Saturday, January 11, 2003

Putting Prostitution Back On the Street Where It Belongs

According to a news story I heard on the radio (I couldn't find any articles about it online), the Royal Viking Hotel in Los Angeles is in trouble for allegedly "facilitating" prostitution and other criminal activities. The city council has decided it's time to crack down on the hotel, so they are forcing it - by means of a court to injunction - to stop selling condoms, stop renting rooms for fewer than 12 hours at a time, and stop renting rooms for less than $25 a day.

Wow. Just for the fun of it, let's even suppose you think that outlawing sex between consenting adults when money is involved is a good idea. Let's count how many different ways this injunction gets it wrong.

1. The injunction against condoms punishes only those prostitutes and clients who want to have *safe* sex. This might deter some prostitutes and clients from having sex, but only by encouraging the rest to have sex more dangerously. At best, this part of the injunction will have no effect because prostitutes will just bring their condoms with them. Meanwhile, the regular customers who just want to have sex (with no money involved) will also be deprived of the convenience of buying condoms at the hotel.

2. The prohibition on renting rooms for fewer than 12 hours at a time punishes plenty of people who aren't prostitutes or their clients, such as truck drivers who just need a few hours sleep, or young couples who'd rather not have sex in their parents' homes. Similarly, the prohibition on renting rooms for less than $25 per day is just a price floor, which hurts anyone looking for a cheap place to spend the night.

3. The last two restrictions combined raise the cost of doing business in private - but not the cost of doing so in back alleys, parking lots, and other public places. One of the main arguments that people have against legal prostitution is the potential exposure of children and other sensitive persons to seedy sexual transactions in public places. In that case, does it make sense to discourage prostitutes from taking their business indoors?

I can't think of a more foolhardy approach to fighting prostitution. It encourages exactly those aspects of the business that people finds most objectionable - specifically, spreading disease and conducting private affairs in public spaces. And it does this while punishing law-abiding citizens who want a cheap place to sleep or (why not?) have sex.

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