All of us are familiar with Prohibition, the attempt to ban the sale and manufacture of alcohol in this country. Very few would disagree that it was an unmitigated disaster. It created a spike in crime, empowered criminals and smugglers and did little to stop drinking (and I hope you celebrated Repeal Day last week).
This post is not about alcohol prohibition, but I raise it to point out some of the traits it shares with two other kinds of prohibition. It was pushed by religious figures, yes, but more so by a Progressive Movement that saw banning alcohol as being for Americans’ own good. They believed that they could create something like a perfect society, where everyone behaved … at least according to how they thought everyone should behave. They unabashedly claimed the moral high ground, casting their opponents as either drunks or profiteers on human misery. And the effect varied depending on class. The Volstead Act was an inconvenience, at worst, to the rich and powerful, who could acquire illicit booze when they wanted it. Meanwhile, entire swathes of the population were condemned to violence, extortion and murder. But it was OK because they were just bootleggers, drunks, smugglers and Italians. Al Capone pointed out, quite correctly, the classist nature of Prohibition — that what was called bootlegging when he did was called hospitality when rich people did.
There’s a second prohibition that we’ve discussed many times — the War on Drugs. I won’t rehash the many many horrors and inefficacies of this war — see the Alberto Willmore video below. But notice the traits it shares with alcohol Prohibition. It was supported by the Religious Right, yes, but also upheld by many “Progressives”. Our Vice President has long been one of the most vocal drug warriors out there and several Presidential campaigns in the 80’s and 90’s turned on who could be toughest on drugs. The Drug Warriors believe they can create a perfect drug-free society. They unabashedly claim the moral high ground, describing their opponents as either addicts or profiteers on human misery. And again, notice how the effect is varies depending on class. It’s not difficult for the elites to get drugs if they want them. If a Congressman’s son is busted with drugs, he goes into treatment. Meanwhile, the lower classes are condemned to the hell of gang wars, no-knock police raids and minimum sentencing guidelines. But it’s OK because they’re just drug dealers or drug addicts (or, it must be said, black).
There’s a third prohibition, however. In fact, it’s actually the first prohibition, the one whose “success” inspired the ones that followed. It is so insidious that many of us don’t even realize it is a prohibition. And since my friend Maggie McNeill has asked those of us who oppose this prohibition to write about it on Friday the 13th, I’m going to talk about the prohibition on sex work. Or, to be trite: the War on Whores.
Prostitution was not illegal for most of our history or most of human history. Because even those who regarded it as an evil saw it as a necessary one. As Maggie explains in the Cato Unbound debate between her, Ronald Weitzer and two well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) fools:
Indeed, up until the nineteenth century almost nobody imagined that prohibition could be done, let alone that it should. It was almost universally understood that many working-class women and a not-inconsiderable number of those in higher classes would accept money for sex, at least on occasion, and it was impossible to draw a bright, clear line between behaviors that constituted “prostitution” and those (such as concubinage, mistresshood, and political marriage) which did not despite their often-mercenary basis. The manifold laws regulating sex work were not intended to preclude pragmatic motivations for sexual behavior, but rather to keep up appearances, guard the purity of bloodlines, and maintain public order. But as the Victorian Era dawned, a new idea began to take hold of European minds: if science could perfect Man’s tools and techniques, why couldn’t the same process be applied to Mankind itself? The immediate result of turning (pseudo-)scientific inquiry upon sex was that taking money for it was no longer considered merely something that “unladylike” or “sinful” women did for a living or extra income; instead, the “prostitute” was defined into existence as a specific type of woman, separate and distinct from other women. For most of the century the prevailing view was that women who took money for sex were congenitally defective, but in the 1880s the idea arose that most or even all were forced into the profession by evil men. It was about this time that “avails” laws started to appear, under the rationale of “protecting” women from exploitation by such men.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the “white slavery” hysteria was in full swing. Progressives were determined to “rescue” women from the clutches of the “pimps” who were abducting them by the thousands from homes, railway stations, and dance halls, and for the first time in history the act of taking money for sex was itself criminalized on a large scale. In the United States, it was illegal almost nowhere in 1909, but almost everywhere by the end of 1914.
The more you dig into the issue the more you see the parallels to the War on Drugs and alcohol Prohibition. Again, we see the hand of religion, but also the Progressives (and I would argue that they are worse on this issue than the religious, having now donned the cloak of pseudo-feminism). They believe they can create a perfect whore-free society. They unabashedly claim the moral high ground, describing their opponents as whores or pimps. And the effect once again depends on class. It’s not difficult for someone like Eliot Spitzer — who prosecuted sex workers and their clients — to get a high-priced call girl. But some poor shmoe who just wants to get laid goes on John TV. Prostitutes can be raped with impunity, extorted by law enforcement and ultimately jailed. But it’s OK, because they’re just perverts and whores.
And look where this hysteria has led us. Just as the War on Drugs will get a high school girl busted for giving Midol to a friend, so will the sex prohibitionists engage in absurd excesses in the War on Whores. In Madison, a man has started a business where people can pay to snuggle and cuddle with other people. I think it sounds stupid (about a decade ago, this sort of thing showed up on a Penn and Teller episode as a laugh). However, if paying $60 to hug some people is your thing, knock yourself out.
But ultra-liberal Madison is banning it.
Snugglers contend touching helps relieve stress. But Madison officials suspect the business is a front for prostitution and, if it’s not, fear snuggling could lead to sexual assault. Not buying the message that the business is all warm and fuzzy, police have talked openly about conducting a sting operation at the business, and city attorneys are drafting a new ordinance to regulate snuggling.
“There’s no way that (sexual assault) will not happen,” assistant city attorney Jennifer Zilavy said. “No offense to men, but I don’t know any man who wants to just snuggle.”
This is your brain on the War on Whores: a government official invoking sexual assault and the dreaded prostitution in a response to a hug house. God knows what they would have done if they’d found out about the back rubs on my freshman year college dorm.
This is where this ahistorical hysteria on sex work has led us. This is who we are now. People think that bans on prostitution and hysteria over sex work only affects dirty whores and their filthy clients. But when you open the door to government getting involved in consensual sex between adults, the entire damned law enforcement industry will stampede through it. And next thing you know, they’re calling you a rapist for wanting to hug someone.
No society has ever rid itself of alcohol — not even Islamic countries, where alcohol is illegal. No country has ever rid itself of drugs — not even China which once imposed the death penalty for opium use. They can reduce it, a bit. They can drive it underground. But they can not stop human beings from human beings.
And no society has ever rid itself of sex work. In fact, many of the greatest empires embraced it. Our experiment in banning sex work has now gone on for a century. As with alcohol and rugs, its adherents continually claim we are right on the verge of victory; we only need to ruin a few more lives. It’s time that the prostitution ban, like Prohibition and the War on Drugs, find its way into the list of history’s abandoned mistakes.
Don’t think that this is entirely about booze, drugs and hookers, either. All three of our nation’s great prohibitions have arisen from the Great Progressive Conceit: the idea that government can make people better (assuming you accept the Progressives’ definition of ‘better’). This is a conceit that plays out in a thousand ways in our politics, from the government telling you your insurance policy isn’t good enough to forbidding you from smoking in your own home to telling you not to drink so much soda.
The Great Progressive Conceit is tempting because government can create the circumstances for people to become better. Freedom of religion and speech, capitalism, rule of law, etc. all create opportunities for human beings to improve themselves and the society around them. And we absolutely need government to stop people from harming each other. But the minute the government turns its eye toward telling you that you must do this or you must not do that for your own good …
Just Say No.