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Does Legalizing Prostitution Reduce Child Sex Slavery?

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SexTraffickingWould legalizing adult prostitution decrease the demand for child sex slaves? That’s the curious argument made by one of my favorite libertarian economist. Donald J. Boudreaux , a professor of economics at George Mason University, recently wrote:

If men can legally buy sex from women 18 years of age or older, men will have less demand to patronize children. And sex entrepreneurs will have less incentive to ‘supply’ children. With all prostitution being illegal, those who demand as well as those who supply commercial sex are subject to prosecution regardless of the age of the women they patronize or employ. By making adult prostitution legal, however, not only will that trade become more open to public scrutiny, but also the ability of those in the commercial-sex market to avoid prosecution simply by patronizing and employing women aged 18 or older will likely dramatically reduce incentives to turn young girls into prostitutes.

Boudreaux is one of the most astute economists in America, so it’s surprising to find him make such shockingly naïve claims about sexual trafficking.

The theory behind Boudreaux’s idea is based on a basic economic concept: substitute goods. Goods or services that, as a result of changed conditions, may replace each other in use are considered “substitutes.” Two classic examples of substitute goods are margarine and butter and coffee and tea. If the price of coffee or butter rises, people are more likely to choose a suitable substitute, such as tea or margarine.

But what constitutes a suitable substitute can vary considerably. Anyone who has ever been to Starbucks knows that the rise in coffee prices – both as a commodity and a consumer product – has not caused people to give up their mug of java for a cup of Earl Grey. The taste and preferences of coffee consumers tends to be inelastic. For most coffee lovers, the price would have to rise considerably for them to switch to tea.

Boudreaux is implying that adult prostitution and child prostitution are suitable substitutes. Does he really think that pedophiles and hebephiles (people with sexual interest in pubescent individuals approximately 11–14 years old) would become teleiophiles (people with a sexual interest in adults) if only they could get a discount on the cost of sex with an adult prostitute?

The market for child sex slaves exists precisely because sex with an adult is not considered an adequate substitute for those with a sexual attraction to children. Legalizing adult prostitution would have no impact on child exploitation. Indeed, as I’ll explain in a future post, countries in Europe that have legalized prostitution have found that it has not reduced crime or improved the social conditions of prostitutes. The main impact that it has had is to aid human traffickers in exploiting women and children.

Like many libertarian economists who argue for legalizing (adult) prostitution, Boudreaux misunderstands who is being incentivized by the decriminalization. Legalization doesn’t incentivize women to become prostitutes – few women would choose such a life for themselves – it provides an incentive to pimps and traffickers to increase the supply of the “labor force.” Legalization, as Germany has found, merely creates a new form of crony capitalism by providing government protection to the exploiters.

Libertarians and conservatives often mock liberal economists when they present utopian, Ivory Tower models of economic behavior that are contradicted by real word experience. We should hold our own side to the same standards. It’s time for the “reality-based community” on the right side of the political spectrum to stop supporting the inane idea that legalizing prostitution would benefit the exploited. As the natural experiments conducted by countries across the world have proven, the groups that benefit most when prostitution is legal are bureaucrats and pimps. We shouldn’t let adherence to naive idealogical idealism cause us to side with panderers and politicians over victimized women and children.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Curt Day

    This is the first article on this blog with which I can agree with most of what is written. Thank you. I would like to add the following:

    1. Legalizing adult prostitution doesn’t solve the problems that come with prostitution in the first place. Those problems revolve around abuse and exploitation for the prostitutes and a negative reinforcement for the customers’ view of women.

    2. How about this for a substitute for prostitution? That society invests in the areas where prostitution is based on economic class. That means that society invests money in startup businesses and job training. As it stands now, many in the poorer neighborhoods feel dehumanized by how society withholds any investment in them. This investment will cost but will benefit everybody. That means we have to increase taxes on those who can most afford to pay them but don’t.

    3. How about cultivating a society that values the personal more than the impersonal and people more than things, profit, and power? That means cultivating a culture that places less emphasis on the individual’s accomplishments and more on connections to the community.

    The thought behind legalizing prostitution in order to reduce the abuse of children does nothing more than change the age of the victim.

    • Michele H.

      In a legal brothel, children are not presented as prostitutes. Legal is better. And only volunteers, not slaves. No exploitation, just money exchanged. No moral judgments. All parties respected.

      • cynthia curran

        If that is true, why were they child prostitutes in the age of Justinian. Roman Society allow for it and the early Byzantine period had not outlawed prostitution yet.

        • Michele H.

          First, uh, you were not there. Second, that is not here.

    • cynthia curran

      Great, idea.

    • Great ideas! All it will take is converting everyone in the nation to Christ. So what do we do in the mean time?

  • Elise Hilton

    Boudreaux’s theory also works only if one assumes that adult women rationally choose prostitution as a profession. Women choose prostitution only out of desperation.

    • Christopher Lee Kirkwood

      You assume that all prostitutes choose it in desperation and the prostitution is the only job anyone chooses out of desperation. Do you think anyone chooses cleaning toilets or washing dishes as their first choice. Not trying to glamorize prostitution just pointing out there are a lot of jobs one would rather not choose.

  • Sine FourEx

    Boudreaux makes an ridiculous error in assuming that a 35 year-old is a substitute for a 14,15,16,17 year-old.

    Carter makes a fundamental error in assuming that the clients of the 14 to 17 year old girls are pedophiles, hebephiles or ephebophiles, they are not, they are ordinary men. Legalisation or regulation will not affect mens’ preference for young women and girls. Where these are made available they will be bought.

    Talk to any girl who was prostituted as a minor. They will tell you that their youth was a powerful “competitive advantage” and that their clients were ordinary men.

    • Carter makes a fundamental error in assuming that the clients of the 14 to 17 year old girls are pedophiles, hebephiles or ephebophiles, they are not, they are ordinary men.

      Those terms refer to a person who is sexually attracted to children of a certain age range. Are you saying that the men who have sex with children are not sexually attracted to them?

      • Sine FourEx

        No. I’m saying that you have chosen the wrong age group to make your argument.

        The market for pubescent girls (11-14) is a specialised market that is separate from the public prostitution market. It would be unaffected by any changes to prostitution laws, as you rightly say. For these men there is no substitute for a young girl. This is not an argument for or against legalisation of prostitution, because this is a very specialist sub-group.

        The post-pubescent girls (14-17) are often found in public prostitution. These make up 55% of all forced prostitute discovered in Holland 2005-2011 for whom ages are recorded, very few under 14 and very few over 20 were found. 324 found but only 215 ages were recorded on court cases. Most of these girls were working in open prostitution venues including windows visible to the general public. As it turns out, the most visible venues are the ones where most forced and trafficked women/girls are found.

        To present the argument that women (>18) are not a substitute for these girls (<18), two facts need to be established.
        1. Girls are the premium product in the market. Youth is an attribute that overrides everything else.
        2. Ordinary men buy them, not an identifiable sub-group.

        These facts are unpalatable because we are socially conditioned to believe that under-age sex is taboo. Social taboos disappear in prostitution, prostitution is all about transgressing boundaries.

        I will refer you to which discusses this issue (from a woman who was prostituting at age 15 of her own accord) for a discussion on the commercial value of youth.

        In the New Zealand Government Review Of Literature On Child Prostitution, the section on clients/exploiters says
        "many men’s use of children in prostitution is better understood as an act of moral indifference than a wilful act of harm, and this kind of moral indifference is actually widely endorsed in free market societies."
        "Social differentiation of “good” from “bad” women allows the child’s status as a prostitute to override her/his status as child."

        Once a girl is placed in a prostitution venue, she is no longer a girl, she becomes a prostitute. Men are as indifferent to her as they are to any women that may be there. Although they may be treated as disposable commodities, they are not interchangeable. A woman is not a substitute for a girl.

        Your argument holds but the children are aged 14-17, they are sold through the same distribution channels as women, and the buyers are ordinary men with the same age preferences as the general population.

        He is your favourite libertarian economist, by that I assume you enjoy laughing at him. That he actually wrote this to the New York Times is quite amazing. I can only assume that the professor is a stupid, old, misogynistic fool who lost the ability to think clearly sometime in the 1970's. He obviously knows nothing about prostitution and didn't bother his ass to read anything it. He demonstrates the libertarian moral indifference that the New Zealand article blames for the use of minors in prostitution.

        "The world’s oldest profession is precisely that because men demand sexual access to young women, girls and boys, and states have always facilitated that access, by force if necessary."

        • cynthia curran

          Many prostitutes start that age as I mention the Justinian Code is a good for finding this out since it does back to the 6th century.

      • Michele H.

        Legal prostitution will allow for more police resources to combat illegal prostitution. Child prostitution will decline.

  • Dr. Boudreaux does not assume that child prostitution and adult prostitution are perfect substitutes. But you do assume that in no case are they ever substitutes. That’s bad economics on two counts. Finally, asserting that legalization can not reduce the problem does not prove that prohibition will.

    • But you do assume that in no case are they ever substitutes.

      I never said they could never be substitutes. But since the penalty for sex with a minor are much stiffer than the penalties for sex with an adult prostitute, much of the affect that Dr. Boudreaux is claiming would occur is already accounted for.

      Finally, asserting that legalization can not reduce the problem does not prove that prohibition will.

      While prohibition may not reduce the problem of child exploitation, it does reduce the problem of the exploitation of adult women.

      • cynthia curran

        Maybe, for adult women but hitting the Johns as sweden did or the pimps who at times uses coercion helps.

      • I think this is a typical example of economists overreaching in areas they have little expertise. What I have seen from psychologists is that sexual perversion is price inelastic and adults are not substitutes at all for those who abuse children. Just as women are not substitutes for homosexuals, older females are not substitutes for child sexual predators.. One prison psychologist I knew who worked for years with child sex predators told me there is no cure for them. If let out of prison they will continue to abuse children until they die.

        I also don’t think prohibition reduces the exploitation of adult women. Like drugs, I doubt anyone who wants sex with a prostitute has any problem finding it. Prohibition has never reduced the incidence of any behavior; it only drives in underground where the abuse becomes worse. Legalizing adults prostitution could help a lot toward reduces slavery for adult women, but it would have no impact on child slavery.

        Child sexual slavery is a symptom of a culture that has fallen to the greatest depths of immorality because it has abandoned Christianity. It’s not possible to end such practices without a major revival. The best we can hope for is to limit its spread through techniques such as sting operations.

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  • john lind

    I’m not an economist and would be interested in an economist’s view of this idea. What if non-coerced adult prostitution was legalized but both coerced adult prostitution and child prostitution would subject both the pimp and the ‘john’ to the death penalty. Would this cause both the supplier and the customer to forgo coerced adult prostitution and child prostitution since the substitute to either (legal voluntary prostitution) would have such a lower cost (no death penalty)? I wander if this would also “work” with drug legalization (death to a dealer that provides drugs to a minor). For the record, I’m a Christian paleolibertarian who finds both prostitution and drug abuse immoral.

  • Rich

    It seems that we can take some of the emotion out of this by trying to contrast Nevada (where prostitution is legal in regulated brothels) and the rate of child related sex crimes to other western states where it is NOT legal.
    The comments that women would never choose to be a prostitute seems to be ridiculous. There have been professional prostitutes for thousands of years (Rome and Italy 200 AD where advertising is still viewable) and many other cultures. The women can make a very large income and have little or NO education or other talents.
    Call girls (the top say 5% of Prostitutes) can and do make six figure incomes (tax free in most cases). Many of these women have no Pimps, pick this “profession” for its MONEY.

    • cynthia curran

      Well, they still got poor families to give up their 8 year old daughters and held them captive in a brothel, read the Justinian code in the 6th century. Justinian’s wife Theodora was an actress and many actress in the 6th century were prostitutes. so Roman society and early Byzantine society did force girls into it.

  • Elise Hilton

    Women don’t choose prostitution in the same way they choose to be hairdressers, computer techs or teachers. They “choose” it because they see no other choices for themselves, and are forced into prostitution by economic circumstances, addictions, mental health issues and/or lack of education. No little girl dreams of being a prostitute when she grows up; no woman revels in being used sexually, over and over again, day in and day out. It’s demeaning and dehumanizing.

    • cynthia curran

      I agree, the Justinian code proves this.

  • zimbaya

    you people are all wrong women prostitute or sell their bodies because they need money to pay their rents.

    • Poverty does drive some women to prostitution, but no women willingly chooses this. If other options were available, certainly women would choose those.

      • Michele H.

        Of course many women and men choose prostitution willingly. You are wrong.

      • Yeah, if other options were available, but they’re not available because the women could not or would not get an education or they lack other character traits necessary for a good job. Women who volunteer for prostitution tend to want a lifestyle that requires far more money than their skills can buy.

  • Michele H.

    In a legal brothel, children are not presented as prostitutes. Legal is better.

  • cynthia curran

    Well, Child prostitution has been around since Roman times its referred to in the Justinian code so legalizing prostitution doesn’t get rid of it since prostitution was legal in Rome. A libertarian can opposed it based upon coercion by pimps.

    • Michele H.

      Decriminalization of prostitution for adults will free up some of the police who can then help to prevent child prostitution

  • cynthia curran

    Well, in our society where pre-martial sex is allow why have prostitution anyways and Christian men have no business seeking out prostitutes.

    • Michele H.

      Because the selection may be different and most men who want just sex, do not want to wait in a bar drinking or spend time in other places where they might get disappointed. Men who want a long relationship with more involvement might want to spend more time looking for a companion.

  • Steve Vogel

    Men and women have sex with under age kids for a bigger high.

  • Joshua Taylor

    It’s already legal in Japan. It’s called the JK (Joshi Kosei) business.