There is an old engineering proverb that it is easier to fix the problem than it is to fix the solution. Its wisdom is this: avoid flawed presumptions that lead to false solutions. One Irish newspaper covered a recent publication by the U.S. State Department on human trafficking globally. 78 suspected victims of human trafficking, or modern-day slavery, were located in Ireland in 2015 the newspaper disclosed: 22 were mere children, and 48 were exploited in the sex trade. In response, an editorial momentarily struck the right note by pointing to market behaviour, before proceeding to conjure the dependable bogeyman of the Catholic Church, and using the Church to springboard spectacularly to a position from where it advocated it was “time to legalise and regulate this industry – and better protect those who are forced to work in it”. Can the sex trade be regulated? Is it in the interests of the trade to be regulated? Fortunately the days when these questions were purely speculative have passed.
One of the objections to prostitution is that it commodifies human beings. This objection asserts that prostitution treats fellow human beings as items of trade, or as mere commodities. This objection is itself the source of a counter-objection, because it is a moral argument, and moral arguments are not en vogue nowadays. It is true, this is indeed a moral argument, but this is only part of the picture, as it is also an economic one. Exceptions aside, the economics of prostitution are the very same economics belonging to commodities. They assure that it is never in the interests of the trader to be burdened with costs, even those of a regulatory regime. This is why regulation does not belong to the sphere of prostitution, because it is incompatible with the economics interests of prostitution, and it is too why proponents of regulation are attempting, not to fix the problem, but to apply a solution which simply does not fit.
In 2000 the Dutch legalised prostitution with the expectation of regulation. To impose the necessary control they set about trying to establish what needed to be regulated. To do this Dutch law required prostitutes to register. Advocates of legalisation appear to have taken the trade’s consent to comply for granted, but from even the earliest days of the new regime it was not forthcoming. Thirteen years later, it was much the same with a petition from the Prostitution Information Center, opposing basic measures because, it claimed, “Government databases are never temporary and never secret. Anyone registered as prostitute in the database will carry that label for the rest of their life. Although the Netherlands is a so-called ‘tolerant’ society, the limits to Dutch ‘tolerance’ and social acceptance are narrower than one might think,” it added. These measures deemed absolutely critical, by the country’s national rapporteur on trafficking, to producing some semblance of meaningful regulation had to be abandoned and even stripped from law before it could be passed. The Dutch may have intended to regulate prostitution, but success does not rest on intent.
Establishing even the most basic of facts about the trade there today remains difficult. Nobody can say, for example, precisely how many prostitutes operate in the Netherlands, even after all these years. The shroud which once enveloped the trade remains in place, but where it was once used as a reason to legalise it, it is now used to defend the trade against criticism now that it has been legalised. All that can be relied upon comes in the form of estimates. Terrifyingly, one of these, given in this year’s edition of the Global Slavery Index, puts the population of modern-day slaves in the Netherlands at a staggering 17,500 persons. Yes, that’s 17,500 slaves! Given that sex trafficking in prostitution is the main form of human trafficking experienced in the Western World, the sex trade in the Netherlands must predictably account for most of those held in slavery there. Is this the solution we seek to emulate?
With over 45 million believed to be living in its grasp, slavery has returned to the world. Ireland can certainly choose to legalise prostitution. It will not succeed at regulating it however, for the very same reasons the Dutch have failed. One can promote the cause of prostitutes or the cause of prostitution, but one cannot promote the cause of both. It has always been so, for it was written of King Cotton at the South, that he was not slowed by “the cries of the oppressed, while the citizens of the world are dragging forward his chariot, and shouting aloud his praise!” This is the choice before Ireland today: do we consent to protect the consumer or the consumed.