Like any other large city, Washington, D.C., had, and to some extent still has, what is termed a red-light district. Home to a collection of seedy bars, strip clubs, peep shows, burlesque shows, massage parlors, sex shops, porno theaters, and, of course, prostitutes, a visit to these areas served as a rite of passage for young men, although they were a scourge to nearby residents.
Although 14th Street in Washington, D.C., is now lined with respectable office buildings, restaurants, and hotels, the world’s oldest profession is still practiced in some areas.
D.C. police have been responding to complaints from local residents, business owners, and church pastors concerning prostitutes trolling along 14th Street and soliciting customers.
John Fanning, chairman of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission for Thomas Circle, a fashionable D.C. neighborhood, said that “street prostitutes still come out on the weekends, generally in the hours just before dawn, walking along the bike lanes.” Adam Briddell, the associate pastor of the nearby Asbury United Methodist Church, said that “5 a.m. near his church ‘is like a traffic jam’ of women seeking the after-bar crowd.”
But thanks to the Internet, the solicitation problem in Washington, D.C., and no doubt other large cities as well, is not what it used to be.
Prostitutes are now able to solicit business online. Indeed, as Pastor Briddell also stated, “The prostitutes seem to work three different markets to get clients — the Internet by day, the clubs at night, and the street after hours.” And as John Fanning explained, “Making rendezvous on the Internet has largely moved the street action inside.”
One would think that D.C. police would be glad that because the number of prostitutes walking the streets was greatly diminished they could turn their attention to fighting real crime. No more scantily clad women trolling up and down the street in broad daylight. No more seedy hotels to accommodate prostitutes and their clients. No more customers endlessly driving up and down streets and contributing to traffic congestion. No more complaints from business owners that the presence of prostitutes was negatively affecting their businesses.
But there is no joy in the nation’s capital. Police there reject the Internet solution to the solicitation problem.
Since January, “D.C. police have run a string of stings at hotels near Thomas Circle, luring men with fake ads on the Internet and then waiting for them to knock on a hotel room door.” It turns out that for years D.C. police have been placing ads on Backpage and Craigslist “to draw in men and make busts.” The police have declined to reveal their ads.
The operation that started in January has resulted in more than “50 alleged customers” being put “in cuffs in the past several weeks in this one neighborhood alone.” The high-profile arrest in January for “solicitation for the purpose of prostitution” of former NBA player turned CBS sports commentator Greg Anthony has not deterred customers. Anthony was arrested after police said “he answered a Backpage ad placed by detectives and offered an undercover officer $80 for sex.” If convicted of the misdemeanor he could face up to 90 days in jail, but prosecutors said “they would consider dismissing the case if he completes 32 hours of community service.”
Regardless of what one thinks about prostitution, the glaring question here is: Why are the police trying to cause people to commit crimes? Don’t they have more than enough work to do preventing, stopping, investigating, and solving real crimes? Prostitution may be illegal, but there is no law that says police must set up sting operations to entrap prostitutes and their customers.
But there is an even more important question that very few people aside from libertarians are asking: Why is prostitution illegal in the first place? I would like to make seven observations about this.
- How can something that is legal to give away be illegal if one charges for it? If it is legal for a woman to provide free sexual services as often as she wants and to as many people as she wants, then how can it be illegal for her to charge for her services?
- Indirectly paying for sex is not a crime. Is there really any moral difference between a man’s paying a prostitute for sex and a man’s paying for dinner and a movie for sex? If adultery or fornication should not be crimes, then why should prostitution be one? Why is it only a crime if a woman accepts the cash directly and forgoes the dinner and movie?
- Paying people to have sex is not a crime. A woman in a hotel bar who accepts money for sex is subject to arrest even though at the same time another woman in a hotel room who accepts money for sex is not because she is in front of a camera and a director.
- Every crime needs a victim. Not a potential victim or possible victim or a supposed victim, but an actual victim. Prostitution isn’t just the world’s oldest profession, it’s also the world’s oldest victimless crime. Any crime is a victimless crime when it consists of a consensual act between two willing adults. Forced prostitution, human trafficking, child prostitution, assault, rape, trespassing, and kidnapping are, of course, real crimes, and no libertarian would defend or excuse them.
- Vices are not crimes. No one has ever improved on the distinction between vices and crimes as explained by the 19th-century classical-liberal political philosopher Lysander Spooner:
Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property. Crimes are those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another. Vices are simply the errors which a man makes in his search after his own happiness. Unlike crimes, they imply no malice toward others, and no interference with their persons or property.
To be a crime, adds Spooner, there must exist criminal intent to invade the person or property of another. But vices are not engaged in with criminal intent. A man practices a vice “for his own happiness solely, and not from any malice toward others.”
- Other immoral acts are not crimes. Sexual acts that most Americans consider to be immoral — adultery, fornication, homosexuality, perversion, sadism, and cohabitation — are not crimes. And neither are the “seven deadly sins” of wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. And of course, neither is drunkenness. Why single out prostitution?
- In a free society, prostitution would be a choice not a crime. It may be an immoral choice, a sinful choice, an unhealthy choice, a dangerous choice, and an unwise choice, but in a free society, it is an individual choice that should not be the concern of government.
Legalize prostitution; legalize freedom.