OK, this one is a little weird. Utah has passed a law that makes it illegal to appear to be soliciting sex for pay through “lewd acts” such as exposing oneself or touching oneself.
The point of the law is to allow cops to try and target underage prostitutes who have been forced into the sex trade. Admirable but I’m not sure how this law will really do that. Allegedly, the young prostitutes are trained to evade arrest by asking cops posing as johns in sting operations to touch themselves to prove they’re not cops and if the cop refuses, the prostitute ends the conversation before anything untoward occurs. I gather that the law includes making requests like that as a “lewd act” and merely saying it would be grounds for arrest. However, I also gather than the underworld kingpins who operating prostitution rings of underage kids will figure out new ways to solicit without appearing to solicit. Because they’re criminal masterminds and figuring out how to evade arrest is what they do.
The consequence of this law will be that previously legal acts such as being a stripper will now potentially be illegal since the dancing and touching and getting naked that occurs in strip clubs can be construed as solicitation. And how far can this really go? Will dressing like a hooker be considered lewd enough to merit questioning by the cops? “No, officer. I’m not a hooker. I’m just dressed as a slutty nurse for a costume party. Let me show you the evite on my phone”. Will hitting on a guy at a bar cross the line? Pretending to pole dance at a bachelorette party? Wearing a short skirt?
And if wearing a short skirt ends up being considered lewd enough to be suspect in solicitation, does that turn the short skirt into a defense rapists can use in court? “Your honor, she was dressed like a hooker, under the laws of this state. I thought she was selling sex. I left a couple of $20s on the table on the way out.”
I don’t like this law because it targets the behavior of women. I’m not saying that I don’t think prostitution – especially underage prostitution – should be condoned when it’s already against the law. I’m just saying that targeting prostitutes by trying to define “hooker-ish” behavior is not the best way the way to go about upholding that law.
Prostitution is a demand-driven industry. There would be no prostitutes if there were no johns. But American legislators like to go after industries like prostitution by trying to reduce the supply of prostitutes. This is also how the go after abortion: they try to make the procedure inaccessible instead of trying to reduce demand for the procedure by implementing programs to reduce unwanted pregnancy. They do the same with illegal immigration by arresting illegal immigrants instead of levying penalties on the people who draw in illegal workers by giving them jobs. If every employer who hired undocumented workers got nailed for it, they’d stop doing it. If every woman had knowledge of contraception and access to preventive health services, unwanted pregnancies would drop and so would abortion. If johns stopped shelling out cold hard cash for sex with prostitutes, the prostitutes would no longer sell sex.
Prostitutes don’t go into prostitution because they think it’s legal. They don’t learn how to evade arrest because they think that they’re working within the bounds of the law. They don’t choose their line of work because it’s safe and pleasant with no repercussions. They choose it because they have run out of other choices or have been coerced int it. They evade arrest not to make a statement but to stay out of jail so they can continue working for the money or to avoid punishment by a pimp. They solicit customers not to draw them unwillingly into their web of sex and depravity. They do it because the customers are there and willing to pay.
For every prostitute who gets arrested for asking a cop to touch himself, another will take her (or his, but mostly her) place. Because there is still a john out there with cash in his pocket. You could clear the streets of prostitutes, strippers, clerks in sex toy shops, girls in sexy Halloween costumes, you name it and there would be a new crop of sex workers of all kinds to replace them because there would still be customers seeking prostitutes. And there would still be pimps to broker the trade.
There will also always be people who have reached a point where there is no other option but to sell sex. That is a societal failure until the day we make the sale of sex legal and regulate it to make it safe and non-abusive to any party involved. But we are not doing that. Instead it’s the profession of last resort and carries with it unspeakable risk.
If prostitution is to be illegal, then we need to address the demand for prostitution as well as those who supply it. Granted, it’s harder to target those who buy sex because they are less easily profiled. Johns don’t dress in slutty clothes and hang out on corners. It’s harder for a cop to pose as a hooker and try to draw in potential customers to be arrested than it is for a cop to pose as a john looking for a hooker. Johns are predators, not prey. By nature, the predator is harder to catch.
I don’t have a failsafe answer for how to solve the problem but, as is my wont, I think social safety net programs, outreach to prostitutes to help them find alternatives to the sex trade, and better treatment of women and the poor would go a long way toward diverting potential prostitutes away from that path. If arrest is truly a first step toward that, as the Utah authorities suggest, then perhaps arrest is a positive outcome. But if arrest is just a stumbling block to getting back out on the street, then it’s only purpose is to spend law enforcement dollars poorly. And there have to be laws to go after pimps as well. Especially those who pimp out children. Actually, there should be a special brigade of mothers to take care of those people because only a mother could make a child-pimp hurt enough to approximate justice. I’ll be the first to sign up for that job.
The other half of the answer has to be the outcomes for johns. Zero tolerance laws. Mandatory sentencing. Jail time. Public perp walks complete with photographers. The consequences have to be dire enough to be a deterrent. Slaps on the wrist and fines and an uncomfortable ride home with one’s wife are not enough. Clearly they are not enough, as men (and women, but mostly men) hire prostitutes. It’s time to make them just as culpable in the criminal act of prostitution. It’s time to drive down demand for retail sex. Only then will the supply dry up.