Category Archives: Sex Work

Ashton Kutcher’s Unusual Confession

So, yesterday Ashton Kutcher testified before Congress about modern-day slavery. This isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds — unlike those idiotic situations where an actor testifies before congress after playing a role related to the subject of his testimony, Kutcher actually founded a company, Thorn, that is involved in the fight against sex trafficking — but it’s still pretty weird.

For one thing, Kutcher is routinely ridiculed by sex work activists, who accuse him of helping police to catch and jail adult consensual sex workers. As Elizabeth Nolan Brown points out, his congressional testimony has numbers which suggest he’s still doing that:

According to Kutcher’s testimony before Sen. John McCain and other U.S. lawmakers, the app—funded by the McCain Foundation—has helped save more than 6,000 U.S. sex-trafficking victims, including 2,000 minors, in the past 12 months.

These numbers wildly outpace the average number of new criminal investigations into sex trafficking opened in the U.S. each year or average number of victims identified by U.S. law enforcement. …

The report also notes that in government fiscal-year 2015, the FBI identified around 672 adult and child victims of sex or labor trafficking. The FBI opened 802 human-trafficking investigations (resulting in 453 convictions) that year, while Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) opened 1,034 sex- or labor-trafficking investigations (and got 51 sex-trafficking convictions). In addition, Uniform Crime Reporting data from the states indicates that 744 investigations into state-level sex-trafficking offenses were opened in 2015.

There’s almost certainly overlap between the FBI and state investigations. But even if we count all cases separately, we’re looking at a total of 2,580 investigations into sex or labor trafficking—5,725 less cases than Thorn allegedly helped identify in a one-year period.

This suggests that Kutcher is counting something other than child sex trafficking to boost his stats.

Considering the data we do have on state and federal human trafficking cases, the only way the numbers from Kutcher’s group could make sense is if a) they’re counting every red-flag ad Spotlight identifies, regardless of whether these tips are ultimately deemed worthwhile enough to prompt a criminal investigation, or b) they’re counting cases of consensual prostitution between adults and lumping all adult sex workers identified into the “adult trafficking victim” numbers.

What really caught my attention, however, was this statement of his:

“I’ve seen video content of a child that’s the same age as mine being raped by an American man that was a sex tourist in Cambodia. This child was so conditioned by her environment that she thought she was engaging in play.”

Kutcher’s children are two or three years old,  so unlike so much of the grandstanding over “sex trafficking” these days, that truly is a sad and disgusting crime, and someone should probably go to jail for it. And assuming the video was explicit, it’s also a piece of true child pornography.

It’s not often that you see a major Hollywood celebrity like Ashton Kutcher confess to viewing child pornography. In front of Congress. On television.

To be clear, no matter how much I disagree with some of the things anti-prostitution activists like Kutcher do in the name of fighting “sex trafficking,” I’m against prosecuting them for non-prurient viewing of video of the crime that they are fighting.

Still, that’s something you don’t see every day.

Losers Deserve Love Too

A while back, Maggie McNeill posted about a group called Clients of Sex Workers Allied for Change (CoSWAC) which has a website they hope to use to “dispel myths surrounding participation in paid sex.”

I don’t know if this site will contribute meaningfully to the cause of sex workers’ (and clients’) rights, but one item on the Myths vs. Facts page caught my attention, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.

MYTH: Clients are pathetic losers who can’t get dates or sustain meaningful relationships.

CoSWAC responds with these facts:

  • Many clients are in relationships, but turn to sex workers to address unmet needs.
  • Some sex workers specialize in addressing the needs of disabled clients.
  • Sex work clients have diverse and complex reasons for retaining the services of sex workers.

I’m sure those facts are a reasonable response, and I understand why CoSWAC used them, but someone needs to address the motives of the people promoting this myth. People who say things like this aren’t just making an academic observation; they’re arguing that sex work should be (or remain) outlawed because of these kinds of clients. And that’s an ugly argument. Because even if the myth were true, so what?

Why should it matter that some clients are “pathetic losers who can’t get dates or sustain meaningful relationships”? Does that mean they should never have sex? That they should never experience pleasurable physical intimacy, never touch a woman, because they lack the confidence or charisma to charm a woman into bed? Keeping them from hiring sex workers isn’t protecting women from predators. It’s just sentencing people with personality disorders to a life without intimacy. It’s just cruel.

Why Should Miss Lorelei Rivers Give a Shit What Other People Want?

I missed Maggie McNeill’s last Friday the 13th roundup, and it was the only one this year, but there’s something I want to get off my chest about a type of argument that really annoys me, and I figure she won’t mind.

The problem, as it so often is for us libertarians, is the lack of respect for freedom of choice. Here’s the recent Twitter exchange that triggered this post, beginning with Miss Lorelei Rivers discussing sex work:

In case that doesn’t look right, here are the important bits:

Francois Tremblay: “Sex work” is intrinsically dangerous, intrinsically exploitative, intrinsically misogynistic.

Miss Lorelei Rivers: I disagree completely with this statement – and unlike you, I actually am a sex worker.

Francois Tremblay: Great… now listen to the 90% of women in your “work” who want to leave, who have PTSD, or are not as privileged as you are.

I’ll leave the validity of the 90% statistic (and the prevalence and causes of PTSD among sex workers) to someone more qualified. Worrying too much about the details could make us miss a more important point: Why should Lorelei Rivers give a shit what other sex worker want?

There is certainly nothing wrong if Lorelei Rivers wants to know the needs and desires of other sex workers. Maybe she’s just a good person who has empathy for others. But she shouldn’t have to care what other sex workers want. That is, her right to go about her business should not depend on how other people feel about it, and that includes other sex workers. If 99.9999% of sex workers want to quit and find a different line of work, but Lorelei Rivers prefers to keep doing what she’s doing, what possible justification can there be to stop her?

Because we live in a democracy, it may seem reasonable to worry about what the majority wants, but the desires of the majority are a distraction from the real issue, which is personal choice. It’s true that sometimes we have to make collective decisions — usually when making different individual choices would cause irreconcilable conflicts — so we depend on majority rule to tell us that stealing is illegal, and that we should drive on the right side of the road. But we can make our own choices about where to live, and whether to drink Pepsi or Coke.

Choice of employment, including employment as a sex worker, is a Pepsi or Coke kind of thing. In a free society, if some women want to be sex workers and others don’t, there’s no reason they can’t both get what they want.

The second example is even worse:

Again, the relevant portions:

Meghan Murphy: [Amnesty International] is a human rights org. Prostitution exists in fundamental opposition to women’s humans rights.

— and yet this prominent human rights organizations disagrees with you —

Miss Lorelei Rivers: Sex workers are humans who also deserve rights – including the right to make choices about their bodies and work.

Meghan Murphy: Women deserve REAL choices. Also, men should make the CHOICE not to pay vulnerable women for sexual access.

Lorelei Rivers has it right: People deserve the right to make their own choices, including the right to sell sexual services, and anyone who takes away that choice (whether through the U.S. model of jailing sex workers, or through the Nordic model of jailing the the people who pay them) is not respectful of their rights.

I don’t know what Meghan Murphy is trying to get at by claiming sex work is not a “real” choice. Usually when people try to dismiss someone else’s choice by saying it’s not “real,” they mean one of two things, and both of them are bullshit.

First, Meghan Murphy might mean that a woman’s choice to be a sex worker isn’t “real” because the women is deluded, or suffering from “false consciousness,” or is otherwise making a mistake. This raises the obvious question of why anyone should believe that Meghan Murphy is better at understanding Lorelei Rivers’ life than Lorelei Rivers is. There’s also the problem that claiming a choice isn’t “real” isn’t an argument. It’s an attempt to hide the fact that you don’t have an argument.

Second, Meghan Murphy might mean that a woman’s choice to be a sex worker isn’t “real” because many women who choose sex work are trapped in such dire circumstances (economic or otherwise) that sex work is the only way out. This actually makes a certain amount sense. Women who engage in sex work to save themselves from dire situations are like people who jump from a fourth story window to escape a burning building: The jump is a choice, but it’s a choice that is forced upon them by circumstances.

Of course, all our choices are constrained by our circumstances, so there’s a certain amount of special pleading in assuming that the choice to do sex work is qualitatively different from the choice to do something like construction work or nursing.

Even if we assume that sex work is special, there’s a bigger problem: When we see people jumping from a fourth floor window to escape a fire, our response should not be to stop them by boarding up the window! Similarly, if women are engaging in sex work out of desperation, it is presumptuous and possibly even dangerous to force them to stop.

(I’m sure sex work prohibitionists would point out that they’re providing exit services for sex workers — the equivalent of installing additional fire escapes in the burning building — but in that case, why bother boarding up the windows? If your exit services are getting women out of sex work, then why the need to criminalize it? If it’s because women are rejecting your exit services and staying in sex work, then perhaps you need to rethink how you’re “helping,” because it’s obviously not working.)

Then, of course, there’s the problem that some sex workers insist they aren’t desperate. I don’t know Lorelei Rivers, but I do know Maggie McNeill a bit, and I’m pretty confident she could be successful at a lot of other jobs besides sex work. But that’s not what she wants to do.

Which brings me back around to the prohibitionist’s pointless claim that sex workers like Maggie McNeill are highly privileged, and that most sex workers would rather quit. But so what? Why should Maggie McNeill give a shit what other sex workers want?

Does It Matter If Prostitution Clients are More Aggressive?

A few weeks ago people were talking about a new study by Melissa Farley that purports to find correlations in men between the purchase of sexual services and aggression towards women.

Sex buyers were more likely than men who did not buy sex to report sexual aggression and likelihood to rape. Men who bought sex scored higher on measures of impersonal sex and hostile masculinity and had less empathy for prostituted women, viewing them as intrinsically different from other women. When compared with non-sex-buyers, these findings indicate that men who buy sex share certain key characteristics with men at risk for committing sexual aggression […]

(Speaking of lack of empathy and treating sex workers as intrinsically different from other women, the phrase “prostituted women” implicitly robs sex workers of their agency, making it easier for anti-prostitution activists to ignore the voices of sex workers. That sort of language is a longstanding complaint from sex work activists. You’d think “facultied women” like Farley would know that by now.)

I really didn’t feel like reading the whole study, and fortunately I didn’t have to, because Elizabeth Nolan Brown has read it and she has a few concerns which are worth reading if you’re wondering about the accuracy of the study. Having said that, I’m not so sure that accuracy matters, because even if the study holds up, I don’t see how you can get from the results of this study to a policy of prohibiting sex work. If sex work clients are disproportionately dangerous, then wouldn’t it make more sense to decriminalize prostitution so that sex workers don’t have to work in secret and can safely ask for help when they need it?

I broke down and read some of the study, and it turns out Farley and company explain their thinking this way (internal citations omitted):

Researchers of prostitution have been largely polarized into two camps based on whether they understand prostitution to be primarily sexual labor or primarily sexual abuse.


Is a sex buyer’s use of a woman in prostitution motivated by the same dynamics that lead a person with resources to seek a service provider to clean their house or shine their shoes, or is the use of a woman in prostitution more akin to the dynamics seen in perpetrators of sexual violence? […] If buyers of sex, compared to those who do not buy sex, score higher on attitudes and behaviors of sexual aggression, given that prostitution is also a sexual practice, that result would empirically suggest that, for the consumer population, prostitution is a practice that is consistent with those attitudes and behaviors, making it more similar to a practice of sexual aggression than to the purchase of other services.


The question of whether prostitution is more like a job or whether it is more like abuse/sexual aggression is an important question on a societal level as well because it leads to very different policies. If prostitution is understood primarily as labor, then it needs to be legalized and regulated (as in the Netherlands, Germany, and Australia). If prostitution is understood primarily as abuse/sexual aggression, it needs to be abolished (as in Sweden, Norway, and Iceland).

That approach struck me as so wrong-headed that I had to stop writing this post because I couldn’t figure out how to explain why it bothers me. (And it’s not just because I’m shocked to read that prostitution has been successfully abolished in Sweden, Norway, and Iceland — which must be really shocking to Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic prostitutes.) It’s just absurd to try to determine if a relationship is exploitative by looking at aggregate statistics about psychology and attitude.

I mean, prostitution is often conflated with sex trafficking, a form of slavery, but would it make sense to judge whether slavery in America was bad for the slaves by profiling slave owners to see if they had sadistic tendencies?

Let me expand on that example. Not every black person living in the South was a slave. For a variety of reasons, about half of all free blacks — a couple of hundred thousand people — chose to live and work in the American South right up until the Civil War. In particular, some types of plantations had slaves working as skilled craftsmen. If they were freed, they often stayed in the area for economic reasons: They had developed skills that were valuable to plantation owners, so it made economic sense to stay with the plantations. These free craftsmen often worked side-by-side with slaves.

Now suppose an abolitionist version of Melissa Farley had discovered free black carpenters working on plantations in the South. It’s not hard to imagine her concluding that since plantation owners are known to use slave carpenters, which is clearly exploitation, the free carpenters must also be victims of exploitation by the plantation owners. Therefore, she would conclude, the best way to protect free blacks from exploitation is to outlaw carpentry on plantations.

The free black carpenters might try to explain that they were working on the plantations by their own choice, but it’s easy to imagine someone like Farley dismissing these claims for the same reasons people like her dismiss the claims of sex workers: She’d say they’d spent so much time as slaves that they’re suffering from “false consciousness.” Or since some of them used to supervise other slaves on the plantation, she’d accuse them of being part of the “slave driver lobby.”

It’s a bit of a stretch, but we could even imagine some sort of abolitionist NGOs that “rescue” free blacks and transport them to the North, even though the North wasn’t necessarily better than the South for free black people, especially since leaving the South meant abandoning their community and quitting lucrative jobs for less desirable work in the North.

In this historic setting, it’s pretty clear that “rescuing” free blacks would be a mistake. Our imaginary abolitionists claiming to rescue free blacks from plantation owners are in fact the ones ignoring the choices of free black workers. They would be the ones denying blacks their freedom.

The moral and ethical aspects of specific actions should not be confused with the general moral and ethical tendencies of the individuals who perform them. Enslaving black people is about as racist and white supremacist as you can get, but the plantation owner’s enslavement of some black people doesn’t mean that every black person found working on a plantation is the moral equivalent of a slave. A bad person doing good things doesn’t make the good things bad.

Similarly, asking whether clients of prostitutes have good attitudes toward women is missing the point. Prostitution is labor if the women get paid and choose to do it of their own free will, it’s abuse if the women get abused, and if the women are forced into it, it’s rape and human trafficking. We don’t need to do social surveys to get this right. What we need to do is make sure that sex workers are free to choose, and then we need to trust that they will make the best choices about who they accept as clients.

Everything Wrong With Feminist Anti-Sexwork Thinking In One Tweet

Here’s everything wrong with feminist anti-sexwork thinking in one tweet:

In case that wasn’t formatted right, that’s Lena Dunham, who opposes Amnesty International’s proposal to decriminalize prostitution, tweeting “While there are clearly sex workers by choice, the majority globally are there because of poverty, homelessness etc. Aka lack of choice.”

When she talks about “sex workers by choice,” I assume she’s talking about vocal activists who have made it clear that they think sex work is a great job. Around here that’s folks like Maggie McNeill, Mistress Matisse, Brooke Magnanti, Serpent Libertine, Furry Girl, and the whole Tits & Sass crowd. These are the sex workers (or former sex workers) who are speaking out in favor of Amnesty’s proposal, and who are arguing against Dunham’s condemnation of it.

The implication is that these women are special cases — sex work’s 1 percent — who have chosen sex work freely, and who are not representative of the vast majority of sex workers, especially worldwide, who are not doing sex work by choice.

If by “lack of choice” she meant coercive sex trafficking, she’d have a point, because by definition the victims of sex trafficking have no choice: They are slaves, and they are rape victims. There’s little evidence, however, that these victims are more than a small minority of sex workers, and in any case, Amnesty International is not proposing to legalize slavery and rape.

When Dunham writes “the majority globally are there because of poverty, homelessness etc,” she’s talking about poor women, often in developing countries, whose choices are severely limited by economics. The do sex work out of necessity, and Dunham doesn’t think that’s really much of a choice.

Unfortunately, statements like Dunham’s confuse the issue because they conflate two different meanings of the concept of choice, which can be defined as:

: the opportunity or power to choose between two or more possibilities : the opportunity or power to make a decision

: a range of things that can be chosen

By the last definition, choice is about the set of options available to you, but by the first definition, choice is about your power to control which option you pick.

The set of options available to you is outside your control. It depends on factors like your genetics, how you were raised, what society you were born into, what kind of people you met, and what kind of options they offered you. This kind of choice is about where life takes you, and a lot of it is just a matter of luck.

On the other hand, when activists talk about people choosing sex work, they are talking about the first definition: Women who, given the options available to them, have chosen to do sex work. A big part of the anti-sex-work message is the claim that no women would choose to be a prostitute, that all prostitutes are “prostituted” by someone, that they are all victims of human traffickers and pimps. One of the ways sex work activists counter those claims is to tell their own stories about the choices they made.

This is not to say that they chose that line of work from a field of infinite possibilities, but that they freely choose from the options available to them. And of course women living in “poverty, homelessness etc” have to choose from a smaller array of options.

Economist Amartya Sen has argued that the range of choices available to people is a better measure of comparative quality of life than the usual measures of income or consumption because it captures the value of having choices: All other things being equal, having access to a Walmart that sells 140,000 items makes your life better, and earning $50,000 in a free country is better than earning $50,000 in a totalitarian state. So when Dunham and others talk about “poverty, homelessness etc” limiting women’s choices, that’s another way of saying these women are poor.

We now arrive at the point where I really have trouble following the logic: If these poor women are choosing sex work because they have so few choices, you’d think the solution would be to offer them more choices, wouldn’t you? But if we criminalize the way they earn money, we’re reducing their choices. People who think like Dunham are advocating the very thing they are complaining about.

Or to approach it from a different direction, I’d like to ask Dunham why she thinks these poor women have decided to do sex work. Is she saying they’re too stupid to know better? I’m sure she’d deny it, but how else to explain why she’s disregarding the choices these women made about their own lives?

By definition, these women are trapped in a situation that offers them very few options, none of which are very good. And out of that array of bad options, they chose to do sex work. Doesn’t that mean that every other options was worse? So when you prevent them from doing sex work, aren’t you forcing them to do something that will make their lives worse? These poor women have decided that that sex work — sometimes referred to as “survival sex” — is their best option. It seems arrogant and unwise to think you know better than they do.

Unfortunately, when you try to make this argument, someone inevitably tries to put it in the worst way they can think of:

My response is that I could just as easily have started this post with that image and called it “Everything Wrong With Feminist Anti-Sexwork Thinking In One Tweet.”

(I’ll admit that message sounds pretty harsh, but that’s because we use references to blowjobs as insults: “You cocksucker! Suck my dick!” I’m not sure if that’s because telling another man to suck your dick implied that he was gay or effeminate or what, but given how much men enjoy getting blowjobs, it’s a little weird to imply that giving blowjobs is demeaning. I mean, what’s the message here? Giving a blowjob is demeaning to women, but you totally don’t think it’s demeaning when your girlfriend is giving you one?)

In any case, fair enough, I’ll own that. But I would phrase it a little differently: Poor women should be able to earn money by giving blowjobs to rich men if they want to. The if they want to part is real important, because I think we all agree it’s wrong to force women to sexually service men. But opponents of decriminalization apparently think it’s perfectly okay to use force to prevent prevent women from earning money by sexually servicing men.

I’ve got to wonder if the people who made this sign gave any thought to what would happen if rich men took their message to heart and stopped paying poor women for sex. Wouldn’t that make them even poorer?  Do these people imagine that, freed of the option of sex work, the women would all just go out and get better jobs? Or do they think that once those “rich men” can’t pay women for sex, they’ll instead contribute the money to charities for the poor?

Prostitution by poor women is called “survival sex” for a reason. And nothing good happens when you take away someone’s means of survival.

ProstCost – Part 3 of 3: The Meaning Of It All

This is my third and final post discussing the recently publicized ProstCost study by Le Mouvement du Nid that claims prostitution costs France 1.6 billion euros per year. In Part 1 I pointed out that the study needed to balance the costs of prostitution against the benefits. In Part2 I reviewed the costs described in the study and argued that many of them weren’t relevant to the question of legalization. Now in this part I’m going to go over a few details and discuss what it all means.

If you actually read both previous posts, you may have noticed that I place a lot of weight on the subjective judgements of the participants in the sex trade. If people are voluntarily paying for sex, I accept their decision and assume they are getting something that is, at least in their eyes, worth the money. And more to the point, if people are voluntarily performing sex acts for money, I accept their choice and assume they are receiving enough money to make it worth whatever costs — financial, physical, or psychological — they may incur.

Not everybody sees things this way. Many people feel that transactional sex inherently exploits sex workers, regardless of how the sex workers say they feel about it, and some people feel that prostitution is also harmful to men, because transactional sex is not as emotionally healthy as sex in the context of a loving relationship. They’re welcome to judge the situation that way, but in an economic benefit-cost analysis we have to accept everyone’s decisions equally.

We especially shouldn’t substitute our own judgement. That would be an error for at least three reasons:

First, that’s just not how economics is done. One of the basic assumptions in economic thinking is that people are rational utility maximizers, which is economist-speak for saying people are always trying to improve the quality of their lives, based on their own personal ideas of happiness. Economists assume that when people choose to do something — buy sex, sell sex, whatever — it’s because doing that thing will provide the greatest benefit in their lives at the lowest cost possible, according to their own evaluation of the benefits and costs.

Strictly speaking, that’s not always true. People make mistakes all the time, and economists are developing more complex models to refine their predictions accordingly. Nevertheless, there’s a difference between observing that people deviate from the rational utility maximizer model and proving that those deviations are large enough, imbalanced enough, and consistent enough to justify discarding people’s revealed preferences. In practice, the assumption that people will rationally pursue their own best interests is very useful, and if we discard it, we’re straying far from well-understood economics.

The second reason for not overriding people’s judgement with our own is that it’s not our life. The people making the decisions probably know a lot more about their lives than you or I do, and they have a much stronger incentive to make the right decision, since they will receive the benefits and suffer the costs.

Unlike most of us, sex workers don’t just read about prostitution, they don’t just study it. They live it. They work strange hours and see oddball clients, they have sex with strange men and do the emotional labor of pretending to enjoy it. They take all the risks everyone worries about, from getting ripped off to getting killed. They take the money, and they risk getting arrested and being labeled a criminal. They know a great deal about being a sex worker, and for us to think we can make better decisions about their lives is the height of arrogance.

That’s not to say that people don’t make mistakes about their own lives, since they certainly do. I think we can all speak from experience about that. And sometimes we can see other people are making a mistake even when they can’t. But to dismiss a whole group’s decisions about their own lives is to assume we are consistently smarter than all of them. That’s an amazing claim that should only be accepted under exceptional circumstances.

Sometimes, granted, circumstances are exceptional. Doctors, for example, often have a really good understanding of medical issues, and in the course of a medical career they must encounter thousands of examples of patients making health decisions that are just flat-out wrong. And yet…one of the core principles of medical ethics is to never do anything without a patient’s consent. If a patient is refusing treatment, doctors can have the results of thousands of dollars in lab tests, decades of medical history, and billions of dollars worth of peer-reviewed reproducible research saying that the patient is wrong, but medical ethics do not permit the doctor to force the treatment on the patient. But somehow the folks at Le Mouvement du Nid think their far less rigorous knowledge entitles them to make decisions for tens of thousands of sex workers they’ve never even met.

The third reason for not substituting our own judgement for the judgements of the people we’re studying is that it would be cheating.

Let’s say you hate the taste of brussels sprouts so much that you’d like the USDA to ban them for human consumption, and to support your effort you commission a survey to prove that the taste of brussels sprouts is so awful that no one would eat them, and therefore that farming them is a waste of agricultural resources.

When you get the survey results back, however, most of the participants say that brussels sprouts taste like week-old armpit, but a significant fraction of the population — a fraction large enough to account for all brussels sprout consumption in America — says they find brussels sprouts to be a tasty alternative to more traditional vegetables.

Obviously, no matter how wrong you think those people are about the taste of brussels sprouts (and they are very, very wrong), it would be unethical for you to simply discard their responses and present the remaining data in your study as if it were unbiased. If you discard the opinions of people who disagree with you, then of course the study will support your opinion.

That’s what you do if you try to perform an economic study but you substitute your own preferences for the preferences of the subjects of your study. That’s what the ProstCost study does when it counts the costs of prostitution but it ignores the benefits — benefits that must be present to explain why tens of thousands of people engage in sex work and hundreds of thousands more hire them.

Getting back to the study itself, I explained earlier that we know prostitutes produce their services for a cost of at most € 3.2 billion and consumers receive at least € 3.2 billion in benefits — together these are the producer and consumer surpluses from trade. The benefits almost have to be greater than the costs, but is the resulting gain greater than the € 202 million external cost that I calculated in the previous post?

I have no way to know without more economic data. However, € 202 million is only about 6.3% of the prostitution trade, so the surpluses wouldn’t have to be very big to overcome it.

We can, perhaps, make some headway by looking at the taxes. Even if the people making money from prostitution are able to evade € 853 million in income taxes by hiding their earnings as the study indicates, there are lots of other taxes which they can’t avoid.

They have to live somewhere, so they can’t avoid paying residence and land taxes, and everything they buy is subject to value-added taxes (similar to sales taxes), and there are also some industrial taxes that are passed along to consumers. The sex workers may not report their income, but they still have to spend money, and some of that money eventually gets paid as taxes.

We can make a rough estimate of how much sex workers still still pay in taxes because we know that the tax burden in France is about 45%, which means that the expected tax burden on € 3.2 billion in prostitution earnings is about € 1440 million. Even if they manage to evade € 853 million of it, that still leaves an expected € 587 million in paid taxes, or about 2.9 times the € 202 million external social cost.

So based on the data in the study, plus a few other statistics and some economic thinking, prostitution provides a net benefit to France.

At the beginning of this post, I speculated that one of the reasons Le Mouvement du Nid conducted this study was that they objected to the recent decision to include prostitution in European Union GDP calculations. However, as far as I can tell, most of the costs discussed in the ProstCost study have nothing to do with GDP.

Taking money from taxpayers and giving it to poor people may be the compassionate thing to do, but it’s not a productive activity. Therefore these transfer payments do not go into the GDP calculation. So if I’m right that “Cost implications direct social” refers to anti-poverty welfare transfers, then these items have no effect on GDP and neither do taxes or, more importantly for our purposes, evasion of taxes.

“Direct costs Medical (Cost of health)” is healthcare workers producing healthcare, so it actually adds € 85 million to French GDP. And “Direct costs non-medical” is the cost of government employees doing something presumably productive, so that’s another € 35 million, for a total of about € 120 million contributed to GDP.

(If it strikes you as odd that poor health can lead to expenditures that show up as increased GDP, you’re not alone. It’s one of the reasons why economists warn that GDP is only a very rough proxy for national well-being. Neither pro- nor anti-sex work advocates should really be arguing GDP. It’s the wrong economic measure for this kind of thing.)

“Human costs for people Prostitutes” — rape and murder — are not traded in the marketplace, so they are left out of GDP calculations, as are “Homicides/Suicides.”

“Losses production due to incarcerations” is a direct hit on GDP that reduces it by € 19 million, but that loss is due to criminalization of prostitution, not to prostitution itself, so the effect on GDP is still around € 120 million.

I don’t know what goes into “Placing children.” If we treat that € 59 million as the cost of caring for children, that’s a productive activity that goes into GDP. If it’s a transfer payment, then it doesn’t. Let’s assume the latter, and keep our total at around € 120 million.

The remaining costs amount to € 1547 million, but they don’t affect GDP.

The net effect so far is that the “costs” of prostitution seems to be producing a total of € 120 million in additional GDP because of spending on healthcare and government services.

To be honest, that could be completely illusory. We don’t know what would happen to all those healthcare and government workers if they weren’t getting paid to provide services to sex workers. Maybe they would would be unemployed, in which case the € 120 million is a real gain to GDP, or maybe they would just be doing some other work, in which case they’d still get about € 120 million, implying that prostitution contributed nothing. The real answer is probably somewhere in the middle.

(As I said, counting medical expenditures for health problems probably isn’t the best idea for measuring social welfare — if doctors didn’t have to take care of sick sex workers, French society could presumably spend the money some other way. This is why I counted them as costs in my analysis in part 2.)

Of course, even if that GDP gain from healthcare and government spending is illusory, there’s another huge GDP gain that is not: The € 3.2 billion that prostitution adds directly to the GDP. Unless you’re able to make a convincing argument that prostitution — unlike all other work — doesn’t belong in the GDP, that’s a hard number to beat.

(And remember, you can’t argue that the € 3.2 billion should be excluded from GDP because prostitution is a crime and then argue against decriminalization of prostitution because it doesn’t help GDP. That’s cheating again.)

The study concludes with an odd note:

“It is important to note that while prostitution customers spent their money in any other activity, the French company would save each year several hundred million euros expenses related to the consequences of prostitution and parallel increase its tax revenues of at least EUR 853 million.”

I’m having trouble getting my head around what that even means. Counterfactual propositions are always tricky to think about, but that one is really broad and open ended. I’m not even going to attempt a full analysis. But I’ve got to ask a few questions.

What if prostitution consumers quit hiring sex workers and decided instead to spend their € 3.2 billion on high-end iPads and Ford F-150 pickup trucks? Those are imported, so France would still lose € 853 million in taxes. And without that € 3.2 billion flowing to sex workers, they would be unemployed, which would certainly cause social welfare spending to skyrocket. Even if they did find jobs, they would probably pay less or have other less desirable features. After all, if there were easily available jobs that were better than sex work, why would there be sex workers?

That last point is actually pretty important. Sex workers do sex work for the same reason all of us do our jobs: Because it is the best job they can find that meets their requirements. If their customers went away, it would reduce the quality of their lives. We know this because if having no customers raised the quality of their lives, they could simply quit the business.

However, the real problem with the quoted observation is that even if we assume that everything I’ve written in these three posts is dead wrong, and even if we accept the premise that if prostitution customers spent their money on any other activity, the French economy really would save € 1.6 billion, it’s still just a fantasy.

Sure, if hundreds of thousands of French men all voluntarily decided to give up a bit of their personal happiness out of an altruistic desire to improve the welfare of others, that would make other French people’s lives a little better. But that’s never going to happen.

Or to put it another way, why is Le Mouvement du Nid thinking so small? Why limit their fantasies to having Frenchmen give up only prostitution? As long as they’re looking for imaginary solutions, why not imagine how much better France would be if everyone also gave up burglaries, car thefts, robberies, rapes, murders, scams, riots, and public corruption? I’m sure that would save a lot of money too.

In the real world, if Le Mouvement du Nid wants to get French men to give up hiring sex workers, they’re going to have to do it with some kind of law enforcement “end demand” policy that will force them to stop. That might be possible, but the effort would be an enormously expensive War On Prostitution, for which we haven’t even begun to estimate the cost.

In the end, what I’ve seen so far of this study doesn’t prove much of anything. I may change my mind if I ever see a better translation or more data from the actual study, but until then I think this whole thing is better viewed as a publicity stunt.

ProstCost – Part 2 of 3: Counting the Cost

This is my second post discussing the recently publicized ProstCost study by Le Mouvement du Nid which claims prostitution costs France 1.6 billion euros per year. In Part 1 I discussed the key missing figure from the study: The economic benefits of prostitution. I also listed some important caveats which apply to this post as well.

Now I’d like to discuss the costs described in the study. I should warn you, this will be getting into the weeds.

Before that, however, I want to discuss a cost that the study never directly addresses: The production cost of prostitution, as paid by the sex workers themselves. This includes not just financial out-of-pocket costs, but also the time value of the sex worker’s labor and any costs in the sex worker’s quality of life. That cost would be difficult to determine directly, but we can once again use the economist’s trick to set a bound.

Going back to that $50 steak dinner from the previous post, how much do you think it costs the restaurant to prepare and serve it? Well, just as you wouldn’t buy it unless it was worth more than $50 to you, the restaurant wouldn’t sell it for $50 unless it cost less than that to make. $50 was the lower bound of its value to you, but it’s the upper bound of its cost to the restaurant.

Except in the degenerate case where both you and the restaurant value the steak at exactly $50, the steak is being transferred from an owner who puts a value of less than $50 on it to an owner who puts a value of more than $50 on it. For example, it might cost the restaurant $45 to prepare the steak, and you might be willing to pay $60 to eat it. When you buy it for $50, the restaurant gets $50 for its $45 steak — a $5 gain — and you get a $60 steak for $50 — a $10 gain. That’s a combined net gain of $15. You have made the world $15 richer. This is the economic benefit of trade.

And just as we estimated the benefits of prostitution to be at least € 3.2 billion per year, we can estimate that the production costs must be at most € 3.2 billion per year. The difference between the production cost and the value to the consumer is the economic social gain from prostitution, at least for those participating in it.

That’s not quite the whole story. Even though clients gain more than sex workers lose, it’s possible there are third parties who experience losses that outweigh the gain. That’s the implication of the ProstCost study, and we ought to take a closer look at it.

The ProstCost study breaks the costs out into six main categories. The first one I want to look at is “Human costs for people Prostitutes.” (Because I’m using Google Translate to get the category names, I’m going to quote them as a reminder that the translation is shaky.) This is where the study tries to estimate equivalent financial amounts for non-financial costs. Here’s the list:

ItemCost (€ million)
Rapes and attempts rape19
Other violence Physical suffered89
Excess mortality linked to prostitution132
Other violence psychological71

Some commentators are concerned that the study assigns financial costs to very non-financial harms like rape and murder. I understand why that creeps people out, but it’s really the only way to answer or even ask these kinds of questions: You have to have some way to compare costs and benefits, so you have to translate them to a common measurement. People have always been willing to risk their well-being for money or the things that money can buy, and we have some idea how they make those tradeoffs, so we have some reasonable methods of assigning financial costs to these kinds of risks.

A more troublesome issue is that this category is counting crimes against sex workers as a cost of prostitution. We see this attitude with some other crimes, where victims are punished for making themselves vulnerable — from cops ticketing people who leave their cars unlocked to efforts to shut down bars where fights break out.

Furthermore, it’s arguable that much of this crime against sex workers is exacerbated by the criminalization of prostitution and related activities. It makes sex workers reluctant to report even serious crimes to police — because police might decide to arrest them — and it discourages business practices that would make them safer, such as keeping records, installing security cameras, and hiring people to protect them.

The fundamental problem with the study’s approach, however, is that including these costs makes no sense because these costs are borne entirely by the sex workers themselves under the € 3.2 billion cost cap I calculated above. Sex workers are smart enough to take these costs into account when deciding to do that kind of work, and therefore the ones doing that kind of work are those who have accepted the costs in return for the benefits.

A similar cost category in the ProstCost study is “Direct costs Medical (Cost of health),” which is estimated at € 85 million per year. The study says these estimates are for costs “specifically related to prostitution,” and I’m going to assume that € 85 million is (as it should be) only the excess cost of medical care for sex workers over and above that of other people in the same demographic.

If this was in the United States, I would lump medical costs into the previous category because they would be borne directly by the sex workers themselves. Because this is France, however, some of those costs are covered by national health insurance, which makes them a cost born by the French public.

Another similar category is € 58 million for “Cost implications direct social” which is, from the looks of the individual items, a collection of social welfare programs. Assuming again that these numbers are estimates of the excess costs — the costs of sex workers compared to the population average costs — then they are legitimate costs borne by the French public.

What’s less clear about these costs is which way the causality is flowing: It’s not clear that prostitution causes poverty. Certainly some desperately poor people have turned to prostitution as a way to survive, but in that case it’s the poverty that’s causing the prostitution. In fact, the prostitution income is probably reducing social welfare spending.

More generally, it seems likely that poverty and prostitution have co-factors — conditions that make it hard to hold a well-paying regular job, but which are less of a problem for people doing sex work — lack of education, mild mental disorders, substance abuse, medical problems, single parenthood. If French sex workers are disproportionately likely to face such difficulties, that could create a correlation that the study would detect.

Another category is “Direct non-medical costs,” which consists of “Administration penitentiary,” “Activities police and gendarmerie,” and “Activities criminal Justice,” which are estimated to cost € 35 million per year. In other words, part of the cost of prostitution, according to the study, is the cost of enforcing the laws against prostitution (or related activities like solicitation and pimping).

That’s not quite as crazy as it sounds. When counting the social cost of a crime, it is standard practice to count the cost of preventing the crime. The social cost of burglary includes not only costs imposed by burglars on their victims, but also the costs paid by society to prevent burglary — door locks, alarm systems, security guards, police detectives, and so on. It’s not just the cost of burglary, but the cost of living in a society that has burglars in it.

The catch is that this kind of analysis assumes the activity in question is a crime, so it’s not applicable when you’re trying to decide whether something should be a crime. That would be assuming the conclusion. And if you never make prostitution a crime, you never have to pay the cost of punishing people for it.

One of the more baffling categories is “Cost of traffic money money prostitution” (honestly, that’s how Google translates it) which appears to be tax evasion, broken down like this:

ItemCost (€ million)
Tax evasion: Direct taxes212.00
Tax evasion: levies Compulsory641.00

I know I said I wouldn’t get in to data quality issues, but reading the translation, I can’t for the life of me figure out how they estimated this, even assuming they have a good estimate of the number of prostitutes or how much money they make.

I’m also confused by the fact that the study authors divide the estimated spending on prostitution, € 3.2 billion, by the estimate of 37,000 working prostitutes to get an average annual earning per prostitute of € 85,700. As near as I can tell, that is more than double the median household income in France, which made me question the study’s figures for the burden of prostitution on social welfare programs.

Looking at some diagrams in the original summary, I see they are saying that of the € 3.2 billion in gross prostitution earnings, about € 1.4 billion of it goes to “pimps.” I assume that when they say “pimps,” they are talking about the sex workers’ business operating expenses, which may include a payment to what we usually think of as a pimp, but may also include things like agency fees, advertising, drivers, hotel bills, and apartment rentals. This would still leave € 1.8 billion for the prostitutes, meaning the the average prostitute’s take-home pay is roughly the same as the median household income, which still conflicts with public aid costs. (I suppose there could be distributional issues that make it all make sense.)

The French tax burden is really high, so it’s plausible tax evasion could amount to more than 25% of income. Sex workers probably earn most of their money in cash, so hiding the income wouldn’t be difficult. In fact, they’d probably have the opposite problem — figuring out how to report the income and pay taxes so they can put the money in a bank and spend it in ways that would be visible to tax authorities.

Of course, if sex workers can work legally, they’d probably have to behave more like regular businesses, which would make it harder to evade taxes. Besides, it’s hard to blame them for not paying taxes when honest reporting would likely get them arrested for a victimless crime. Tax evasion is both enabled and encouraged by the criminalization of prostitution.

In any case, just as it doesn’t make sense to hold sex workers responsible for the costs of law enforcement, it doesn’t make sense to hold sex workers responsible for the effects of France’s tax policy.

This section of the summary also sees fit to mention that 45% of the money earned by prostitution is sent out of the country. They don’t say how the money is sent (or how they could possibly know about it), but I think we’re supposed to imagine some sort of shadowy international trafficking ring. I’m guessing that in reality it’s mostly remittances — immigrants sending money to family back home.

I don’t know why the study authors consider this a problem. It may be that money earned by (for example) Romanian sex workers in France is flowing out of France to their families in Romania, but in return French men get to have sex with Romanian sex workers. This is called international trade, and it’s usually considered a good thing.

The most confusing section is titled “Costs aftermath indirect social,” which is broken out this way:

ItemCost (€ million)
Placing children59.00
Losses production due to incarcerations19.00

I have no idea what “Placing children” means here, and the Google translation isn’t clear, so just for the sake of argument, I’m going to assume it’s a real social cost of prostitution.

As for “Homicides/Suicides,” I’ll summarize what I said above: To the extent that these are due to prostitution, they are risks assumed voluntarily by the prostitutes. Furthermore, the correlation between suicide and prostitution is not proven to be caused by prostitution; there could be confounding co-factors that cause both. Finally, at least part of the homicide rate is probably due to sex workers’ adversarial relationship with the police and the resulting loss of personal security due to the need to work in secret.

Finally, I’m saving the most infuriating cost for last: “Losses production due to incarcerations.” In other words, we’ve thrown people involved in prostitution in jail, and now we’re going to blame them because they aren’t holding down a job. By any sane accounting, this is a cost of criminalization.

So what is the cost of prostitution in France? Here’s how the costs in the study sort out according to the categories I’ve been using:

CategoryCost (€ million)
Cost of Criminalization54
Cost Absorbed by Prostitutes539
Public Cost: Health85
Public Cost: Social Services Cost117
Tax Evasion853

Of these, only the public costs go into the benefit-cost calculation for prostitution, which leaves us with external costs totaling € 202 million.

In the third and final part, I’ll add a few more details and try sum it all up.

Update: Part 3 is up.

ProstCost – Part 1 of 3: Missing the Benefits

Recently, sex work activists on Twitter took notice of a news story about the recently publicized ProstCost study by Le Mouvement du Nid that claims prostitution costs France 1.6 billion euros per year. Since the internet is full of studies of “the cost of X” that are little more than some organization’s talking points. I thought it might be worthwhile to take a closer look at this study.

Before getting into my thoughts, I have a few important caveats:

  1. I’m working from a summary of the study, not the actual study, which I believe is still unpublished. It’s often the case that formal studies are much more rigorous, nuanced, and cautious than the summaries and press materials that are prepared from them. So when I talk about “the study,” my comments really only apply to the summary of the study, taken as a standalone expression of its ideas.
  2. The study summary is in French, which I can’t speak or read, so everything I’m writing here is based on a Google translation, which means there’s a fair chance that something got really mangled. I’m trying to stick with parts of the study that don’t seem to depend on subtle meaning, but there’s a pretty good chance I got something wrong.
  3. I’m going to leave discussion of the quality of the data in the study to people like Maggie McNeill who know a lot more about the available data than I do. For my purposes, I’m not going to dispute the numbers in the ProstCost study. That doesn’t mean they are correct, however, because how would I know?
  4. Prostitution is technically legal in France, but various related activities such as soliciting and pimping are not. Law enforcement definitions in this area are often real stretchy (e.g. two sex workers operating together may be arrested for pimping each other) so in practice prostitution is still pretty much a crime. Consequently, I’m going to assume for purposes of the study that basically all arrests are of prostitutes, even if that’s not the charge against them.

With those warnings in mind…

Some have speculated that the ProstCost study is intended to discourage further decriminalization and even support re-criminalization of prostitution. If so, I think it fails to make its case.

The study is also a response to the European Union’s decision to start including prostitution in the the national accounting figures for Gross Domestic Product:

In 2014, the European Commission proposed that Member States the European Union to increase their “national wealth” including the turnover of prostitution in the calculation of their GDP. In France, INSEE has refused to bow to European demand explaining to rightly, that prostitution is akin least a “provision of voluntary services” as an exploitation of the people more precarious.

ProstCost, unpublished study by the Mouvement du Nid – France and Psytel takes from behind the myth of creative prostitution increasing growth and provides an estimate of the dual economic burden and the social system of prostitution poses to his victims and the whole society.

Mouvement du Nid appears to believe that counting prostitution in the GDP figures will normalize it and make it politically more difficult to fight, and this study is apparently intended to show that prostitution is in fact a burden on the economy. I don’t believe the study makes this case either.

When analyzing a policy choice such as whether or not prostitution should be legal, the most useful approach is probably a benefit-cost analysis of the effect on social welfare. Which leads me to the most important question you can ask about a study purporting to show the cost of something: Does the study include benefits as well? Because if you count only the costs, everything seems like a bad idea. A fair evaluation requires examining the good and the bad.

That doesn’t mean studies that only account for costs are necessarily faulty or deceptive. It can make sense to study only the costs as long as everyone understands that a complete analysis will require study of the benefits as well. For example, we may know the cost of producing a new drug from a pharmaceutical corporation’s recorded expenditures, but we might not have a very realistic idea of its effectiveness until people have been taking it for a few years.

Studies also don’t discuss benefits when the benefits are already well understood. Probably the most common example is when there are no benefits, such as with diseases and natural disasters. Hurricanes and pandemics are deadweight losses which have no upside, so studies don’t bother to account for any benefits.

Unfortunately, some studies assume away all benefits in situations where it’s misleading at best and deceptive at worst. For example, I’ve been meaning to blog about this study, which I believe is the source of several reports on the cost of alcohol consumption. The problem is that the study doesn’t even attempt to account for the benefits of alcohol consumption — benefits which are obvious to anyone who’s had a nice wine with dinner or partied the night away with friends.

That doesn’t mean the study is crap. The public health entities that fund these studies aren’t interested in parties, so they don’t need that in the study. What it does mean, however, is that you can’t use studies like this to answer questions about whether it’s a good policy to allow people to drink alcohol. The study implicitly assumes that alcohol consumption is only bad.

The ProstCost study similarly fails to discuss the benefits of prostitution, so it isn’t suitable for answering the question of whether prostitution should be a crime. By neglecting the benefits, it is implicitly assuming that prostitution is always bad.

We can try to fix that by coming up with an estimate of the social benefits of prostitution in France. You might think this would be a massive research project involving lots of fuzzy estimates of intangible benefits, but economists have developed a neat trick that works in situations like this, and it turns out that the ProstCost study already has all the information we need.

The key insight is that when you buy something, you don’t generally pay more than it’s worth to you. Oh, you might complain that the price is too high, but you don’t really mean it, in the sense that you still go ahead and buy it. You might think that $50 steak dinner in the hotel restaurant is overpriced, but if you still buy it, it’s pretty clear that you must have thought, in some sense, that it was worth $50 to you.

Or more precisely, you must have thought it was worth at least $50 to you. You might think it was the best steak dinner you ever had — worth it at twice the price — or you might only just barely have been willing to part with $50 for the steak dinner rather than have something else. In either case we can sure you didn’t think it was worth less than $50, because $50 is what you paid. We can therefore safely assume that its value to you has a lower bound of $50.

The ProstCost study estimates that France’s 37,000 prostitutes earn about 3.2 billion euros per year. That’s the same as saying that prostitution clients are spending about € 3.2 billion per year. By the same logic we used with your steak dinner, we can deduce that prostitution clients are receiving benefits of at least € 3.2 billion per year.

Basically, we’re done right there. Even if we accept for the sake of argument that the ProstCost study’s estimate that prostitution costs € 1.6 billion per year, we can subtract that amount from the € 3.2 billion benefit to see that prostitution in France still produces a net benefit of € 1.6 billion per year.

That’s not the impression you’d get from press reports with headlines like “Prostitution costs France ‘€1.6 billion each year'” is it. Perhaps a better headline would be “Prostitution sector contributes €1.6 billion to French economy.”

In my next post on this topic, I’ll discuss the costs of prostitution, as identified by the study and as estimated by me.

Update: Part 2 is up.