In 2005, a Yale behavioral scientist trained a group of capuchin monkeys to use money. To receive food, monkeys had to turn in coins that visionary Keith Chen provided them. Trading in more coins meant getting more food.
It wasn’t long before Chen observed male capuchins paying females for sex. It got so bad that Chen had to separate the monkeys. “It wouldn’t reflect well on anyone if the money turned the lab into a brothel,” stated a 2005 New York Times article on Chen’s research.
Even among monkeys, trading sex for resources doesn’t seem to be a novel idea. In 2007, Animal Behaviour published a paper by Michael D. Gumert called “Payment for Sex in a Macaque Mating Market.” It showed that, in the world of Indonesia’s wild monkeys, the going rate for paid sex increases when the number of available females declines.
Prostitution cannot be blamed on our media or culture; it is older than either. Prostitution is natural. It is an inevitable consequence of our ability to fulfill basic needs through negotiation.
When I argue that a particular behavior is natural, people often spuriously assume that I’m offering a moral defense of the behavior. On the contrary, it’s simply more prudent to recognize that a behavior is likely to occur than idealistically insist it be made to disappear.
For example, it’s now widely accepted that specific genes predispose people to alcoholism. However, in the 1920s, many Americans felt that prohibiting alcohol would make alcoholism go away.
Prohibition did not stop the demand for alcohol. Ruthless murderers gladly made the sales that neighborhood shopkeepers could not. Mafia magnates like Al Capone and Bugs Moran made boom-time profits and amassed sprawling criminal empires. The ensuing bloody conflict popularized the drive-by shooting and gave us the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
The market for paid sex is similarly unstoppable. A 2005 study in the British Medical Journal reported that 9 percent of British men hired prostitutes in 2000 – over 3 percent more than in 1990, according to a 2006 Sunday Times article by Clare Spurrell. In the U.S., 78,000 people were arrested for prostitution-related crimes in 2007 – and only about 10 percent of those arrests were of patrons, according to a 2008 Scientific American article by Nikolas Westerhoff.
Where 1920s prohibition created cartels that trafficked in alcohol, the prohibition of prostitution creates cartels that traffic in human beings – often against their will. The Bureau of Justice Statistics says that 527 victims of human trafficking were identified in the United States last year.
If prostitution were decriminalized, human traffickers would lose revenue to more reputable competitors. Our current policy is effectively guarding the income of violent thugs. The government has failed to learn from its mistakes; prohibition didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now.
Politicians who pass laws against prostitution are effectively claiming ownership over the bodies of American citizens. Human trafficking is morally repulsive for the very reason that control over one’s own body is a fundamental human right. While patronizing prostitutes will always carry health risks, it is not the obligation of taxpayers to protect others from their mistakes.
It’s painfully hypocritical when politicians crack down on prostitution while abusing the rhetoric of conservatism. Criminalizing prostitution means expanding the government and expending tax dollars to police consensual sex. Thomas Jefferson envisioned a government that would “restrain men from injuring one another” and “leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits.”
I’ll say one thing for alcohol prohibition: it was morally consistent. In the 1920s, giving alcohol away for free would have been as illegal as selling it. Yet there are no laws against having gratuitous sex. It’s simply illegal to charge money for it.