Jimmy Carter's Unpersuasive Case Against Legalizing Prostitution
By David Henderson
In “To curb prostitution, punish those who buy sex rather than those who sell it,” Washington Post, May 31, former president Jimmy Carter advocates what the title says.
His case is unpersuasive. By his case, I mean his case against legalization. I don’t mean his case that the government should punish those who buy sex rather than those who sell it. I don’t have a prior view on which is a more effective way to discourage prostitution. A punishment is like a very crude tax. So in advocating punishment on those who buy sex and not on those who sell it, Carter is advocating, in a sense, getting rid of the crude tax on prostitutes and imposing a crude tax on buyers of prostitutes’ services. There’s a whole, well-established literature in economics that says that for a given size tax, it doesn’t matter whom the government imposes it on. The relative burden is borne by the buyers and sellers according to their elasticities of supply and demand. I would bet, though I don’t know, that the elasticity of supply of prostitutes’ services is relatively high and that the elasticity of demand is relatively low. If that’s so, then most of the burden of the crude tax would be borne by buyers rather than sellers, independent of where it is placed.
But that tax-type analysis assumes that the government can just as easily impose the tax on buyers as on sellers. In fact, there’s a reason to think that that assumption is false, and it has to do with specialization. Most prostitutes, I suspect, are in the business more or less full time and most customers, again I suspect, are not full-time customers. So a government that wants to crack down on prostitution will be more successful going after the smaller number of, and more easily identifiable, sellers than going after the much more dispersed buyers. I’m guessing also that governments figured this out long ago, and that is why, until recently, virtually all the enforcement has been against sellers.
There is one very big hedge to my argument directly above. One way to impose a very heavy “tax” on buyers, that doesn’t take a lot of effort by government, is to publicize the buyers. The various “pillars of the community” who buy sex would face a very high implicit tax. This, I also suspect, is why some governments are moving in this direction.
But back to the point I really want to contend with Carter on: his casual and unpersuasive case against legalizing prostitution. I’ll quote all the sections where he discusses that issue, and respond to each.
Some assert that this “profession” can be empowering and that legalizing and regulating all aspects of prostitution will mitigate the harm that accompanies it. But I cannot accept a policy prescription that codifies such a pernicious form of violence against women. Normalizing the act of buying sex also debases men by assuming that they are entitled to access women’s bodies for sexual gratification. If paying for sex is normalized, then every young boy will learn that women and girls are commodities to be bought and sold.
Notice that in his first sentence above, Carter correctly states the argument that many of us who advocate legalizing prostitution have made. Various people have pointed out that when you legalize it, you actually reduce the role of pimps because women and girls would know that when they get raped, or simply not paid, they have legal recourse. They have also pointed out that legalized prostitution is generally safer than illegal prostitution because when prostitution is legal, brand names and reputation are easier to establish.
Interestingly, Carter does not attempt to refute these claims. He simply changes the subject. He says, “But I cannot accept a policy prescription that codifies such a pernicious form of violence against women.” Put aside the fact that what Jimmy Carter can or can’t accept should have zero effect on policy. But the policy prescription is not to codify violence against women: it’s to legalize prostitution. Carter cheats. The only way his statement makes sense is if sex that’s paid for is violent. But that’s just a sneaky underhanded redefinition of violence. (I put aside here the fact that some buyers of prostitutes’ services actually are paying to be violent to women. If the women want that, and know that that’s what’s being demanded, then the violence is like the violence in a boxing match where the opponents are unevenly matched. The key is that the woman accepts the violence. If she doesn’t agree to be treated violently, then the violent man is simply committing assault.)
Carter then says, “Normalizing the act of buying sex also debases men by assuming that they are entitled to access women’s bodies for sexual gratification.” I think he doesn’t understand voluntary transactions. The men are not entitled at all. The very essence of a free exchange is that neither side is entitled and that they come to a mutual agreement. As for debasing men, he could well be right. But should that be an argument for throwing the men in prison? I think that would debase them even more.
Carter then writes, “If paying for sex is normalized, then every young boy will learn that women and girls are commodities to be bought and sold.” Notice the inaccurate language to bias the reader in his direction. Legalizing prostitution allows men to buy the sexual services of females. It doesn’t allow them to buy women and girls. Most readers of this blog sell their services to willing buyers. I bet no readers of this blog are sold to willing buyers.
Carter goes on to criticize the arguments of those who advocate legalization, writing:
Critics of the Nordic model assert that mature adults should be free to exchange money for sex. This argument ignores the power imbalance that defines the vast majority of sex-for-cash transactions, and it demeans the beauty of sexual relations when both parties are respected.
Sex between people who experience mutual enjoyment is a wonderful part of life. But when one party has power over another to demand sexual access, mutuality is extinguished, and the act becomes an expression of domination. As author and prostitution survivor Rachel Moran explained in her book, “Paid For,” once money has exchanged hands, a woman must deliver whatever service the customer demands.
He may well be right that there is a power imbalance, in the direction he implies, in “the vast majority of sex-for-cash transactions.” But think about that a moment, at least longer than he appears to have done. If it’s true that prostitutes have little power, then, when you make it more difficult legally for their customers, you don’t increase their power. So his argument is not an argument against legalization.
He writes above, “But when one party has power over another to demand sexual access, mutuality is extinguished, and the act becomes an expression of domination.” What he ignores is that one party has power over another only by mutual consent. Legalization of prostitution is not the same as the draft. (By the way, which President was it in 1980 who pushed for, and got, reinstitution of draft registration? Now that’s an expression of domination.) And the act may well be an expression of domination. But so what? The prostitute is free to interpret it as she wishes also.
Finally, Carter writes above, “once money has exchanged hands, a woman must deliver whatever service the customer demands.” This is a misstatement. My impression from reading the literature on prostitution is that the woman must deliver what she promised. Customers may demand certain things, but prostitutes are free to say no.
I have been impressed by many things our 39th president has done since being president and even by a few things he did as president (e.g., deregulation of airlines, trucking, and railroads.) But the Washington Post article he wrote is not one of them.