Last night I attended the Nashville chapter of “Liberty on the Rocks.” The guest speaker was Maggie McNeill, who runs the blog “The Honest Courtesan” which has the subtitle: “Frank commentary from a retired call girl.” I’m sure many readers might read such a description and have a flood of assumptions, but I must report that McNeill was very eloquent in her talk, and made many points quite similar to standard libertarian ones on drug decriminalization. (Here is McNeill talking to Reason magazine, and here is her lead article—in which she urges people to consider the “work” aspect of “sex work”—in a series at Cato Unbound.)
Now as with the debate on the Drug War, here too it’s important to make a fundamental distinction: Although many libertarians who favor repeal of drug prohibition also think that smoking pot, say, isn’t such a big deal, this isn’t intrinsic to the case. Even if you are a right-wing Bible-believing moralist, who thinks that dealing heroin and soliciting prostitutes are very serious moral offenses, nonetheless I would urge you to consider the actual harms that the Drug War and War on Sex Workers are causing, especially to the very people you think you are protecting from themselves. (Also remember that in one of the most memorable gospel tales Jesus Himself didn’t condemn the adulteress caught in the act, even though the Mosaic Law prescribed her death by stoning.)
One of the themes of McNeill’s talk was that the government gains power by “changing the narrative.” In this respect, one of the most powerful phrases is “human trafficking.” As I listened to her, I realized McNeill was absolutely correct: Imagine you’re watching a news account and the reporter says, “Local police arrested three men charged with running a prostitution ring.” You probably wouldn’t want to invite these guys to your next barbeque, but (if you’re a libertarian) you probably rank them higher than an IRS agent.
However, suppose instead you heard the reporter say, “Local police arrested three men charged with trafficking teenage girls.” Now you probably want to hire your Private Mercenary Defense Agency and go kill these guys, don’t you?
And yet, those two news reports are describing the exact same reality. I sure hope you don’t just assume that surely the government officials and mainstream media figures would be extremely cautious when using a loaded term like “human trafficking” so as not to mislead the public.
McNeill also challenged the statistics on “human trafficking” touted by various governments and NGOs, pointing out that they are all over the map and admittedly extrapolate from the actual evidence to make claims about huge unseen networks. I know in my work on other issues that, say, the United Nations is hardly a fount of unbiased scholarship, so McNeill’s accusations sound very plausible to me on this score. Furthermore, by its very nature claims about something as horrible as sexual slavery will be treated deferentially, since no one wants to look like a Neanderthal by quibbling with the numbers.
Another theme in McNeill’s talk was “unintended consequences.” For example, she discussed a hypothetical Filipino woman who has five siblings who are near starvation. The woman decides the best thing in her desperate situation—given that she has no formal education and has few marketable skills—is to travel to Japan to become a prostitute. (One can say “call girl” or “escort” if that makes it sound more palatable and seems more accurate depending on the exact situation.)
Now nobody is denying, McNeill emphasized, that this is a miserable situation for the Filipino woman. But if that’s the option she chose as best, all things considered, then how in the world does it improve her situation—and those of her siblings, to whom she was sending a large portion of her earnings—for the US government to lean on the Japanese government to crack down on the practice?
Incidentally, if you follow the link you will read in that NYT story about Japan:
A 28-year-old Colombian woman, who spent four years working as a prostitute in Japan, mostly to repay $45,000 she owed the criminals who sold and bought her, finally fled to her embassy here late last year.
Having given testimony that could help arrest her traffickers, she now waits for authorization from immigration officials to return to Medellín, Colombia, to be reunited with her 12-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter. “We shouldn’t be treated as criminals to be deported out of Japan, but as victims,” she said in an interview at the Colombian Embassy.
This illustrates one of the points McNeill made in her talk. Imagine you are a prostitute who is arrested by police. You know that if you tell them, “I entered this trade voluntarily, because even though it’s seedy, it seemed the best option at the time,” then you are going to prison where you might actually be raped and otherwise abused.
In contrast, if you tell the police that you were abducted against your will and forced to sell your body by a trafficker, then you will not be punished and in fact may be entitled to various government benefits. McNeill assured us that if those are the two options an arrested woman faces, we shouldn’t be surprised when she reports that she was operating under the control of an abusive pimp.
(I should make it clear that I do not claim to be an authority on the prevalence of these scenarios or the conditions such women face. I am merely reporting McNeill’s arguments because they were intriguing; I had never thought about this issue in this way, even though such an approach is quite standard on more conventional topics for a libertarian economist.)
Let me close with one final issue: Someone in the crowd asked McNeill what she thought about efforts to close the southern US border. She said that here too there were unintended consequences. When the border was relatively porous, migrant workers would come and go with the season. Yet when US authorities began cracking down, Mexican migrant workers would stay in California (or Texas) because, “I’m not risking that again.” Thus paradoxically, efforts to keep out “illegals” may lead to an increase in the resident migrant worker population in the United States. Again, this shouldn’t surprise a libertarian reader; this type of outcome happens all the time when the federal government tries to “fix” a perceived social problem.
In conclusion, I would urge readers to consider that government efforts to help young women avoid exploitation in the sex trade may actually be placing them in much greater physical and emotional danger. The last group in the world you want helping desperate women are government officials with guns and cages.