1) TODAY: Korea Herald article
In a Korea Herald debate, I argue in favor of legalizing or decriminalizing prostitution. See below for the full text.2) NEXT WEEK: You are invited...
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In a Korea Herald debate, I argue in favor of legalizing or decriminalizing prostitution.Yes: Prohibition is worse than the crime
by Casey Lartigue Jr.
June 30, 2011
The Korea Herald
The South Korean government can keep prostitution illegal, but it can't make it unpopular, to borrow a phrase from a former mayor of New Orleans.
I argue that prostitution should be legalized (state regulation) or decriminalized (neither legal nor illegal) for two main reasons. One, the consequences of prohibition are worse than the original "crime." Two, prohibition is an attack on the individual freedom and economic liberty of consenting adults.
Prostitution is denounced around the world ¡ª even by its customers ¡ª in opinion polls, churches, the political arena, and news media. It is unpopular in rhetoric but quite popular in reality. Visiting a prostitute is said to be a rite of passage for young Korean men and part of a night out for many Korean businessmen. An estimated 4 to 8 percent of Korean women are engaged in the sex industry and the industry's value is equivalent to 20 percent of men buying sex more than four times a month.
In 2003, before a serious crackdown, about $22 billion (probably an underestimate) was spent on prostitution here. That is similar to the amount the Korean government spent on education that year and half of what it spent on defense. Despite denunciations, crackdowns, public humiliation, arrests and punishment, prostitution remains quite popular here.
Prostitution will remain popular because of supply and demand ¡ª one side willing to pay for sex, another side willing to supply it. Crackdowns drive it underground, as Korea's 2004 Act on the Prevention of the Sex Trade and Protection of Its Victims did, reportedly pushing prostitutes to creatively expand beyond red-light districts targeted by police.
Perhaps, as some advocates of prohibition argue, law enforcement just hasn't tried hard enough, and that leads to one of the main reasons I support legalizing or decriminalizing prostitution: There are unintended consequences that make enforcement worse than the "crime." Prostitutes are less likely to call law enforcement when they are abused, beaten or cheated, and can't go to court to have contracts enforced. Criminalization means that people who have decided it is their best alternative among currently available options are condemned to dealing with criminal organizations, violent patrons, crooked cops (and, perhaps, rough IMF presidents).
As bad as prostitution may be, it can't be as bad as the 18,351 reported rapes and sex crimes, 1,374 murders, 6,351 robberies, and 256,423 burglaries among 590,087 violent crimes committed here in 2009, according to Korea's National Police Agency. Why waste taxpayer money and resources chasing prostitutes when there are violent crimes with clear victims and victimizers?
The supporters of criminalizing prostitution have their own arguments, not all of which can be easily waved off. One that is a real concern is that poor people aren't free to "choose" prostitution because of economic and cultural reasons. While that is a real concern, it isn't clear how many prostitutes are in that position and why eliminating choices, including bad ones, would help. Even those prostitutes allegedly forced into it evade law enforcement ¡ª apparently they prefer prostitution to prosecution.
That leads me to a second main reason I support legalization or decriminalization: Prohibition is an attack on the individual freedom and economic liberty of consenting adults. After trading debating points, we are left with the key question: Should adults who aren't directly harming others be allowed to engage in activity (even when others disagree)? If adults can give away sex for free, why can't they sell it? It should be up to a spouse or partner, not politicians or the police, to object.
American journalist H.L. Mencken once said, "Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be having a good time." It isn't the government's business what you do with your time and money, as long as you are not directly harming others. Legalizing or decriminalizing prostitution wouldn't be perfect, there would still be problems. But allowing adults to engage in prostitution without the threat of arrest would make things better for those participants, could reduce the incentiive for the activity to be spread beyond designated areas, and government could stop wasting resources trying to punish an extremely popular voluntary activity.
By Casey Lartigue, Jr.
The writer is director of international relations at the Center for Free Enterprise in Seoul. (http://eng.cfe.org). He can be contacted at cjl(at)cfe.org or cfekorea on Twitter.
This article originally appeared in the Korea Herald on June 30, 2011.