Monday, June 2, 2008

Are Prostitutes Trafficked?

In a recent post, I discussed liberal and conservative perspectives on how much choice people have in where they end up. I used this framework to analyze debate about prostitution and human trafficking.

While I did my best there to present both viewpoints accurately, I also wanted to set down separately which narrative I find to be more accurate with respect to prostitution.

I'll start by saying that I have far less knowledge in this area than I would like to. This is especially true when talking about circumstances outside the United States. If you feel I am mistaken, I invite you to correct me in the comments section.

As with most things, I think the neither of the two perspectives presented quite captures the truth. However, I will not be so wishy washy as to say that I find both to be equally valid.

Remember that what I presented as the liberal viewpoint says that people's choices are greatly constrained by their circumstances, and in the case of many at the bottom of society, there often are few choices at all. See page seven of the handbook* I listed before for a survey of some circumstances that those who enter prostitution often share. They include childhood sexual abuse, incest, and physical abuse. In addition, the pamphlet cites that the international median age for entry into prostitution is 14.

In other words, many make this choice when they could still be considered children. True, the childhood that in the United States often extends well into the 20's is much different than the standard present many places in the world. But the forces of puberty are reasonably new to all at these ages, and a defining characteristic of young people is their inability to manage such forces well. And abuse greatly warps anyone's ability to manage these forces, let alone children.

So while these girls are capable of making a choice, their ability to choose wisely is heavily impaired. I conclude that circumstances in the lives of the majority of those who enter prostitution make them unfit to make such a choice. In that sense, since these do not have the protectors that they ought, I am willing to call them "trafficked."

Many might say that parents are responsible for protecting children from choices like prostitution, and legislation cannot substitute for good parenting. I agree, but there is another side to the equation. Forces war with parents for influence over children, and in the absence of good parenting these forces often win out.** Legislation can fight against these forces.

So I say, don't look at those who reap prostitutes' wages as men in an illicit business partnership. Look at them as oppressors. Work accordingly. This goes the same for men who use their services.

My reasoning applies specifically to those who become prostitutes at a young age, which figure to be significantly more than half worldwide. Perhaps there is some room in my reasoning for those who both choose to become prostitutes and who should be considered competent for such a choice, and thus in my view are not victims of trafficking. Should we only work against men involved with "trafficked" prostitutes?

In my understanding, no such distinction exists. Pimps and johns do not investigate whether or not prostitutes make their choices from a healthy context. And really, I am quite skeptical that such prostitutes exist in non-negligible amounts. Then, it makes no sense to differentiate between them when deciding how to act.

In short, I am willing to brand all pimps and the like "traffickers." So color me liberal on prostitution.

*From the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.
**The language of "forces winning out" is synonymous with the language of determinative circumstances in the liberal framework that I described. As I said, while I don't accept this concept wholesale, I think that children are "impaired choosers" and shouldn't be held responsible for choices of such magnitude. In this case it is appropriate to "blame" forces influencing their choices.


Pat M. said...

Ahh, Nick,

You are forgetting about the High-priced prostitutes that were recently featured in the media with the Eliot Spitzer case in New York. These prostitutes are not the "bottom of society." They are wealthy daughters of wealthy parents who have chosen to become a prostitute because of the ability to make a great amount of money while working very little. Surely these are not the victims that liberals love to help.

Though I will say that the vast majority of prostitutes are doing it because they want to. But I am not willing to paint all of them as victims in need of somebody's help. That's a touch condescending, as if to say we know what's best for your better than you do, so you should listen to us. But, then again, this is the liberal mentality (for most issues) and I am far from a liberal.

pat m. said...

*That should read:
"Though I will say that the vast majority of prostitues are *NOT* doing it because they want to.

Anonymous said...

I think that in today's world you have various elememts: those that want to do it for the money (to lazy to work, those that are forced into it, and maybe some that enjoy it. I take into example writer Lisa Carver who writes a lot about it. I came across her at a after party rock show where for less than a few hundred dollars she gave us a sex show, took on a dozen guys then rolled up with her dog in bed with a smile on her face. This she did not write about but I think she is one who really loved her work, so there are all types.

Jonathan said...

Nick - General question:

Let's say that a worker offers a service worth X dollars per hour to a company, and the worker's next best job is Y dollars per hour (with X > Y). Then we might expect that they would negotiate and end up with wages somewhere between X and Y. One option is to pay right in the middle (i.e. (X + Y)/2).

Now let's suppose that there are two workers. One of these workers has a good alternative option which pays $12/hour, while the other might only be able to find work at $2/hour. Both workers are worth $20/hour to the employer.

After negotiating with them individually, he ends up paying the first worker $16/hour, and the second one $11/hour.

Is the second worker being oppressed by his employer, since they're taking advantage of his lack of alternatives?

Ben said...

I would also color you liberal (or is it coldly economically conservative, simply stepping through Jon's reasonable bargain procedure?) in your implied assumption that prostitution is just peachy if all parties consent and had a decent set of alternatives.

Nicholas said...

Pat - As for the high-priced prostitutes, I think their numbers probably make up a really insignificant proportion of total prostitutes.

On your second paragraph - you raise a very good point. There's danger in calling someone a victim or a slave if she doesn't consider herself to be one. You risk offering unwanted freedom. Look at all of the "freed" moms and children from the Texas polygamist sect (not that they were in the same kind of situation).

However, I don't think that means you shouldn't do anything for them. I think it means action is a lot less black and white, and a lot less once and done. Arresting someone's pimp, for example, may not do her a lot of good - now she has to find a new pimp.

I don't think there are many who would desire Ms. Carver's past. And I think, like in the Eliot Spitzer case, women like her make up an insignificant proportion of total prostitutes.

I think this scenario misses several crucial features of what's going on in the prostitution scenario. It might apply more to the migrant labor debate.

To give your question a shorter answer, probably not.

If I implied that, I don't believe it. I may write another post about why I believe "sex work" is not just another trade.

Jonathan said...

See response on my blog.