Kozlowski: A solution to prostitution

By Mark Kozlowski

Slavery was banned in this country nearly 150 years ago, although that doesn’t mean it is gone. Slavery was banned in this country nearly 150 years ago, although that doesn’t mean it is gone. Sex trafficking and sexual servitude in this country have caused women to be snatched against their will, engaged in sexual intercourse against their will and, most insidiously, breaking the law against their will.

This is disgusting and must be stopped.

To that end, City Councilman Doug Shields proposed an ordinance that would require licensing of massage parlors. The hope is that through regulation of suspected brothels, prostitution and human trafficking might be curbed.

The aim of the legislation is noble, and Shields is to be credited with bringing up an important issue that is often ignored.

I’m not sure his legislation will work, though.

In order to obtain an illegally trafficked person, you have to break all kinds of state and federal laws. Why would a city regulation deter somebody who was already hell-bent on breaking extremely serious laws? Or prevent him from keeping the massage parlor perfectly aboveboard and legal, while slyly moving sexual liaisons elsewhere?

Putting this aside, what happens if this ordinance succeeds spectacularly and entirely eliminates prostitution in massage parlors? Will this necessarily mean an end to prostitution and trafficking in the city?


Craigslist removed its Adult Services section only for ABC to find that advertisements for adult services were popping up elsewhere on the site.

Trying to prevent prostitution by going after its outlets is a game of Whack-A-Mole. Prostitution might disappear from massage parlors only to find a home somewhere else. The desires for sex and money are old enough and strong enough that a person with enough lust will find a person with enough greed to provide a prostitute, one way or another. It is better that we know where the problem is so that we can work against it surreptitiously than do something that will scatter the problem to various dark corners which are unknown to us.

According to Shields, a major advantage of the bill is that it is now possible for regulators to enter a massage parlor and snoop around without needing a warrant. This should ring two alarm bells. The first alarm is that warrants exist for a reason. If in some cases we will do criminal investigation without resorting to warrants by a non-police force, what’s to say that ability won’t expand to other cases? The second bell is less obvious. Let’s say massage-parlor regulators catch an act of prostitution in progress. This evidence might be ruled inadmissible in a court of law because it was found without a warrant, which means the perp walks.

So, what can we do about the problem of human trafficking? Legalize prostitution. With prostitution legal, women who are engaged in it against their will could go to the police. If they do this now, they risk arrest and legal complications, which can be greatly exaggerated by a pimp as a means of control over those who might be foreign and have no legal counsel.

Trafficking a human from overseas to Pittsburgh is expensive. A lot of money has to be spent on either evading or bribing law enforcement both here and overseas to prevent detection. It is only economically rational to do something like this if it is both difficult to find prostitutes locally and possible to charge high prices for prostitution. Legalize prostitution and you open the marketplace to competition, which means the price in that marketplace will fall. Further, those who would engage in trafficking are now facing competition from locals who engage in the business who face smaller costs. If you license not brothels but individual prostitutes, you eliminate residual power a brothel might have over those who work in it. During these individual licensing processes, there would be an opportunity to spot those who are trafficked, coerced or underage. The police force can then spend its time hammering away at illegal brothels and illegal trafficking, funded by taxes on legal prostitution.

I will grant that there is very impassioned debate as to whether legalization would solve anything. It seems to me that a lot of the studies that suggest it doesn’t might suffer from a detection bias: An increase in human trafficking after legalization might just be picking up on a level of human trafficking that was always there, yet remained undetected until legalization occurred and enabled us to see it. Econometricians should study this heavily. In the mean time, I will say that legalization is not a cure-all and is no substitute for a relentless assault by the FBI and others on slave-traders. Yet it would make sense that it is easier to detect and combat an evil in something legal and in plain sight than to destroy the same evil in something already illegal and therefore hidden from view.

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