In a CNN town hall last night, Anderson Cooper asked Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson whether he supported the decriminalization of prostitution. In a somewhat muddled answer, Johnson said he would leave it up to individual states and applauded the system in parts of Nevada, where prostitution is legal under narrow circumstances.
There are so many easy libertarian answers on this one—that there's no place for the state in consenting sexual relationships between adults; that prostitution prohibition creates many of the same harms we saw with alcohol and drug prohibition; that as president, he would have very little dominion over such things anyway, to name a few—so it was disappointing that Johnson appeared to be caught off-guard by the question and seemed visibly uncomfortable with the topic. But his answer, while not perfect, may have been forgivable had Cooper not pressed him: "Is prostitution a victimless crime?"
Johnson responded that currently, "the victims are the prostitutes."
D'oh! Et tu, Johnson? And here I thought totally denying women's agency was the purview of Democrats and Republicans. Yet here was Johnson buying into the idea that sex work is inherently exploitative and victimizing, or that no woman could choose it willingly.
But wait—could Johnson have meant that, under prohibition, sex workers are victims of the state? He did throw that "currently" in there.
I reached out to the Johnson campaign for clarification, and received an answer from its communication director, Joe Hunter, Thursday afternoon. All he would say about what Johnson meant last night was this: "In an illegal environment, prostitutes are at risk."
It's not much, but it suggests that Johnson believes the victimhood he attributed to sex workers stems from the illegal nature of prostitution, not that he thinks anyone selling sexual services must be doing so unwillingly.