The World’s Oldest Public Policy Puzzle

NEW YORK – In 1893, the playwright George Bernard Shaw, an ardent proponent of women’s suffrage and equality, wrote Mrs. Warren’s Profession, a play whose title character is the proprietor of several brothels. The play justifies her profitable exploitation of the business of prostitution from a feminist standpoint.

The play is not salacious, and it contains no coarse language, but it was nonetheless eight years before it could be staged. Its opening in London in 1902 was staged in a small theater “club,” ostensibly limited to members. Its performance in New York in 1905 was raided by the police.

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This week, Amnesty International announced that it had decided to begin advocating for the decriminalization of prostitution – a position espoused by Shaw. But the ensuing controversy surrounding the decision suggests that public opinion on the issue has not shifted greatly over the past century. It is time we reconsider.

To be sure, there are many evils connected to prostitution today, just as there were in Shaw’s time. HIV/AIDS was not a threat, but syphilis was incurable and often led to disfigurement, madness, and death. Then, as now, many who took part in prostitution became victims of violence, were coerced into the trade, or were prevented from escaping it.

It is not enough, however, simply to note the evils associated with prostitution. The proper response must be to try to find the best ways to mitigate them.

None of the many efforts to stamp out “the world’s oldest profession” has succeeded in eliminating it entirely. Not only are criminal penalties apparently ineffective; they can be counterproductive. Fear of prosecution may discourage those coerced into prostitution or victimized by violence from seeking assistance.

In many countries, a large number of prostitutes are immigrants without legal status, and thus are especially fearful of law enforcement authorities. In many places, the police themselves exploit prostitutes, who, because of their profession’s criminal status, are particularly vulnerable to official abuse.

Moreover, the underground nature of prostitution can make it difficult for sex workers to insist that their clients wear condoms to protect them from sexually transmitted diseases. And when prostitution is illegal, its practitioners may struggle to move on from the profession, because criminal records prevent them from obtaining other forms of employment.

An alternative approach, favored by some of Amnesty’s critics, is the so-called “Nordic model,” adopted in Sweden and a few other countries. According to this model, seeking the services of a prostitute is a crime, but the sellers of sexual services are considered to be victims – and thus are not subject to criminal prosecution.

As attractive as the Nordic model may seem, it, too, has its faults. As long as one of the parties to a sexual transaction is considered to be a criminal, prostitution will retain its underground character. Prostitutes who want to remain in the trade will not willingly testify against their clients. As a result, they have to be coerced, which leads to its own set of abuses. Furthermore, under the Nordic model, clients who are robbed by prostitutes and their pimps fear to seek assistance from law enforcement.

Nor is the Nordic model truly a new approach. In 1979, then-New York City Mayor Ed Koch took to public radio to read out the names of “Johns” arrested for patronizing prostitutes, heightening their punishment by public shaming.

Shaw himself took issue with efforts to punish buyers of sex; in a preface to Mrs. Warren’s Profession that Shaw wrote many years after it was first performed, he mocked the British parliament for enacting legislation that “prostitutes’ male bullies and parasites should be flogged.” The dramatist even suggested that this had the “effect of stimulating the perverted sexuality which delights in flogging.” In any case, there is no evidence that these measures had any effect on the sex trade.

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Prohibition has proved harmful when applied to consenting adults’ use of liquor or drugs. Bringing such practices out of the shadows encourages the development of measures that mitigate its associated evils. The same is true of transactional sex.

The focus of public policy regarding prostitution should be to prevent violence and coercion, as well as to stop the spread of infectious diseases – which is exactly what Amnesty is recommending. There is little doubt that Shaw, who was convinced that women and men alike should be free to engage in commercial transactions that do not harm others, would have approved.