Sex, Evolution and Sweden

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.

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Intersting point on Sweden/Netherlands. I've seen a few variations on the "Legalization = more trafficing" argument, but haven't seen is spelled out quite as clearly.

A side point is that prostitution may need to be heavily regulated, as opposed to simply "allowed". I admit though, that I'd need to see more evidence of the sort of regulations and enforcement done in places where prostitution is legalized to see if that's an option.

As with a lot of similar "vice" crimes, my interest is not in preserving morality as much as reducing the dangers caused by those actions. I.e. with prostitution, the exploitation of women, related crime, addiction, violence, human trafficking and the spread of STDs are all serious problems that need to be addressed. How best to minimize those dangers is IMHO an open question that may have no "right" answer.

Finally, one problem I have with the Evolutionary Psychology issue is that it seems to miss key elements of evolution: i.e. diversity and fitness relative to the environment. So to say that infidelity is universal ignored the likelihood that there's lots of variation between individuals as to desired mating behaviors (lifelong monogamy, serial monogamy, polygamy/polyandry, bigamy, polyamoury, homosexuality, rape...) and that those behaviors might be affected by the environment (availability of mates, legislation, cultural taboos).

Thus changing the laws to favor certain kinds of relationships changes the environment in which those behaviours exist in, and might over time change the prevalence of those behaviours.

Interesting comment, I didn't know about the increased trafficking in NL. But your analysis must be missing some important factors. In the US, except for rural parts of Nevada, both buying and selling sex is illegal. Theoritically* this should put constraints on both the supply and demand sides. Therefore, SK shouldn't make more by shipping girls to California because the sex trade should be very depressed.

* I know that practicazlly speaking, enforcement against the sex workers is easier because they have to have a certain visibility to attract customers.

I suspect the actual effort put into enforcement is probably at least as important as what the actual law is. Legalised prostitution in registered brothels, with help for drug and STD problems and a strict crackdown on trafficking, could work. So could a strict, well-enforced ban. Just saying "don't do it" and then not enforcing the rules is probably the worst option: it's a profitable business, so will carry on, but being illegal makes it harder for prostitutes to get help with related problems or to get out of prostitution.

However, if you believe that our sexual urges, while powerful, can still be checked

I don't know about this "however", it doesn't sound like this is in any way in opposition with Barash's comments. He was just noting that there exist urges to check in the first place, and it's not terribly surprising if the checking doesn't always happen. One would think this wouldn't be all that controversial a statement, except to, say people like Steven Jay Gould who believe "vulgar biology" stops at the neck and above that it's all magic.

By El Christador (not verified) on 13 Mar 2008 #permalink

Seems to me that the porn industry model may be a solution. They have strict laws on record keeping as well as rules on very frequent health checks. All providers and agencies should be licensed and required to keep strict records on identity and eligibility to work. By being required to register and be "licensed," and to verify age and employment status as well as show regular checkups for STDs, - and still make it a crime to be underaged, unregistered and undocumented - you could greatly avoid the Copenhagen problem and make a safe and legal sex industry.

I personally see nothing wrong with the act of prostitution so long as it is between consenting adults who enter into such an arrangement of their own free will.

What "Copenhagen problem"?

-Peter Lund, Copenhagen

By Peter Lund (not verified) on 13 Mar 2008 #permalink

You know, Copenhagen, the capital of the Netherlands :-)

By Billy Kropotkin (not verified) on 13 Mar 2008 #permalink

Where did Nicholas get his information on the Netherlands and increased trafficking? I dare to guess that it is the old problem with explanations for increased numbers of caught criminals:
- our approach is a succes, because we get more criminals
- the approach is not a succes, because we see increased criminal activity

And what is anyway the connection between trafficking and laws on prostitution?
Let's go through this one: prostitution is legalized, for some strange reason the demand increases (all of a sudden all kinds of man who 'didn't dare' go to a prostitute now feel free to visit one?) and because of this enourmous increase in demand for the service, extra workers have to be imported??? Come on! there is no increase in demand because of the legalisation. Especially here in the Netherlands where the prostitution was sort of accepted.

The comment on raping 13 year old girls makes me sick. Just let Nicholas ask around in Amsterdam for this 'service' he apparantly likes so much. Apart from being molested, he will be arrested within minutes!

Jefrir is right: the enforcement off the laws (eg. legal prostitutes can be controlled for workcircumstances, a lisence etc etc) is as always the factor which really makes a difference.

By the way, I got to this website, via a 'science'-link. Maybe you should consider another umbrella (like 'conservationalistic fantasies on human behavour, based on nothing but our own imagination - although presented as facts')

By dimensional view (not verified) on 14 Mar 2008 #permalink

How exactly did "legalization" "nurture" "trafficking" and "violence"? As a number of the comments suggest, a correlation between the two may have very little to do with causation. Another correlation with legalization and trafficking is an increasingly dynamic split between romantic, nationalist and future-anxious conservatives around the world and their progressive, cosmopolitan and future-oriented liberals counterparts has only exacerbated problems in sex-gender relations. So much of this is a question of sex-gender power relations purported to be based on an argument routed in ecologically fallacious assumptions about direct links between the energetics of sperm vs. egg production and the culturally- and experientially-situated practices of individuals possessing wildly divergent levels of social, historical, comparative and individual self-reflexivity.

In re: the critique of SJ Gould, the question is whether you believe the (broad-spectrum) not terribly surprising lack of check on "innate" sexual urges lies in the overweening power of nature over subjectivity or the contradictions and dysfunctions of social relations. The idea that our sexualities are routed in some a- or pre-social evolution utterly elides the historical record of the coevolution of our bodies, minds and societies. Gould never suggested we weren't animals, he simply insisted we were far more than animals and that this fact meant that the tendencies towards (polemical and) naturalistic explanations in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology was predicated on strategically ignoring an awful lot of empirical data and intellectual analysis.

dimensional view: one doesn't have to read Nick Kristof very long to see his ideological slant, his analytic weaknesses and the empirical limitations of just about everything he writes.

It's amazing how easily some guy with a strong ideological slant can convince even scientists that he is right without actually providing any real substance, sources or numbers.

One of my favourite examples of this was when legalization of medical marijuana happened in California. Immediately afterwards it looks like (if you look at police arrests) everyone and their dog started doing marijuana in California, when in reality, a lot of the enforcement activity was simply better targeted.

If consenting adult prostitution was made legal, a lot of the real problems with prostitution (ie. underage and such) would seem to increase. Not because more people are "raping 13 year olds", but because all of the police effort wasted on telling consenting adults what they can and cannot do in the privacy of their own homes would be suddenly available for policing the laws that matter. Unfortunately though, this suddenly makes all of those charts look like legalization made these sick crimes go up, when in reality, legalization made enforcement of these sick crimes go up.

While I think the "prostitution should be legal/illegal" debate does not have a clear answer. With people like Nick stirring up the mud, and making the issue a lot more fuzzy with scientifically useless, but ideological but emotionally stirring statements like "Raping 13 year olds" simply doesn't help anything.

It's a real disappointment how many people you, pandagon, and others are repeating this story as fact without any real examination of the fact that this guy is not a researcher, is not unbiased, and basically just wants prostitution illegal (And hence underground). I think the issue is not as clear as anyone is making it out to be, and simply put the Netherlands do need to adjust their laws a bit to deal with some issues that have arisen from legalized prostitution. However, making legalization an all or nothing discussion, and then muddying the water with emotionally loaded dialogue doesn't help anyone and usually just pushes our society backwards from developing an effective legal system.

How is reducing the number of consensual sex between adults a good thing?

Prostitution's been around a while, and I bet it'll stay around a long time. No need to ruin people's lives over it.

Slavery and such is a whole different matter, and it should be illegal. But consensual sex? Live and let live. If you don't like it, don't do it.

To be fair, prostitution is not bad at all and the Netherlands have actually done a great thing by legalizing it. Prostitution a positive thing if it helps many people to experience sexual intercourse.