostitution” analysis: Do the descriptions of sex work match what you see? Much of the commercial sex industry operates in hiding, which leads to bad information about what really happens when people trade sex for money. Analyses that depend on false assumptions — that most prostitutes start as children or that street prostitution is the most common form — are likely to reach poor conclusions. In particular, many of my points — the benefits of prostitution, the reasons to ignore costs borne by sex workers, the argument that law enforcement costs favor decriminalization — depend on the crucial assumption that sex workers have agency to chose the sex trade. At a time when we are becoming more accepting of people’s choices in recreational drugs and (non-paying) sex partners, it would be a shame if we allowed sensationalized claims of sex trafficking to undermine the agency of sex workers and cast doubts on the benefits of sex work.