Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

Missing the Point on Prostitution

Why is NPR's Scott Simon Outraged About Legalized Prostitution in Colombia?

NPR's Scott Simon recently made some comments on the Secret Service prostitution scandal that got me thinking. Simon suggests that the real scandal may be the original decision to hold the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena in the first place. Mr. Simon asks, "Why were world leaders meeting in a place with legalized prostitution?"

No doubt, Scott Simon is a smart, kind, sincerely politically correct guy. (He's on NPR, after all!) But his comments reminded me of how easily even the smartest, most well-intentioned people can lose critical perspective when talking about anything related to sexuality.

Simon lays the groundwork with this rather obvious observation, "Seeing prostitution close up can shake any idea you may have that it can be some kind of Julia Roberts romantic comedy." True, but seeing pretty much anything in the real world exposes the falsity—or at least, the artifice—of its typical Hollywood depiction. Prehistory? Forget about The Flintstones. The inner workings of a German WWII POW camp? Not much like Hogan's Heroes. Prison? Definitely not Cool Hand Luke.

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So, let's accept the premise that real-life prostitution ain't a Julia Roberts movie. There's no question that there are a host of very ugly realities often associated with prostitution: human trafficking, coercion, abuse from pimps and clients, risk of STDs, and so on. But all these things are mitigated by legalization, and Simon wasn't suggesting the meeting shouldn't have been held in a place where prostitution exists, but in a place where it's legal.

After all, if such meetings could only be held in places without prostitution, the United Nations would have to be relocated to Antarctica. The baseline fact of the matter is that prostitution exists. It's always existed in one form or another, and it always will exist. The question is: What is the best way to deal with the unrelenting, unavoidable presence of prostitution? Simon seems to be suggesting that we make matters worse by participating (even very indirectly) in this simple acknowledgement by holding meetings in places where societies have chosen to decriminalize sex work. For a guy whose soothing voice reverberates with the calm tones of progressive politics, this is a surprisingly reactionary response to legalized sex work.

Perhaps the lack of nuance in Simon's comment can be traced to its origins in an emotion: "To put the question in blunt, personal terms..." Simon asks, "Would you want someone you love to live that way?"

No, probably not. But I grew up in western Pennsylvania, so I can also say with some certainty that I wouldn't want someone I love working in a steel mill or a coal mine, either. Nor would I want someone I love to be sent off to distant deserts to risk their life and sanity in defense of jingoistic abstractions. Hell, I basically split up with an ex-girlfriend because she worked in the fashion business, a place sure to suck the soul right out of anyone. But nobody's proposing that we make industry, the military, or ugly clothes on beautiful women illegal. How come? Why aren't all humiliating, exploitative, potentially dangerous occupations equally offensive to people who think like Simon?

Comedian, George Carlin pointed out that sex is legal, and selling stuff is legal, so how can it be illegal to sell sex?

In Dutch, the word, gedoogbeleid essentially means, "tolerate to control." If Scott Simon takes a look around him, whether he sees drug policy, teen sex education, or prostitution, he'll see that we gain nothing from legally prohibiting the expression of human nature, and what we lose is precious: the opportunity to control the expression, to mitigate the damage.

Imagine if prostitution were illegal in Cartagena, as Simon would apparently prefer. Maybe the woman in question (the "victim"), would be doing something else. If so, what would she be doing, and what fraction of the $800 per night she's making now would she be making per month? Or maybe she'd still choose to turn tricks to support herself and her child—as many women have, do, and will, whatever the legal situation.

So, let me rephrase your question, Mr. Simon, to bring it into alignment with reality: If someone you love chose to work as a prostitute, would you rather she had legal and medical protection, or would you prefer she be forced into the shadows with the pimps, abusive Johns, and no access to health care? That's the question we need to be asking.

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).

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