Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Misdirected Moral Righteousness

Ah, doesn't that feel good? Moral dudgeon is such a pleasant sensation. Thank you, Eliot Spitzer. Having availed himself of a call girl's very expensive services -- and gotten caught -- the governor of New York has shocked the conscience of a nation. It seems that prostitution, a practice once believed to have vanished with the fall of the Roman Empire, is actually going on right now. What a horrible and delightful turn of events for bluenosers everywhere. Nothing swells the righteous hearts of moral crusaders like a thundering denunciation of the evils of prostitution. Thanks to Eliot Spitzer and a dedicated team of FBI agents with nothing better to do, they have their chance. "Men rent women through the Internet or by cellphone as if they were renting a car," blustered Melissa Farley and Victor Malarek in the New York Times. Prostitution is never, under any circumstances, a victimless crime. Not even when the prostitute makes more money in a day than a Wal-Mart greeter makes in a month. The only people who say so, the authors insisted, "are the men who buy prostitutes." Farley is an anti-pornography and anti-prostitution activist. Malarek is a Canadian journalist. And they are outraged. "Whether the woman is in a hotel room or on a side street in someone's car, whether she's trafficked from New York to Washington or from Mexico to Florida or from the city to the suburbs, the experience of being prostituted causes her immense psychological and physical harm. And it all starts with the buyer." That's you, Eliot Spitzer. For shame. Writing on his blog, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof was a little calmer. "Should prostitution indeed be illegal?" he asked. "Is it worse to be caught paying for sex than simply having an affair?" Interesting questions. But this is the New York Times we're talking about. Its deviations from conventional wisdom are measured in millimetres. Its support for the status quo is as reflexive as gagging. So I had a sense of where Kristof was heading. Yes and yes, Kristof answered, thus bravely insisting that things be kept just the way they are. But wait. He then called for a change. Just a small change, naturally. But an actual change. "Sweden arrests the customers and leaves the women alone," he wrote. "This seems to have been quite effective in reducing trafficking and coerced prostitution." So the woman whose services Spitzer engaged should be free to conduct business in private with other consenting adults but Spitzer should be taken away in handcuffs. If you see prostitution as a morality play featuring wicked johns and helpless women, that makes perfect sense. Just to be clear, much as I find this whole spectacle silly, my sympathies are not with the departing governor. As attorney general, Spitzer was a renowned wiretap enthusiast and, on at least two occasions, he held press conferences to boast about laying charges against the wicked malefactors of the flesh trade. The man is a Pecksniff -- as Charles Dickens dubbed a particularly loathsome hypocrite -- and it's hard to feel pity when Pecksniffs get their comeuppance. But whatever Spitzer's faults, it's the bluenosers who are truly insufferable. Their Victorian ancestors were at least honest in saying they were passing moral judgment and demanding that others live up to their high standards. But today's moral crusaders insist morality has nothing to do with it. They're not prudes. Oh no. It's the harm prostitution inflicts on women that outrages them. They have empirical evidence to prove it, they say. Lots of statistics and studies and citations. It's all very scientific. Or at least it seems so to the gullible. In reality, this "evidence" is generated by a small handful of feminist academics whose ideological commitment has overwhelmed their concern for scholarly rigour. "The studies in question are replete with methodological and analytical flaws," wrote Ronald Weitzer, a George Washington University sociologist. "Counterevidence is routinely ignored, anecdotes masquerade as evidence, non sequiturs abound, and sampling is biased." However flawed their work, these academics-cum-activists have a powerful friend. For years, the U.S. State Department has aggressively opposed prostitution in any form and just as aggressively fought any attempts to legalize the sex trade anywhere in the world. Having adopted the same line as the activists, the State Department uses the same "evidence" and tosses in a few bogus statistics of its own. The resulting piffle is repeated as fact the world over by wide-eyed reporters and commentators who seem to believe that if the U.S. State Department says something is so, it is so. And Saddam's weapons of mass destruction will turn up any day now. Some people are a little more skeptical. A couple of years ago, the State Department issued a "fact sheet" on prostitution that prompted a protest letter by an nine academics and activists -- including University of Toronto law professor Audrey Macklin -- involved with the issue of trafficking and human rights. There was little fact in the fact sheet, they wrote. It is "not based upon valid research." They were far too polite. My favourite part of the fact sheet is the State Department's endorsement of the Swedish policy Nicholas Kristof likes so much. It works wonders, the State Department wrote. "In contrast, where prostitution has been legalized or tolerated, there is an increase in the demand for sex slaves." A footnote to this statement reveals the source to be the very same Victor Malarek who raised the dudgeon level on the Times' op-ed page this week. In 2003, Malarek released a book called The Natashas: Inside the New Global Sex Trade. Very little of that book deals with the alleged link between legalization and sex trafficking, and Malarek's evidence is, shall we say, less than compelling. First, he quotes activists saying that legalization in the Netherlands and Germany "will undoubtedly lead to an increase in the trafficking of women to those countries." Yes, well. They would say that, wouldn't they? Malarek then writes that "studies show that one year after legalization, traffickers in the Netherlands controlled more than half the women in prostitution and that very few Dutch women were in the brothels." Then he provides similar numbers for Germany. Impressive? It was to the State Department. But note that the key phrase in the critical sentence above is "studies show." Which studies are those? Malarek doesn't say in the text. And there is no footnote. I've done extensive research on prostitution in the Netherlands and I've never heard of these studies anywhere but Malarek's book. But to the State Department, there's no problem here. A passing reference to unspecified "studies" qualifies as conclusive proof that legalization promotes sex slavery. And that, ladies and gentleman, is itself evidence that the State Department's claim is the product of ideology. Now, allow me to cite a real, verifiable, easy-to-find study that says a great deal about that much-touted Swedish law. In 2003, the Norwegian government created a working group to study prostitution in both Sweden and the Netherlands. The group's report -- "Purchasing Sexual Services in Sweden and the Netherlands" -- was delivered in 2004. Swedish street prostitution did indeed go down immediately after the law came into force in 1999, the report said. Numbers soon stabilized, although at a level lower than before. But the working group also noted that it was uncertain how much prostitution there was off-street and so it wasn't clear whether the law pushed prostitutes indoors, or, worse, into dark streets hidden from the eyes of the police. What was certain is that the law had unintended consequences. "The police informed us that it is more difficult to investigate cases of pimping or trafficking in human beings because prostitution does not take place so openly on the streets anymore," the working group reported. Street prostitutes are "probably" more dependent on pimps as a result of the law. Overall, the working group concluded, the law "has made working as a prostitute harder and more dangerous." Same old story. Criminalizing prostitution -- whether by arresting men and women together, or men alone -- cannot eliminate the sex trade. Prostitution is eternal. Blame biology. Blame the rich. Blame Eliot Spitzer. It really doesn't matter. Prostitution has always existed, and always will. All criminalization does is hand the business to the black market. For the thousand-dollar-an-hour women who work in five-star hotels, that means putting up with the Peeping Toms of law enforcement, paying lawyers' bills, and losing half their income to agency fees inflated by the risk premium that goes with any criminal business. For the women at the bottom of the trade -- the street prostitutes who will never see the inside of a five-star hotel -- it means they are more vulnerable to pimps, robbers, and violent johns. For these women, criminalization means there is a much greater chance they will beaten, raped or murdered tonight. Want to experience the thrill of moral outrage? Get angry about that.