A hullaballoo arose yesterday with an FBI raid that shut down the personals website Backpage.com. Backpage is (was?) one of a number of sites where individuals posted personal ads offering goods and services. Somewhat notoriously, prostitution was one such service offered there. While the actual reasons for the raid were initially kept from the public, one lament over its shut-down has prompted much discussion in social media. This being 2018, of course, that discussion is wrapped up in hyperbole and zero-to-one-hundred outrage – on both sides of the issue.

This makes now as good a time as any to revisit the issues of sex work and human trafficking. And, specifically, to (again) deconstruct and rebut the attempts to conflate these two distinct matters into one.

Several years back, I called attention to the “rebranding” of prostitution and the popularization of the phrase “human trafficking.” I also reviewed how feminism had morphed from a movement about empowerment into one that celebrated victimhood. More recently, I reviewed an effort to decriminalize prostitution in California, as a matter of individual (and, specifically, women’s) rights, and how major human rights organizations like Amnesty International averred that decriminalization would be the best approach to reducing trafficking and protecting sex workers.

Of late, however, things have been moving in a bad direction for sex workers and their liberty. Recently, the government enacted legislation that weakened protections that Internet providers of places where people could interact to exchange goods and services (such as Backpage and Craigslist) had against being held liable or complicit in illegal activity engaged by individuals posting on their sites. Many worry that this new legislation will do far more harm than good, forcing sex trade further underground, undermining the independence of sex workers (leaving them more vulnerable to pimps and the like) and making it harder for law enforcement to find the bad guys.

By “bad guys,” I mean the actual human traffickers. First, lets acknowledge that illegal prostitution occurs (and is, in fact, widespread). In this sex-for-money underworld, there are those who sell willingly, and there are those who are being forced to sell. The former includes many porn stars (many of whom do porn for the increased billable rates their fame garners) and other fully-empowered women (and men, for that matter). These individuals aren’t being coerced, and to label them victims of human trafficking is to dangerously dilute the phrase. The latter are the real victims, but they constitute only a small percentage of the total sex work industry. While numbers are difficult to find (especially since many sources are deeply partisan and corrupt the definition of terms to enhance their desired conclusion), initial searches suggest that the percentage of sex workers who are actual victims of coercion is in the low single digits.

Thus, a sex trafficking bill that doesn’t distinguish between the voluntary and the coerced is going to affect a whole lot of people who are doing what they want to do.

Even if we allow that a “nuke ’em all” approach that inflicts 95+% collateral damage is warranted, third-party liability only accomplishes two things: it shunts the responsibility for enforcement off the government’s (professional) agents and onto the private sector, where it can simply be shirked by shutting down all personals, and drives sex work underground, making it that much harder for law enforcement to investigate and monitor. Plus, the “nuke ’em all” approach means that law enforcement will be tasked with investigating the consensual as well, wasting some of the (always) finite resources they have for their work. Here, it’s worth noting that subsequent reporting revealed that none of the 93 charges leveled against Backpage and its owner concerned human trafficking.

The reality that is hard for some to accept is that prostitution will always exist. It has existed throughout human history, in every culture, and even in nations that execute prostitutes, which means it’s certain that no laws passed in America will ever succeed in ceasing the practice. Many find it immoral. Some find it immoral but engage in it anyway. But, most importantly, some do not. What they do, as adults, of their own free will, behind closed doors, is no one’s business but their own. Those who find it immoral are not affected by it.

There are also the twin realities that what is illegal in private is made legal by the presence of a video camera and the subsequent selling of a recording, and that a woman (or man) can exchange sex for expensive dinners and gifts, provided such are exchanged within the pretense of a date or relationship. The line between legal and illegal exchange of sex-for-compensation is somewhat arbitrary.

Prohibition – of any variety – doesn’t work. People will do what they will do. Yes, it’s desirable that society protect those of its citizens (herein: sex workers) from predators and coercive exploiters, and yes, it’s vital that society protect minors, who by definition cannot consent, from the same. As to the former, activities engaged in the light of day, with full legality and all the same legal protections afforded to the rest of the working populace, and without the fear of prosecution muting the ability of sex workers to go to the police, will be far safer and more productive than those conducted in the face of prohibition and the fear of arrest. Advancing technology (pagers, cell phones, the Internet) enabled sex workers to connect with potential clients far more easily, reducing or eliminating the need for potentially coercive intermediaries. Legislation that deprives sex workers of those venues will not make them simply throw their hands up and quit the business.

Amnesty International is right. It’s past time governments stop trying to ban the unbannable. Moralists should understand that permitting is not condoning, and should come to terms with the fact that the millennia-old desire to stamp out behavior they don’t like is doing more harm than good.

One Norwegian prostitute summed up the dilemma they face:

If a customer is bad you need to manage it yourself to the end. You only call the police if you think you are going to die. If you call the police, you lose everything.

I’ve heard the argument that we should decriminalize the sale of sex, but leave the purchase illegal, so that johns can be prosecuted. All that’ll do is incentivize a bad actor or a transaction gone even slightly wrong towards the same sort of violence and coercion that is currently the bane of those in the trade. Nibbling and half-measures aren’t going to make things better, and they’ll leave in place the same dilution of resources that hamper pursuit of actual human traffickers and those who exploit minors.

Again, for those that are made uncomfortable by the idea of legalizing prostitution: permitting is not condoning. I absolutely loathe witnessing or being around smoking (of anything) but I don’t think it should be illegal (for adults – we must always distinguish between consensual and coercive, and between adults and minors). We will accomplish far more in terms of protecting the vulnerable if they feel they can turn to society’s legal structures for protection and relief. AND, we will be able to better pursue the animals who enslave others if we’re not distracted by the much larger population of willing, adult sex workers. Indeed, it’s very likely that a fully legal sex trade would go a long way to reducing trafficking and coercion of minors.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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