A governor who pays for sex should know to mould social policies on reality, not morality
by Elizabeth Pisani
The Guardain, Thursday March 13 2008
Last November, a new law came into force in New York state. The toughest anti-prostitution statute in the United States, it brings the law crashing down on the heads of men who buy sex. Its champion, New York state governor Eliot Spitzer, has become one of its first victims.
Spitzer, known to the FBI as Client 9, resigned yesterday after forking out money – lots of money – for sex. This has led to much rejoicing on the part of Spitzer’s enemies, who resented his holier-than-thou assaults on big business in his years as New York’s attorney general. People who believe his assault on prostitution was counterproductive have been feeling pretty smug, too. But the collective gloating obscures an important truth: policies based on morality, not reality, don’t work.
Though Spitzer is a Democrat, he has fallen for a view of prostitution that has gripped the Republican administration, a view that conflates sex work with human trafficking and seeks to abolish the oldest profession in the world. Indeed, Spitzer himself has referred to sex work as “modern-day slavery”. But here’s the difference: no one chose to be a slave, to work extremely long hours in appalling conditions for zero pay. Plenty of women (and men and transgendered people) choose to sell sex, working relatively flexible hours in varying conditions for quite decent pay. Sometimes very decent pay – the women Spitzer has been busy enslaving are charging $1,000 an hour, plus tips.
The sex trade is definitely pear-shaped – it is a lot heavier at the bottom than at the top. But even at the bottom end, a lot of workers are earning much more than they would in a garment factory or a fast-food joint. My own research in a number of countries in Asia shows that, on average, female sex workers’ take-home pay is between four and seven times higher in any given week than unskilled factory workers’. If you look at pay per hour worked, selling sex is up to 30 times more lucrative. The job is also a lot more autonomous than many of the alternatives. So we have willing seller and willing buyer, exchanging a commodity that gives one person pleasure and the other person cash. And the downside is …?
The downside is that not all sellers are willing. It is true people are trafficked, it is true children are exploited, it is true sex workers get beaten up, it is true people on both sides of the equation are exposed to unpleasant and sometimes fatal diseases. But most sex workers would argue that these things are best dealt with by legalising the industry and regulating it. This makes it easier to provide health services, and easier for sex workers to report mistreatment. It also enlists the power of legitimate workers in the fight against the truly exploitative parts of the business, the shadowy corners where traffickers and those selling children lurk.
If Spitzer wanted to dedicate some of his apparently endless stock of moral outrage to prostitution, he would have done better to crusade for health and safety regulations in the sex trade than for abolition. He, of all people, knows that the industry can work perfectly well for people on both the provider and the consumer side. So why didn’t he?
For many years now, social policy in the US has been moulded by morality. (Interestingly, commercial policy hasn’t. It’s illegal for one adult to pay another for sex, but perfectly legal for two adults to be paid to have sex with one another by a third person, who will film the encounter and then sell it as pornography to other adults.)
Morality, which is hard to define let alone to measure, is not a good basis for public policy. Science is a good basis for public policy. Economics, even. But not morality. Look at sex education in the US. The Bush administration promotes abstinence. No information about condoms, nothing about safe sex. The result of this cross-your-legs-and-think-of-God approach, according to official figures released this week, is that a quarter of teenage girls in the US have a sexually transmitted infection. How moral is that?
Though morality demonstrably collapses in the face of reality, the US is committed to exporting this approach. Its taxpayers have been asked to part with an astonishing $65bn to pay for HIV prevention and care in the developing world. To get a penny of that money, organisations have to pledge that they will oppose prostitution. The pledge was brought in by former Aids tsar Randall Tobias, handpicked by George Bush. “Former” because he resigned from public life last April, after his phone number was found on the client list of a Washington escort service. Spitzer is in good company.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008