One last note on the whole Spitzer affair. The reason I think it’s dangerous to use the sexual habits of other species (or even other human cultures) as a baseline when discussing prostitution is that the evolutionary argument has very clear policy implications. If, as David Barash argued, sexual infidelity is not only natural but normal and inescapable, then you’d have a strong argument for the legalization of prostitution. (Let’s call this the Netherlands model.) After all, why criminalize what can’t be helped?
However, if you believe that our sexual urges, while powerful, can still be checked – we have a prefrontal cortex for a reason – you might be inclined to endorse a prostitution policy more in line with Sweden. Nicholas Kristof explains:
The Netherlands formally adopted the legalization model in 2000, and there were modest public health benefits for the licensed prostitutes. But legalization nurtured a large sex industry and criminal gangs that trafficked underage girls, and so trafficking, violence and child prostitution flourished rather than dying out.
As a result, the Netherlands is now backtracking on its legalization model by closing some brothels, and other countries, like Bulgaria, are backing away from that approach.
In contrast, Sweden experimented in 1999 with a radically different approach that many now regard as much more successful: it decriminalized the sale of sex but made it a crime to buy sex. In effect, the policy was to arrest customers, but not the prostitutes.
Some Swedish prostitutes have complained that the policy reduced demand and thus lowered prices, while forcing sex work underground. But the evidence is strong that the new approach reduced trafficking in Sweden, and opinion polls show that Swedes regard the experiment as a considerable success. And the bottom line is that if you want to rape a 13-year-old girl imported from Eastern Europe, you’ll have a much easier time in Amsterdam than in Stockholm.
A growing number of other countries are pursuing the Swedish model. South Korea had a vast trafficking industry in the 1990s, but a crackdown has led Korean gangs to traffic girls to California instead — because pimping teenagers there is seen as safer and more profitable than at home.
The reason Sweden’s policy seems to be more effective is that it targets the demand side of the equation. It turns out that, by altering the incentives at work, you can even change decisions about sex. Sure, the cheap sperm of men ensures that we’re naturally randy and horny. But this doesn’t mean we are powerless to resist our primitive impulses. Even the horniest of men will think twice before embarking on a crime that will land them in jail.