Mike, of Crime and Federalism, reads an article about sex trafficking, “San Francisco Is A Major Center For International Crime Networks That Smuggle And Enslave”, and proclaims:

I’d always said, gee, of course prostitution should be legal. I’m changing my mind. San Francisco has de facto legalized prostitution. You can go to MyRedBook.com to read reviews of "massage parlors." Prostitution is, more-or-less, legal.


San Francisco is, not coincidentally, a center for sexual slavery. The San Francisco Chronicle did a report on this issue in 2006. The situation has not changed…

In reality, centers where prostitution is legal in form or substance – like Amsterdam and San Francisco – are also centers of sex slavery. This is not abstract argument or a priori philosophical nonsense. This is empirical fact.

How can you support legalized prostitution when it will – in fact – lead to sexual slavery?

Two intersecting problems with Mike’s logic here (I was going to say “equally huge problems” but decided against it – how do you measure gargantuan vs. colossal?)

In no particular order, let’s start with the fundamental misunderstanding of what the illegal/immoral conduct consists of: kidnapping, unlawful restraint, sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, compelling prostitution, and not limiting it to statutes in the Texas Penal Code, which is inapplicable in San Francisco, there’s the Thirteenth Amendment.

Criminal prostitution, that is, the voluntary but illegal offer or agreement to engage in sexual conduct for a fee, is really not implicated in the Chronicle piece. Instead, the author Meredith May recounts how women are recruited to come to the United States for a variety of reasons, and then…

Typically they are locked inside their place of business, forced to have sex with as many as a dozen men a day. Sometimes victims are forced to live in the brothel, too, where five or six "co-workers" are crammed into one room.

Their "owners" confiscate their travel documents until the women pay off exorbitant sums. Often captors will ensure the women never pay off their debts, by tacking on fees for food, clothing or rent. Some fine the women for displeasing customers, being late to work, fighting or a host of other possible transgressions.

On top of mistaking serious violent criminal activity with prostitution, Mike compounds his error with plain old fashioned bad logic.

I’m sure some of you can make libertarian arguments in favor of legalized prostitution. None of them will be arguments I have not thought of or considered.

Libertarians will disagree, no doubt, but the greater flaw is Mike’s straw man construction. (That particular logical fallacy usually refers to misstating the opponent’s position, and then knocking that position down like a straw man; not 100% applicable here, but I’m not sure what else to label it.)

Mike claims that prostitution is de facto legal. In other words, the law criminalizing prostitution is still on the books, but since it is not enforced, it is in effect legal. This is just plain wrong, and will ruin his conclusions for multiple reasons. Back to the newspaper article, where he (perhaps?) gets this wrong headed “prostitution is basically legal” argument to start with:

San Francisco’s liberal attitude toward sex, the city’s history of arresting prostitutes instead of pimps, and its large immigrant population have made it one of the top American cities for international sex traffickers to do business undetected, according to Donna Hughes, a national expert on sex trafficking at the University of Rhode Island.

A “history of arresting prostitutes instead of pimps” is not evidence that prostitution laws are not enforced – quite the opposite. Prostitutes are arrested, their bosses are not. That’s entirely different. For example, due to Austin Police Department’s impressive sting operation budget, it’s actually the customers that are arrested most frequently, then the street workers, and least of all the pimps. For practical reasons, it’s easier to arrest prostitutes and their johns (who, since they are the agreement part of the “offer and agree” equation – will also be charged with prostitution) than the people running the enterprise.

So while it may be true that people who run prostitution enterprises are not often prosecuted, the (mostly) women that are the actual prostitutes are not free to ply their trade as they see fit. Customers ultimately drive any business model, and there’s a reason for the phrase “world’s oldest profession”: it’s the world’s oldest customers.

Subjecting only those on the front lines to prosecution is not de facto legalization. It’s a recipe for unregulated activity. Only those willing to break the law will become the boss; and they obviously don’t care what laws they are breaking… they’ll break all of them. At the expense of the sex worker.