The futile war on prostitution

July 18, 2005|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - The Chicago Police Department has a new weapon against prostitution: a Web site that regularly posts the names, addresses and photos of those arrested for trying to purchase such services.

Mayor Richard M. Daley announced the new tool a few weeks ago with some harsh words for anyone thinking of paying for sex. "In Chicago, if you solicit a prostitute, you will be arrested, and when you are arrested, people will know," he declared.

It requires a leap of faith to think that a guy who is not deterred by the risk of being arrested and fined and losing his car will be deterred by the fear of being publicly shamed. But the city has to resort to futile measures because those are the only ones available.

Fighting prostitution with cops on the street is like going into the woods with a fly swatter in the hope of eradicating the mosquito population. Last year, Chicago police arrested 3,204 alleged prostitutes, or about eight a day. Judging from online sites and phone-book listings for escort services and massage parlors, that is a tiny fraction of all the mercenary coupling that takes place every day.

The police admit that existing policies don't do much more than move the trade from one spot to another.

The trade brings together two of the most unstoppable forces in American life: lust and avarice. But that combination is potent just about everywhere. There is a prostitution problem in Iran, for heaven's sake. If mullahs ruling an Islamic theocracy can't stamp out these transactions, the Chicago police aren't about to.

What they can do is waste a lot of manpower that could be deployed against truly dangerous criminals. Each prostitution arrest takes a cop off the street for two to three hours. And for what? Most of those arrested are soon free and doing business again.

Mr. Daley has his reasons for the crackdown. Not only is the business a blight on neighborhoods, he asserts, but women involved in it "spend their lives surrounded by criminals and drugs and sexually transmitted diseases. It's a terrible life."

All of that may be true. But the mayor is confusing the effects of prostitution with the effects of laws against prostitution. Streetwalkers don't stand outside in Chicago in January, annoying law-abiding residents, because they like fresh air. Prostitutes work on the street because fixed sites are particularly vulnerable to the cops. In a legal environment, more of them would gravitate to places with walls and roofs.

As for criminals, hookers tend to be surrounded by felonious confederates because what they do is illegal. The enterprise attracts violent people because violence is often useful in a business that can't expect protection from the cops. The retail liquor trade used to be that way too, during Prohibition. Since repeal, it has been about as violent as the dairy industry.

Sexually transmitted diseases are another occupational hazard that existing laws do more to cause than to cure. If prostitution were legalized, the authorities could enforce health regulations in the interest of provider as well as patron. In a black market, the only controls on risky behavior are self-imposed.

Politicians may think prostitution is a grim, degrading life. But prostitutes think the same of politics. At any rate, arresting practitioners doesn't exactly improve their lives. And if they see it as the best of the available options, eliminating it merely forces them into choices they see as worse.

Legalizing prostitution would not be a moral endorsement of paid sex, any more than the First Amendment is a moral endorsement of supermarket tabloids. It would just be a recognition of the right of adults to make their own choices about sins of the flesh - and of the eternal futility of trying to stop them.

Before he continues his crackdown, Mayor Daley might reflect on the wisdom of one mayor of New Orleans. "You can make prostitution illegal in Louisiana," he said, "but you can't make it unpopular."

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun.

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