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June 15, 2010

OMG! Prostitution!

WaPo's Mike DeBonis has a look at GLAA's "Agenda: 2010" policy briefing paper, and naturally he (or his editor) goes for the attention-grabbing headline: "Gay marriage? Check. Now legalized prostitution?"

"Agenda: 2010" does begin with marriage and end with prostitution, so we can't object to DeBonis picking up on that. Actually, we first raised the latter issue in "Agenda: 2008" two years ago; but when you deliberately bring up a taboo subject, you have to expect some scandalized reactions. As it happens, DeBonis provides a link to "Agenda: 2010," enabling readers to check it out for themselves. Judging by the comments below his blog entry, a number of readers have done just that. Indeed, most of the reader comments agree with GLAA.

Here is part of what we have to say regarding the oldest profession:

Public officials seldom ask a most practical question: who benefits from the criminalization of prostitution?

Samuel Johnson described the ills associated with prostitution—crowding, intemperance, famine, filth, and disease—and assured his friend John Boswell that “severe laws, steadily enforced, would be sufficient against those evils, and would promote marriage.” Jesse Ventura came closer to the truth when he told Playboy in 1999, “Prostitution is criminal, and bad things happen because it’s run illegally by dirt-bags who are criminals. If it’s legal, then the girls could have health checks, unions, benefits, anything any other worker gets, and it would be far better.” Not just girls, Jesse.

As advocates of the legalization of prostitution, we think it needs neither sanitizing nor glorifying. It is not a profession filled exclusively with people who freely chose it from a host of other options. No doubt there are some in that category, like the college student turning tricks for extra cash. But too many turn to it by necessity. These include gay teenagers who have been thrown out of the house by their parents, and transgender people whom discrimination has left with few options.

People in these situations are practicing survival sex. They face greater risk of substance abuse, mental and physical abuse, and sexually transmitted diseases. The District has seen numerous murders of sex workers in recent years—murders that were made harder to prevent and harder to solve by the fact that the victims worked the streets and were without legal sanction or protection.

Harassing, arresting and prosecuting people for survival sex solve none of their problems, but only pile more on. Whose idea of responsible public policy is this? To be justified, any public law ought to serve some identifiable common good.

You can read the whole thing here. If you think we are off-base, kindly spare us the "shocked, shocked" reactions and explain how we are wrong. GLAA has been doing our nonpartisan LGBT rights advocacy for 39 years. The recent marriage equality victory was our greatest success, but it is not our only issue. A quick perusal of "Agenda: 2010" shows a range of our concerns in addition to marriage and families, such as public health, public safety, human rights, education, and regulation of businesses. Anyone who is prepared to ignore all of that and write us off because they are so scandalized at our discussing prostitution is of course free to do so. But we brought the subject up seriously, and the case we make is a conservative one. "Shut up" is not an explanation.

I recognize that many people consider the subject distasteful, and are concerned that by raising it we open ourselves to right-wing smears. But in case you haven't noticed, we have been defeating the right wing at every turn here in D.C. Frankly, if marriage equality is going to be treated as somehow discredited because one group of its advocates also favors legalizing prostitution, then let those who want to make that desperate argument go ahead and make it. We will not be intimidated by people's sex panic. As I write in "Agenda: 2010":

In the case of sex behind closed doors, whether in homes or hotel rooms, the fact that someone is paying for it is no more a legitimate basis for police involvement than if the transaction is a more informal one involving dinner and a show.

There is too much observable misery associated with prostitution for us to say it carries no problems; but they derive substantially, albeit not exclusively, from prostitution’s forced existence underground. Mitigating them requires leaving the moral implications to the participants and doing the few things that government can usefully do regarding prostitution: legalize it, regulate it, zone it, and tax it. In pursuing this course, the District can benefit from the experience of other jurisdictions, both domestic and foreign, that treat the sex trade in a more realistic manner.

We know that we are breaking a taboo by discussing this; but avoiding the issue will not make it go away.

When GLAA began thirty-nine years ago, few people had marriage rights on their agenda. We were the first (as far as we know) to raise it publicly in Washington, in testimony before the D.C. Council in 1975. Advocacy on public policy is what GLAA does. We identify problems and suggest solutions. Inevitably, this involves rocking the boat, which makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Sorry 'bout that, but it goes with the territory.

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