Puncturing Alan Dershowitz’s Delusions about Prostitution

Alan Dershowitz can’t see why people should care about prostitution. Shortly after the Eliot Spitzer scandal broke last month, The New York Times quoted the Harvard law professor as saying:

”Men go to prostitutes — big deal, that’s not a story in most parts of the world…”Prostitutes aren’t victims — they’re getting paid a thousand dollars an hour…”

Fortunately, others have not let this pass without comment. In a New York Times opinion piece, Nicholas Kristof writes:

Reading between the sheets, the world of “Kristen” and Eliot Spitzer may seem relatively benign. She may have been abused as a child, and tangled with drugs and homelessness, but she was also a consenting adult who apparently kept half the cash that customers paid for her.

That’s a dangerously unrepresentative glimpse of prostitution in America. Those who work with street prostitutes say that what they see daily is pimps who control teenage girls with violence and threats — plus an emotional bond — and then keep every penny the girl is paid…

It’s complicated: What keeps her isn’t just fear, but also often an emotional connection.

“When somebody wields power over you to kill you and doesn’t, you feel this bizarre thankfulness,” Mr. Myles said. “It’s trauma bonding.”

…Of the 100,000 prostitution-related arrests each year, the great majority of them are of women and girls; pimps and johns are much less likely to be arrested.

R.F. Blader expands the perspective in CounterPunch:

Liberal apologists seeking to normalize Spitzer’s behavior are forced to resort to the same lies about prostitution indulged by Dershowitz. They ignore the fact that by defending men’s right to paid sex with women, they applaud the atrocious exploitation of the same sorts of market inequalities they decry when the victims are blue-collar workers…

The fact is that all prostitution, including Spitzer’s brokering of a high-priced call-girl, is dangerous for several reasons: first, as a population, prostitutes suffer grave victimization and physical harm; second, prostitution degrades the status of all women by affirming the pathology of associating sex with property; finally, prostitution undermines perhaps the most important moment of reckoning in our country’s history — when we established legally that human beings cannot be bought and sold.

For many prostitutes, “sex work” follows naturally from childhood sexual exploitation or incest victimization. 8 times out of ten, victims of rape or incest prior to engaging in prostitution…

Melissa Farley, whose international research substantiates the consistency of prostitution’s extensive harm, stresses the importance of understanding the “choice” to pursue prostitution. She writes, “conditions that make genuine consent possible are absent from prostitution: physical safety, equal power with customers and real alternatives.” Comparative studies underscore the ridiculousness of accepting prostitution as a vocational choice. In a 2003 study, Farley and Cotton reported a 75% homelessness rate among respondents, and 89% of prostitutes in the 9 countries they studied expressed “their desire to get out of prostitution.”

…the anti-prostitution movement’s premise, at its best, argues that human sexuality deserves a place above the market.

Bill Dusty at the Springfield Intruder helpfully links to a draft of “An Empirical Analysis of Street-Level Prostitution” (PDF, September 2007). This study’s lead author is Steven Levitt, an economics professor at the University of Chicago.

Levitt and Sudhir Venkatesh analyzed arrest records and sexual transactions in Chicago. Far from earning a thousand dollars an hour, prostitutes typically receive $25-30 per hour. The risks of getting a disease are high–condoms are used in only a quarter of tricks. The average prostitute experiences one violent assault a month.

…First, we analyze newly available incident level data from the Chicago Police Department
which includes details of every prostitution-related arrest in the city over the period
August 19, 2005 to May 1, 2007. Second, we use an online data set that includes mug
shots and home addresses of all johns arrested by the Chicago police for soliciting
prostitutes. Third, through a partnership with pimps and prostitutes working in two
Chicago neighborhoods, we were able to gather detailed, real-time transaction-level data
for over 2,200 tricks performed by roughly 160 prostitutes…

The transaction-level data we collected suggests that street prostitution yields an
average wage of $27 per hour. Given the relatively limited hours that active prostitutes
work, this generates less than $20,000 annually for a women working year round in
prostitution. While the wage of a prostitute is four times greater than the non-prostitution
earnings these women report (approximately $7 per hour), there are tremendous risks
associated with life as a prostitute. According to our estimates, a woman working as a
prostitute would expect an annual average of a dozen incidents of violence and 300
instances of unprotected sex…

There is a surprisingly high prevalence of police officers demanding sex from prostitutes in return for avoiding arrest. For prostitutes who do not work with pimps (and thus are working the streets), roughly three percent of all their tricks are freebies given to police…

On average the prostitutes work roughly thirteen hours per week, performing roughly 10 sex acts total. Average revenues generated per week are about $340. Most of this comes in cash, with some payments made in drugs. The prostitutes also steal an average of $20 per week from customers… The women report being a victim of violence on the job (either by a client or a pimp) about once per month of working. Arrests occur with similar frequency, although in many of these cases no formal charges are made. Approximately one in twenty tricks performed by prostitutes are “freebies,”
either to police officers or gang members, to avoid arrest or in return for protection from the gang…

Oral sex is most common (46 percent of all tricks), followed by vaginal sex (17 percent), manual stimulation (15 percent), and anal sex (9 percent). Over half the customers are black, although the exception is for the prostitutes who work with pimps. Condoms are used in only about 20 percent of the overall sex acts. As noted later, even for vaginal and anal sex condom use is only 25 percent…

In our data, the overall premium for condom use is only $2…

As would be expected, the price premium for not using a condom increases with
the risk posed by the absence of a condom. For manual stimulation there is no
statistically significant price difference. For oral sex a condom reduces the price by $2.
For vaginal sex that number rises to $5.53 (a 7.5 percent increase over the average price
using a condom) and for anal sex the gap is $12.61 (or 13.6 percent of the average price
with a condom)…

Our data from the Roseland neighborhood show an average of 380 tricks per
week performed by 23.75 women…

There are a total of 2,985 arrests of johns over the 26 month period for which we have data. Using the estimates above of 1.6 million acts of prostitution per year, this implies a mean estimate of almost 1,200 tricks per one john’s arrest…

See also:

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Escort Prostitution: A Response to Tom Vannah, Editor of the Valley Advocate
Mr. Vannah concedes that “there is some percentage of people who are
not willing participants in the sex industry”, but believes that if the
Advocate refuses to accept Massage/Escort ads, this will unacceptably
crimp “artistic freedom”. He mentions Mapplethorpe pictures as an
example. How dropping ads for commercial sex enterprises will
compel the Advocate to turn away Mapplethorpe pictures is not clear to

Diane Sawyer Special Examines Prostitution in America; Challenge the Valley Advocate “Rat King”

Why Do Johns Buy Sex?
“Money displaces the emotions. It frees you from that bond, that
responsibility,” explains Sam. “The distance you get from exchanging
cash for sex means that afterwards you don’t contemplate the impact on
the prostitute.”

Prostitution Research & Education: How Prostitution Works

Prostitution: Factsheet on Human Rights Violations (explicit language)

A Canadian Report on Prostitution and Pornography concluded that girls
and women in prostitution have a mortality rate 40 times higher than
the national average…

In one study, 75% of women in escort prostitution had attempted
suicide. Prostituted women comprised 15% of all completed suicides
reported by hospitals…

[A john says,] “It’s like going to have your car done, you tell them what you want
done, they don’t ask, you tell them you want so and so done.”
(McKeganey, N. and Barnard, M. ,1996, Sex Work on the Streets:
Prostitutes and Their Clients
. Milton Keynes Open University Press,
Buckingham, Scotland.)

Sweden’s Prostitution Solution: Why Hasn’t Anyone Tried This Before?
In the fog of clichés despairing that “prostitution will always be with
us”, one country’s success stands out as a beacon lighting the way. In
just five years Sweden has dramatically reduced the number of women in
prostitution. In the capital city of Stockholm, the number of women in
street prostitution has been reduced by two thirds, and the number of
“johns” has been reduced by 80%…

In 1999, after years of research and study, Sweden passed legislation
that a) criminalizes the buying of sex, and b) decriminalizes the
selling of sex…

The hang-up, the place where their best efforts had snagged, was that
law enforcement wasn’t doing its part. The police themselves, it was
determined, needed in-depth training and orientation to what the
Swedish legislature already understood profoundly. Prostitution is a
form of male violence against women. The exploiter/buyers need to be
punished, and the victim/prostitutes need to be helped. The Swedish
government appropriated the funds for the country’s police and
prosecutors, from the top ranks down to the officer on the beat, to be
given intensive training and a clear message that the country meant
business. It was then that the country quickly began to see unequaled

Today, not only do the Swedish people continue to overwhelmingly
support their country’s approach to prostitution (80% of people in
favor according to national opinion polls), but the country’s police
and prosecutors have also come around. They are now among the
legislation’s staunchest supporters. Sweden’s law enforcement community
has found that the prostitution legislation benefits them in dealing
with all sex crimes, particularly in enabling them to virtually wipe
out the element of organized crime that plagues other countries where
prostitution has been legalized or regulated…