Tuesday, November 15, 2011

MacKinnon, Prostitution, Inequality, and a bit of Economic Analysis

Today, I attended a public lecture by Catherine A. MacKinnon, a world-known feminist and also a professor of law from University of Michigan, on Trafficking, Prostitution, and Inequality. I consider this lecture as a very important event as it gave us a clear understanding on the negative effect of trafficking and prostitution. I'll first summarize MacKinnon's arguments and then I'll provide a Law and Economic style of analysis to support her arguments.

MacKinnon Arguments Against Prostitution

MacKinnon opened her argument by saying that there is an inconsistent way of thinking within the public regarding trafficking and prostitution. All people agree that trafficking, i.e. selling human beings to other humans by force, is bad in any way. However, the opinions are divided when we discuss about prostitution. Some people believe that prostitution is inherently bad, either from morality or gender equality points of view. While some other people believe that prostitution is a symbol of freedom and entrepreneurship of women, after all, it's about the freedom of women to use their body as they may like and prostitution is just another form of profession, hence, the term commercial sex worker.

For her, the term commercial sex worker is utterly ridiculous and she asked how could people consider prostitution as just another type of profession? Based on her own and several other empirical researches, prostitution is definitely not a decent profession, if not at all. A recent polling from several prostitutes showed that more than 89% of them wish to be able to leave the job. Most of prostitutes end up in prostitution not because of free will, but because of coercion (usually from trafficking) and bad financial condition.

Basically, these prostitutes enter the job because they don't have any better options. The working condition is harsh (in India, an average prostitute can handle around 8,000 men in a year! Not to mention that they are being required to satisfy all the needs of their customer, whatever that is, as long as the customer pays), they are prone to various sexual transmitted diseases and psychological trauma (MacKinnon found that the level of trauma within prostitutes is similar to those who have experienced war!), and they are also prone to harmful activities that may result in their death (various customers have different taste of sexual activities and it is not unusual to have customers who love violence for the sake of enjoying their sex). In short, it's not a good life. In fact, MacKinnon asked everyone in the room, would they ever consider to take that kind of job if they have a better option?

MacKinnon further argued that prostitution pretty much relates to gender inequality. Surely there are male prostitutes, but compared to female prostitutes, their numbers are miniscule. Moreover researches show that it is far easier for the male prostitutes to opt out from their profession compared to their female counterparts. Female prostitutes are usually treated as goods, objects. The inequality is even clearer when we see how society treats the customers very well, simply from the fact that they are called as customers, in other word, they are just simple buyer who wish to purchase sex with women as an object of satisfaction. No wonder MacKinnon refused to use the word customer, she named these group of guys as John.

MacKinnon also argued that it is absurd to consider that female prostitutes entered into the business of prostitution because they have already given their "consent" and therefore people should leave them alone and let the market does the job, i.e. voluntary transaction among the people. In reality, their consent is not real, their consent was given due to weak conditions and because of the payment that they receive from the Johns (and they don't even receive the payment in full, most of the payment will go to the pimp). Based on that understanding, MacKinnon stated that having sex with prostitutes is essentially a rape in another form.

So what's the solution for this problem? MacKinnon offered the Sweden System, where prostitution is being criminalized, but not for the female prostitutes, rather, the pimps and the customers. Various empirical researches showed that the result of this policy is quite effective, the prostitution rate is going down and more women can be released from the hell that they experience in the world of prostitution. The reason for adopting this policy is because there is already an inequality between the female prostitutes and the male customers and pimps. Imposing the same sanctions to the prostitutes increases the inequalities and misses the real villains who are responsible for the existence of prostitution.

MacKinnon also rejected the legalization of prostitution as a solution to fight the bad treatment that prostitutes receive in her job. In one of her researches, she found that even when there are legal prostitution center, some people still prefer to use the illegal prostitutes because they refuse to have their sexual activities and tastes being regulated. In the Dutch, one pimp complains that the regulation of having pillow in the room (which apparently is required in order to increase the level of comfortness of the customers) is bad, because some prostitutes were being killed by pillow. It's a weapon of murder. In other words, the Government is not a good law maker when dealing with prostitution because they don't understand the nature of this business.

An Economic Analysis of Prostitution       

Simply speaking, I support MacKinnon arguments, and I will try to show that not only prostitution is bad from the perspective of morality and gender equality, but also from economics point of view. The standard economic analysis usually says that whenever there is a voluntary transaction between two parties, the government should not interfere since it is assumed that these people would never enter into the transaction if both are not better off as a result of the transaction. I agree with this notion. The problem is, some people assume that prostitutes sell their body voluntarily to other people and therefore the government should just leave them alone or even better, legalize the profession. They argue that legalization and calling these prostitutes as commercial sex worker will reduce the degradation that they receive, improve their quality of life and everyone will be better off.

Seems correct? Absolutely not. First, you can't assume voluntary transactions exist just because people agree to sell their bodies for money. MacKinnon empirical data show that this is an illusion. The consent is not given properly, meaning that standard economic analysis cannot be applied. Instead, we must assume that without consent, we are imposing costs to the prostitutes by forcing them to do something that they don't prefer in the first place. We further know that the payment that they receive does not reflect the costs and risks that are being imposed to them and on top of that, they don't even have the flexibility to leave the job. It is clear then that in terms of causality, the pimps and the customers are harming the prostitutes. From tort law perspective, this should entitle the prostitutes to claim compensation from their customers and pimps.

In this case, the above reasoning is in line with MacKinnon's Sweden System. If the ones who inflict harm are the customers and the pimps, it does not make any sense at all if the prostitutes are being penalized. In fact, it would be even better that not only the pimps and customers are being criminalized, they must also be required to compensate the prostitutes for the harm that they inflict. In this case, the result will be efficient. First, there will be less incentive for pimps and customers to conduct their bad activities. Second, possibility of women being released from the brothel is increased and the fact that they can receive proper compensation is also a good way to provide them a fresh start for their life.

Now, some people argue that enforcing sanctions is costly, while legalizing action is profitable since the government can tax such action. In a sense that's true, but again economic is not a rigid science, it is flexible depending on the situation. And I can say that legalizing prostitution is simply a stupid idea. Yes, the government can tax the activities, but it means that the government strategically chooses to abandon their own citizens, i.e. the prostitutes, to live in misery, which of course is not efficient.

There is a better way, i.e. criminalizing the activities and target the pimps and the customers. The government doesn't  need to always send these guys to prison. It can fine them to pay a huge amount of money to the government, where some are used to pay the legal enforcement costs and some are used to compensate the prostitutes in order to start a new life. This could be a cheaper solution and we know that pimps and customers have quite a lot of money. If not, pimps will not maintain prostitution business and guys will not choose to pay for sex if they can somehow get it for a cheaper price through other means.

To close this post, I would like to give an interesting definition of prostitution from Namibia (courtesy of MacKinnon of course), i.e. prostitution is any type of sexual activities that are being traded with commodities other than sex. This is deeply insightful, i.e. that sex should only be traded for the joy of sexual activities itself. Let us hope that someday we will be able to banish all type of prostitution in this world.

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