Elizabeth Nolan Brown on the War on Sex Workers

It seems like an ironclad law that whenever government declares war on an illicit activity, the problem gets worse. Elizabeth Nolan Brown is an award-winning journalist and Reason editor who writes about how hysteria around human trafficking has created a “War on Sex Workers” to complement the failed Wars on Drugs, Poverty, and Terror. The co-founder of Feminists for Liberty, she belongs to the wave of feminism that believes women are capable of freely choosing to engage in the world’s oldest occupation, and should be permitted to do so without harassment.

Before clutching your pearls, put on your Bastiat-hat for a moment and consider the unseen effects of criminalizing prostitution. Where it is illegal, women who would otherwise voluntarily become sex workers face the possibility of being abused by their clients with no recourse to law enforcement. Meanwhile, those who are being trafficked will continue to meet an inevitable black market demand.

Bastiat says, “Train yourself to look not just at the seen, but the unseen.”

If Bastiat isn’t your cup of tea, perhaps you’ll listen to moral theologians from Augustine to Aquinas who have supported legalized prostitution. Many countries operate regulated brothels to protect workers, but in our Puritan-founded country, we often fail to distinguish between the clear crime of sex trafficking and the victimless crime of voluntary prostitution. Historically, U.S. law enforcement has conflated the two in order scare the public into supporting a ban on prostitution.

Perspective | Why laws to fight sex trafficking often backfire

Nolan Brown believes the latest hysteria spawned from Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft — if it results in tougher crackdowns on prostitutes — will harm innocent women and create an unnecessary bogeyman. She also has a message for an easily-excited media audience: Stop Letting People Lie to You About Hate Crime and Human Trafficking Spikes. The increase in reported sex trafficking cases (like hate crimes), comes from flawed data and reporting. There is no epidemic, and the hysteria is bringing more and more non-trafficked sex workers into the legal system’s dragnet.

Less hysterically, The Federalist’s David Marcus argues that “keeping government out of the bedroom” shouldn’t apply to commercial transactions. Marcus says that legalization would remove the social stigma, which in turn would make the industry more profitable, widespread, and entrenched.

But does legalized prostitution increase human traffickings? Here, a question of principle turns into an empirical puzzle over which there is some disagreement. Certainly, stark differences between jurisdictions create islands of legalization and incentives for traffickers to transport women across borders like commodities, but statistics on sex trafficking are notoriously unreliable. Advocacy groups often inflate figures to attract more money from the government, and law enforcement is rewarded for each “perp” they bring to justice. Brown has documented cases in which aggressive policing and media sensationalism have portrayed what turn out to be small, voluntary prostitution rings as major organized human-trafficking schemes.

My take: Everyone wants to pose as the Knight in Shining Armor who rescues women from being trafficked, including President Trump — who is using the issue as a talking point for his Wall. There are no perfect solutions in an unjust world, but a rational society might start by acknowledging that not all sex workers are victims. Even if you oppose prostitution, government crackdowns are no substitute for cultural change. David Marcus may have his heart in the right place, but he fails to consider how the market might regulate liaisons between consenting adults, while keeping questions of morals in the cultural arena and only questions of coercion in the hands of law enforcement.

Tune in to my conversation with Liz and let me know what you think.

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