October 26, 2009

Rhode Island as Prostitution Satellite

Justin Katz

You may have noticed that "a compromise bill" has emerged on the prostitution issue that may actually have a shot at passage, this week. In response, A largely anonymous Web site (with the exception of Marc Doughty), Citizens Against Criminalization, has gone live (notably named in parallel fashion to Donna Hughes's Citizens Against Trafficking).

Look, I'm not without sympathy for the libertarian argument, on this one, honestly, but I don't believe the sale of sex to be a right. That is, a state is within bounds to make such financial transactions illegal, and I support doing so for cultural reasons, but even more so for the image and society that Rhode Island will build by explicitly accepting the whore trade. Since illegality is the case pretty much from sea to shining sea, across the United States, this argument, from the anti-criminalization site's FAQ is pretty much negated:

Q. What about organized crime? I heard that these places are run by the mafia. A. Surely one would come to this conclusion if one visited other parts of the country. Luckily, because sex work is not illegal in Rhode Island, nobody needs to be 'paid off' in order to carry on business below the radar of the authorities. Organized crime has no place and no purpose when business is carried out legally, as it is in Rhode Island. Investigations into Rhode Island's spas by law enforcement have showed no evidence of corruption.

Rhode Island simply won't become a beacon of a "clean" sex industry simply because within its very narrow borders the transactions can be conducted openly. We will become the Prostitution State, and the social implications of that status will be defined by the illegality of prostitution everywhere else. "Legitimate" businesses aren't going to isolate themselves from the criminal enterprises elsewhere (even if they set up some degree of technical insulation).

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There is one similarity to the abortion issue that you don't mention. People don't want to have their tax dollars to pay for abortions, I don't want my tax dollars to go to putting these women in prison. They can say whatever they like about going after everyone, but that hasn't even happened with street prostitution. Over 200 women went to prison last year, and not one man. How can I support a law that will be applied with such gender bias? Add to that the racial bias of only arresting Asian women.

Posted by: Tara at October 26, 2009 7:25 PM

"Look, I'm not without sympathy for the libertarian argument, on this one, honestly, but I don't believe the sale of sex to be a positive right."

Not to get caught up in semantics, but that's not what a positive right is. I absolutely do not believe in positive rights, but I believe in legalizing prostitution. Positive rights are things that the government must affirmatively do for you or provide you with, like public housing or food stamps. Prostitution would be a negative right, like free speech, a prohibition on restrictive action from government.

On another note, I listened to most of the Matt Allen show tonight on this same topic. A number of people wrote to him or called in with very specific arguments and reasoning supporting legalization of prostitution. I genuinely listened out of intellectual curiosity for anything resembling a reasoned argument on Matt's part or any of the callers who supported him on why it should be illegal. Not once did he or they even attempt to give one. It was all ad hominem insulting of the women, putting them down as lowlives that deserve to be punished (because he says so, that's why), appeals to popularity (hey, all the other states do it so it must be right), and bare assertions about the immorality of it. Maybe there are good reasons for making it illegal, but I sure didn't hear them tonight.

Posted by: Dan at October 26, 2009 10:47 PM


I reached for a phrase on the fly and grabbed the wrong one. Thanks for the correction.

Posted by: Justin Katz at October 27, 2009 5:29 AM

If everyone can just stop the morality arguments for two minutes,and think of the practical results,something should be apparent.
I like less wasteful government spending.I think most people on this blog would agree.
Incarcerating women who engage in off-street prostitution is very expensive.It takes prison space that could be better used for dangerous individuals.The state will,in many cases,be put on the hook financially to support the children of incarcerated women.
If you're conservative,this doesn't make a lot of sense for a "crime"that is non violent in nature,and please spare me the crap about spreading STD's.
STD's are mainly spread by ordinary people being careless.Most prostitutes who aren't servicing drive up traffic on the street take precautions.
This is very similar to the ridiculous mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.The prison is jammed with long term inmates who don't pose a great danger to the general public.Drug dealer one never made a living for a minute without hordes of willing customers.If anyone here could've spent the nine years in narcotics enforcement that I did,they'd likely reach the same conclusion.
Meanwhile,sexual prdators including pedophiles,manage to get released in too little time.THOSE are the people I'm willing to see my tax dollars spent on to keep locked down until they're too old to function.
I'm not here on earth to preach to anyone else about what sin they commit by engaging in a behavior that is looked down upon by a lot of people.I'm way too burdened by my own shortcomings for that.
My attitude is that the government should spend money and time on tracking down and neutralizing those people who commit violent offenses and serious property crime.
By the way,my previous comments on drug offenders related to people on the lower end of the spectrum.Major traffickers are indeed dangerous to society,prticularly when they resort to frequent violence to achieve their ends.

Posted by: joe bernstein at October 27, 2009 6:08 AM

"Not to get caught up in semantics, but that's not what a positive right is. I absolutely do not believe in positive rights, but I believe in legalizing prostitution."

Again on semantics, this debate is not about "legalizing" anything. Everything is legal until it's criminalized. Indoor prostitution is currently legal, so there's nothing here to "legalize". Some of us just don't want it criminalized.

Posted by: Patrick at October 27, 2009 8:00 AM

In legal philosophy there are two types of crimes, those that are "malum in se" and those that are "mulum prohibitum". Meaning those that are "evil in themselves" (stealing) and those that are evil becuase they break a law (illegal parking).

Although the sale of sex may be tawdry and perhaps demeaning, I cannot see the inate evil in it.

By elimination, it must be malum prohibitum. We then must ask when and how did it become illegal. I don't have an answer for this, but assume that it must have become illegal for cultural/moral reasons. Well, it appears that morals and culture have changed, who has heard of an unmarried couple being arrested for "fornication" lately? We live in an era when sex may be "given away". I suppose the question becomes "if you can give it away, why can't you sell it"? I find that hard to answer.

As to the call to "regulate" it, I am reminded of "Prohibition". When Prohibition was overturned, we found ourselves unable to just walk away from it. We felt some need, I suppose as a compromise, to regulate hours of operation and the number of liquor licenses an area could have. We created commissions to oversee liquor sales, discriminated between establishments that served food and those that did not, etc. We might ask if that was really necessary.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at October 27, 2009 9:45 AM

Also interesting in addtion to the cost of prison, police, and trials is the economic impact of shutting these businesses down. Last year when MA made dog racing illegal (also on grounds of morals) the state was sued by people in that industry. When sex for sale becomes illegal will those who are working sue the state for loss of income as the people who were working in the dog racing industry did in MA. Will RI have to pay for loss of wages from making a legal business illegal, will they pay relocating fees for women who want to move to Nevada because RI now made thier industry illegal? It will be interesting to see how the public will react to a lawsuit from these women.

Posted by: Tara at October 27, 2009 10:43 AM

But the perception of having common-sense laws that model after the rest of the civilized world puts us at just as much (or more) at an advantage as being 'different' puts us at a disadvantage.

We should be promoting this, along with our super-low female incarceration rate, as a sign that Rhode Island is a haven for rational criminal justice in an otherwise 'crime obsessed' country.

Instead of saying "Can you believe how prostitution is legal in Rhode Island as long as it's indoors?" we should be saying "We have found an inexpensive way to almost completely eliminate the most harmful forms of prostitution, while providing our sex workers with the ability to call on law enforcement when abuses do occur."

As for our current situation and 'clean' industry... There are 50 states with Asian Massage Parlors, prostitutes, and escorts. The reason they can stay open? They pay off police with money and sex, sometimes via the mafia. The truth behind criminalizing a market that has such strong demand is that it creates the incentive to enslave, pay off the mafia and police, and hire abusive pimps. Trust me, the people running the parlors now aren't making payments to the mafia, because the mafia serves them no purpose. They give the police what they want when they're asked for FOP donations because they think it will lower their chances of getting illegally busted. I can only imagine what that will evolve into under criminalization.

Posted by: mangeek at October 27, 2009 11:35 AM
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