Good intentions are not enough
By Scott Sumner
In the past, I’ve made three arguments about utilitarianism:
1. It’s the correct moral system.
2. It’s the way the world is trending.
3. It’s consistent with classical liberalism.
I used examples such as the prohibition on the sale of kidneys, an anti-utilitarian policy that is likely to be repealed at some point. I predict something similar will eventually happen in the sex industry, for similar reasons.
The New York Review of Books has an excellent essay on the regulation of the sex industry, entitled “It’s Not About Sex.” Of course what the authors are actually suggesting is that it should not be about sex. Currently, laws in the US and elsewhere treat sex very differently from other transactions; it very much is about sex. As with the sale of kidneys, many people find the idea of a sex market to be highly distasteful. And as with kidney markets, there are powerful arguments for having the government stay out of this sector:
As a solution, some American libertarians trot out the motto “Legalize, tax and regulate.” Legalization is in practice all over the world, from Turkey and Germany to Amsterdam’s famous red light district and the brothels of Nevada. While the precise definition of legalization varies from place to place, it generally means that sex workers can only work in specific establishments and must be licensed and subject to regular medical checks. This is supposed to allow for prostitution while preventing disease and crime. But “contrary to its false reputation as a benign sex fun-fair, a regulationist legalisation approach to prostitution is not friendly for sex workers,” Mac and Smith write. It creates a rigid hierarchy of tightly controlled prostitutes and powerful, potentially exploitative bosses. Like the women who lived in the maisons de tolérance of nineteenth-century Paris, legal prostitutes are monitored, tested, confined to brothels, and registered. Prostitutes who are undocumented immigrants, or who are unable or unwilling to obtain permits or licenses, form a “vulnerable, criminalised ‘underclass.’”
Instead, the authors suggest decriminalization, which is practiced in New Zealand and New South Wales, Australia. Complete decriminalization—or the removal of criminal penalties for both buying and selling sex—is the unanimous preference of the global sex workers’ rights movement, as well as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the World Health Organization. Unlike legalization, it doesn’t impose a regime of permits and laws that need to be enforced; instead, it takes police out of prostitutes’ lives and workplaces. By removing the fear of surveillance, raids, and arrest, decriminalization lets prostitutes work in the conditions that best suit them, and allows them to collectively organize for their rights. In a study commissioned by the New Zealand Ministry of Justice, 96 percent of street-based sex workers said they felt they had legal rights. New Zealand is no utopia—migrant sex workers are still criminalized, social welfare programs are still underfunded. But, says one sex worker there, decriminalization “changed the whole street, it’s changed everything. So it was worth it.”
I encourage people to read the entire piece. It has a number of examples of how well-intentioned regulations, such as banning internet ads for sex services, actually put sex workers at much greater risk. Even feminists are on the wrong side of many of these issues. Good intentions are not enough.
PS. Maggie McNeill, who is both a sex worker and an activist, wrote an interesting essay on “consent”, for Reason magazine. This caught my eye:
As my friend and sex worker Mistress Matisse has pointed out, an individual or group that is unwilling to respect a woman’s “yes”—regardless of the price she puts on it—is also unwilling to respect her “no”.