Does Prostitution Reduce Sexual Violence?

According to the evidence, it sure looks that way. Economist Alex Tabarrok lists a number of studies demonstrating this:

Cunningham, Shah, 2014, pgs. 42-43.

He concludes, “It’s become common to think that rape is about power and not about sex. No doubt. But some of it is about sex…In short, a wide variety of evidence from different authors, times and places, and experiments shows clearly and credibly that prostitution reduces rape. This finding is of great importance in considering how prostitution should be rationally regulated.”

7 thoughts on “Does Prostitution Reduce Sexual Violence?”

  1. Doesn’t this reasoning assume that patronizing prostitutes is about sex and not power? I’m ludicrously underqualified to opine on the motives of these patrons, but my assumption is that the power dynamic in sex with someone you’re paying to do what you want is somewhat different in character than in sex with someone who lacks a monetary incentive.

  2. From the third study:

    “This mechanism is in line with a survey of men who had purchased sex from women in London. About 54% of these men stated that if prostitution did not exist then they would be more likely to rape women who were not prostitutes. This belief was clearly held by one man who even stated: “Sometimes you might rape someone: you can go to a prostitute instead” (Farley et al., 2009)” (pg. 14).

  3. To me, this is trying to fix the wrong end of the problem, assuming that men have some biological imperative for sex. While this would undoubtedly help for a time, what is more needed is a shift in the culture to teach men that they don’t “deserve” sex; that their strength or financial status does not afford them the right to simply use women for their own gratification.

    Yes, legalize and regulate, but recognize that it’s only a stop-gap measure, not addressing the core issues of why men feel the need to rape.

  4. Walker, it doesn’t seem like anyone’s objecting to the public policy change. The bit that looks unjustified and adjacent to some really gross stuff is the conclusions you’re drawing from the evidence that rape isn’t about power and the message the policy sends. It sounds like the sort of thing I’d expect a rapist to start with on their way to arguing that they aren’t the problem and shouldn’t be expected to change; instead, society should do a better job of accommodating their right to ensure their needs are met. You get why that sounds both related to your post and awful, right?

    The other problem is that it’s not clear how much better than rape prostitution is. Again, I’m no expert, but I’m told there’s a lot of exploitation and links to human trafficking and oranized crime involved in that industry. As horrible as rape is, reducing it by increasing prostitution could be a net moral negative, depending on pragmatic factors. So, it seems right that there are ways to limit these problems with sensible regulations, so your proposal does seem wise on the whole, but it’s not unreasonable for people to have concerns and not want to approach it with a cavalier “I’ll take it.”

  5. What you said:

    “The bit that looks unjustified and adjacent to some really gross stuff is the conclusions you’re drawing from the evidence that rape isn’t about power…”

    What Tabarrok *actually* said:

    “It’s become common to think that rape is about power and not about sex. No doubt. But some of it is about sex.”

    He doesn’t say rape is absolutely *not* about power. He says rape is *no doubt* about power while providing a news link to make his point. But he does say that at least some of it is driven by sexual urges. This doesn’t strike me as all that crazy.

    And all your objection has stated is that you’d want proper regulations to avoid exploitation, human trafficking, and the like. Sure. So would I (in fact, I read a study a couple years ago on that very subject, but I’m having a hard time tracking it down now. Talked about cutting out pimps, etc.). In fact, I’d love a culture where people thought it was wrong to go to prostitutes. Better yet, I’d love a culture that thought premarital sex was wrong.

    Abstinence-only advocates worry about the message sex education sends to kids. Doesn’t change the fact that the evidence shows that sex education reduces the risk of teen pregnancy. Many argue that you’re not going to prevent kids from having sex, but you can give them proper education/access to birth control and at least you won’t have teen pregnancies. That’s not ideal in my view, but it’s better than the often ruined lives that come with teen pregnancy. Prostitution isn’t ideal, but reducing rapes by a significant amount I think is a good thing.

  6. To your point, Kelsey, legalization does seem to increase human trafficking:

    However, the researchers conclude,

    “The problem here lies in the clandestine nature of both the prostitution and trafficking markets, making it difficult, perhaps impossible, to find hard evidence establishing this relationship. Our central finding, i.e., that countries with legalized prostitution experience a larger reported incidence of trafficking inflows, is therefore best regarded as being based on the most reliable existing data, but needs to be subjected to future scrutiny. More research in this area is definitely warranted, but it will require the collection of more reliable data to establish firmer conclusions.

    …The likely negative consequences of legalized prostitution on a country’s inflows of human trafficking might be seen to support those who argue in favor of banning prostitution, thereby reducing the flows of trafficking (e.g., Outshoorn, 2005). However, such a line of argumentation overlooks potential benefits that the legalization of prostitution might have on those employed in the industry. Working conditions could be substantially improved for prostitutes – at least those legally employed – if prostitution is legalized. Prohibiting prostitution also raises tricky “freedom of choice” issues concerning both the potential suppliers and clients of prostitution services. A full evaluation of the costs and benefits, as well as of the broader merits of prohibiting prostitution, is beyond the scope of the present article” (pg. 76).

    The studies in my post provide one benefit. And as Tabarrok notes, “This finding is of great importance in considering how prostitution should be *rationally regulated.*”

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