Why is prostitution illegal?

The law, lawyers, and the court.
March 10 2008 7:12 PM

Why Is Prostitution Illegal?

The oldest question about the oldest profession.

Read more of Slate's coverage of the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal. Emily Bazelon was online on March 13 to chat with readers about this article; read the transcript.

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According to this Web site  for the Women's Justice Center, Sweden's way of doing things is a big success. "In the capital city of Stockholm the number of women in street prostitution has been reduced by two thirds, and the number of johns has been reduced by 80%." Trafficking is reportedly down to 200 to 400 girls and women a year, compared with 15,000 to 17,000 in nearby Finland. Max Waltman, a doctoral candidate in Stockholm who is studying the country's prostitution laws, says that those stats hold up. He also said the police are actually going after the johns as ordered: In 2006, more than 150 were convicted and fined. (That might not sound like many, but then Sweden has a population of only 9 million.)

For feminists like MacKinnon (with whom Waltman works), this sure looks like the solution: Go after the men! Take down Eliot Spitzer and leave the call girls alone! On the other hand, the group SANS, for Sex Workers and Allies Network in Sweden, doesn't like the 1999 law. The network says it has brought more dangerous clients and more unsafe sex, rather than the other way around. Waltman says that there's a lot of debate in Sweden because some people inside and outside the industry still want straight-out legalization but that no systematic studies have shown that the law has made sex work worse or riskier.

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In the end, this seems like the most salient question: Forget Eliot Spitzer. Shouldn't prostitution laws come down to working conditions—and the laws that would lead to better ones for sex workers? According to a recent working paper (PDF) by economist Steven Levitt and sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh *, despite all the fighting and all the preaching, we apparently don't know that much about the specifics of the structure of the sex market—how much prostitutes make on average, how many tricks they turn a year, how frequently they and their pimps and johns actually get arrested.

To start filling in the gap, Levitt and Venkatesh looked at data from the Chicago Police Department. They found that women working the streets were making $27 an hour but less than $20,000 a year (they don't log a lot of hours). The risks of the trade were serious: "an annual average of a dozen incidents of violence and 300 instances of unprotected sex." There was also a "surprisingly high prevalence of police officers demanding sex from prostitutes in return for avoiding arrest." That looks like another argument against the bans on prostitution—presumably women wouldn't be caught in this particular trap if they weren't worried about going to jail in the first place. Levitt and Venkatesh also offer up this statistic: Prostitutes get arrested about once per 450 tricks, and johns even less frequently. Two lessons here: 1) A law that isn't being enforced much may not be worth having; and 2) Eliot Spitzer looks really, really unlucky.

Correction, March 11:The original sentence incorrectly identified Sudhir Venkatesh as an anthropologist. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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