Backpage and Sex Workers

A while back I criticized the notion that Backpage was somehow responsible for murders because one guy in Detroit identified his victims from Backpage ads.  I argued that Conservatives trying to take down Backpage adult ads ostensibly to make sex workers safer should look in the mirror, given that most of the reason sex workers are at risk is because Conservatives have driven their profession underground.

Jacob Sollum at Reason had a similar take the other day

Far from helping victims like Baby Face, prohibition forces the entire market underground, making it harder to enforce the distinction between minors and adults or between willing and coerced participants. Prohibition forces prostitutes to work in dangerous conditions, picking up customers on the street or covertly connecting with them online, and makes it harder for them to seek legal remedies when they are cheated or abused. These hazards, similar to those seen in black markets for drugs and gambling, are not inherent to the business of selling sex; they are inherent to the policy of using force to suppress peaceful commerce. Since these dangers are entirely predictable, prohibitionists like Kristof should be reflecting on their role in perpetuating them, instead of making scapegoats out of businesses that run classified ads.


  1. Roy:

    While an interesting argument for a hi school debate team where youth wishes to mock and throw off all shackles, the adult world recognizes that the argument suffers fatal flaws. A simple exercise in reductio destroys it as demanding removal of any and all constraints. The argument further fails in its refusal to recognize much less engage the arguments a society might propose for reasons to restrict some behaviors. The question is not whether there should be law or no law (read gov't or no gov't), but what law (which gov't).

    To put the argument to work the opposite direction, why should society care if people doing nasty things to one another get hurt in the process of doing nasty things to one another? You engage in that sort of behavior, well, you know the risks.

  2. Craig Loehle:

    It is without doubt that people putting ads to sell their cars sometimes get robbed meeting with the "buyer"--so should we ban car ads?
    Here in Illinois we now have to sign our name anytime we buy caustics like drain cleaner because some looney threw some on someone once. Way over the top. Why not have to register our kitchen knives since thousands are killed with such knives? It is reverse causation.

  3. Hasdrubal:


    Fill me in on how arguing to end prohibition reduces to ending any and all rules? The poster child, alcohol prohibition, worked wonders when it was ended but age restrictions were enacted. Further, those restrictions can and have been adjusted to find the right level, and local restrictions from local prohibition (dry towns and counties) to time restrictions (no Sunday liquor sales, bars close at midnight) work well at a local level where people have the chance to vote with their feet. There are some downsides (drunk partiers used to drive across the border to Wisconsin when the bars closed in Minneapolis two hours earlier) but the net effect has been far less bad than under total prohibition. Why are drugs and sex different?

  4. Mark:

    While not all rules should be abandoned. We do have evidence from the way prostitution is handled in many European countries, and in Nevada in the US, that there is relative safety for the prostitutes when it is legal.

  5. Roy:

    Hasdrubal: Precisely what you said. Rather than eliminate all restrictions, you argue for a debate about which restrictions.

    Mark: How about relative safety for contract killers? If we made that practice legal, maybe state inspected and regulated, why, just think, we could eliminate the shadow world in which they now must operate.

  6. Benjamin Cole:

    Of course, sex work should be legal. Indeed, importing sex workers globally would be increase the incentives for American men to work hard.

    It is one of the advantages of libertarianism. Brothels, where you can have a drink, and gamble to win that sexy dancing girl.

  7. steve:

    @Roy Contract killers are regulated. They are called soldiers. This is not unreasonable since some few people really do deserve to be killed and are simultaneously beyond normal law enforcement. That's where the army steps in. Of course, the private version has traditionally been called mercenaries, but now we call them military contractors or some other euphamism. The U.S. uses quite a lot of them.

  8. me:

    This particular discussion has been around for at least 20k years. There is no way to end prostitution, it's hardwired into human cultural contexts.
    What you can do is regulate it, but the "it's forbidden by law" approach keeps failing.

    On the flip side, the problem of folks wanting to decide what's best for other people they don't even know has never been successfully tackled, and fundamentally, this is what this is. Don't get me started on bicycle helmet laws.

  9. DJB:

    Roy, do you know the irony of describing Warrens argument as worthy of high school debate and then countering with the use of a reductio ad absurdum logic Fallacy?

  10. Gil:

    Duh, Mark, that's what Libertarians have been saying all along - that the government makes everything worse so they should be shut down, period.

  11. Gil:

    Who's to say the Prohibition didn't work? Yes, some people did break the laws but others didn't despite the opportunity - a lot of down-to-earth didn't want to get arrested, go to jail nor get a criminal record. Then again, the 18th Amendment didn't ban alcohol in its entirety anyway.

  12. Not Sure:

    "Who’s to say the Prohibition didn’t work?"

    The fact it was repealed might be a good place to start looking if you're really interested in an answer.

    How often does the government give up on a reason to meddle in peoples' lives, anyway?

  13. a_random_guy:

    @Roy: You ask "...why should society care if people doing nasty things to one another get hurt in the process of doing nasty things to one another? You engage in that sort of behavior, well, you know the risks."

    You think this is a rhetorical question, but it is not. If two people choose to engage in a high-risk activity together, it really is none of your business, nor of the governments. Nor does it particularly matter what that activity is. It might be prostitution (which seems to bother you a lot), or it might be sky diving, or free climbing, or something else. As long as the people involved have no complaint, it is their business alone.

    If the government has any role, it is a role of regulation. Sex workers might be required to have periodic STD tests. Sky divers might be required to have a certification from a trainer, and to have their parachutes regularly checked. Regulation can make sense; prohibition almost never does, because it gives you the worst of all worlds.

  14. Ted Rado:

    a random guy:

    I couldn't agree with you more. What indiduals do is their own business. If the risks are high, that's their problem also.

    I was a hiker and backpacker into my mid-70's. I did many solo hikes in remote mountains. There was always the risk of hypothermia, accident, or getting lost. These were risks I was prepared to accept. I needed the government to tell me what I could or could not do like a drowning man needs an anvil.

    Accepting the risk of STD's or getting drugged and robbed is an individual decision. In some countries where prostitution is legal, the girls are required to have a medical card and get tested regularly. This makes some sense to me.

    In WWII, the German Army allowed brothels for their soldiers under medical supervision. The US Army didn't because brothels were "not nice". I wonder which army had the higher VD rate?

    As has been repeatedly pointed out, hired sex is here to stay. Any scheme that tries to pretend it will go away is nonsense. Let's at least face reality!

  15. A Friend:

    Ted Rado:

    I can't speak to the US Army, but there is evidence the US Navy "managed" brothels in WWII Hawaii. See the History Channel show, "Sex in World War II:The Pacific Front." And people think the Navy is more linear.

  16. IGotBupkis, Three Time Winner of the Silver Sow Award:

    >>> You engage in that sort of behavior, well, you know the risks.

    Yeah, because everyone who is a prostitute is a prostitute because she likes being one. Not because some big thug is forcing her to do it, either with direct physical threats or a mixture of physical and emotional threats.

    There's your reductio.

    >>> How about relative safety for contract killers?

    Cranium... Rectum.

    It's clear vastly more separation is called for in your own personal case.

    Direct contact of them is no way to go through life, sir.

    >>> where you can have a drink, and gamble to win that sexy dancing girl.

    They call those "bars", benny. They're just less honest about how the deal works.

    >>> like a drowning man needs an anvil.

    I would say more like a fish needs a bicycle, but that'll do, too :^D

    >>> In WWII, the German Army allowed brothels for their soldiers under medical supervision.

    Yeah, but to be intellectually honest, I'm not sure all workers staffing these brothels were there voluntarily.

  17. Trimegistus:

    Laws against prostitution don't "force" prostitutes to do anything. They are human beings with free will. They can do something else. (The exception, perhaps, is foreign women in human-trafficking operations, but I doubt they're the ones advertising on the back pages of alternative newspapers.)

    You're saying that because their choice to break the law turns out to have consequences, we should abolish the law.

    Laws against murder also force murderers "underground" and bad stuff happens to them, too. Obviously we should allow murder to protect murderers from the consequences of murdering people.

  18. Assistant Village Idiot:

    What is the evidence that it is conservatives responsible for prohibition. I think it has been pretty universal and ongoing, not especially tied to one group. There is a confirmation bias that causes folks to notice and remember more when it's conservatives.

    I work as a social worker, a pretty liberal field, and they are rather strongly anti-prostitution.