If Prostitutes Are Slaves, How Can Punishing Them Be Just?


WBUR, the NPR affiliate in Boston, reports that the Massachusetts House of Representatives is considering a bill that "would define the people who manage prostitutes, or 'pimps,' as 'human traffickers.'" Under the bill, which is supported by Attorney General Martha Coakley, pimps, who currently face prison sentences of three months to two years, "could be sentenced to 20 years for selling adults in the sex industry and sentenced to life for exploiting children." The maximum punishment for johns would rise from one year to two and a half years, 20 years in cases involving underage prostitutes. The penalty for prostitutes, one year in jail, would remain the same, although it would be reserved for those who refused the state's "help" in changing professions.

Since assault, kidnapping, and extortion already are illegal, the bill's definition of trafficking presumably goes beyond the use of force to compel cooperation from unwilling prostitutes. Simply redefining the managing of prostitutes as trafficking would unfairly punish some people for violence they never committed. And while it is certainly unfair to let johns go while locking up prostitutes, I'm not sure I understand the logic of treating them more harshly. This is exactly the opposite of the approach taken by U.S. drug laws, which punish sellers more severely than buyers on the theory that they prey upon their customers by giving them what they want. Why treat sex addicts like criminals when they have a disease that needs to be treated?

If you accept the premise that all prostitutes are sex slaves, it is easier to see why Coakley sees johns as villains rather than victims. But if prostitutes have no choice, why is it just to punish them? Because "the act itself is criminal," Coakley says, which not only begs the question but overlooks the fact that criminalizing this industry makes it much more dangerous than it would otherwise be, promoting just the sort of coercion and violence that Coakley claims to be fighting.

More on prostitution here. More on Coakley here.

[Thanks to Michael Graham for the tip.]