Letter to the Editor of National Review Online

Elizabeth's picture

On August 12, 2009 I submitted this to the editors of National Review Online. I got the standard automated response and will certanly post here to let you know if the letter is published there. Meanwhile, here is what I sent them.

RE: "Not a victimless crime" by D. Hughes and R. P. George

"Not a victimless crime," (Hughes & George, Aug. 10, 2009) is misleading from the start in that what it describes (prostitution in Rhode Island) is not a crime in the first place. In addition, the article contains several logical flaws and much misinformation. It gives the impression that decriminalization of prostitution is associated with more violence against prostitutes and that criminalization of prostitution is associated with more effective policing of human trafficking and better protection of public health. None of this is accurate.

First, violence against prostitutes is associated with misogyny and the stigmatization of sexually active women, not with the legal status of prostitution. People suspected of being prostitutes are assaulted and killed in places where prostitution is criminal and in places where it is not. While there is violence against women, and against sex workers everywhere there is stigma against sexually active women interestingly, in places like New Zealand where prostitution was decriminalized in 2003, there has not been an increase in violence against workers.

Second, trafficking is a matter of global inequality, poverty, migration patterns and labor abuse.  It is not addressed by criminalizing labor, but rather by increasing economic opportunity, creating sensible immigration policies, and enforcing labor laws. Can you imagine anyone saying "We can't effectively fight trafficking because there aren't strong enough laws against picking strawberries"? Or "we need to criminalize domestic labor because we can't fight trafficking if housekeeping is legal"? People are coerced and deceived into migrating for many kinds of work yet sex work is the only kind we try to criminalize as a way to "rescue" victims.

Third, public health is best protected when people involved in risky behavior are not driven underground, but rather can be educated about risks, given the resources needed to protect themselves, and then supported in their efforts to educate others. Michel Sidibe, Executive Director of UNAIDS, recently included decriminalization of adult consensual sexual behavior including sex work as an important strategy for reducing HIV infections around in the Asia Pacific region (Hope to Reality: Transforming the Asia-Pacific AIDS Response, August 10, 2009 LINK). Indeed sex workers have lead HIV prevention efforts around the world.

People who are exploited, coerced or otherwise put at risk of harm in the course of earning a living need better enforcement of labor laws and worker safety standards. Enforcement resources ought to be spent fighting real injustices, not criminalizing work.

It must be because in this society we place such a low value on sex that we see smart people and responsible news sources falling apart when it comes to issues like prostitution. Sexual services are as essential as many other personal services we contract out. They deserve the same quality of attention. In fact I'd have expected a conservative news source like National Review to err on the side of deregulation and individual liberty. It is hard to imagine National Review publishing a piece as poor in reasoning and documentation as "Not a victimless crime" on any other topic.

Hughes and George appear dismissive of civil liberties, and rely on anecdote, rhetoric, ideology and fear mongering rather than on accurate data derived from ethical research. Legislators of Rhode Island would do well to look to research and to worldwide standards. The UN Development Programme (2007), the UN High Commission for Human Rights (2006) and UNAIDS (2009, as mentioned above) each have published guidelines urging lawmakers and others to avoid confusing trafficking with sex work, and to work toward decriminalizing sex work so that crimes of exploitation and coercion along with urgent public health issues like HIV/AIDS can better be addressed.

If we care about women, Hughes and George claim to care, we should be working to strengthen labor laws and direct law enforcement to treat crimes against workers seriously regardless of the type of work they do. To criminalize sex work in the name of women's safety is as ridiculous as criminalizing the tomato harvest in the name of immigrant rights.

Elizabeth Anne Wood, Ph.D.
Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work
Nassau Community College, Garden City, NY
and online at Sex In The Public Square - http://sexinthepublicsquare.org