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March 11, 2008

Research and data on prostitution, punishment and shaming sanctions

This NPR segment, titled "The Legality of Prostitution," got me wondering about research on prostitution and punishment.  The NPR piece referenced this interesting recent paper, titled "An Empirical Analysis of Street-Level Prostitution," which is authored by Steven Levitt and Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh. The paper is focused on just the economics of prostitution in Chicago, and it has lots of interesting findings.  This passage especially caught my eye:

We estimate that prostitutes are officially arrested only once per 450 tricks, with johns arrested even less frequently. Punishment conditional on arrest is limited — roughly 1 in 10 prostitute arrests leads to a prison sentence, with a mean sentence length of 1.2 years among that group. For many johns, perhaps the greatest risk is the stigma that comes with having a mug shot posted on the Chicago Police Department web page.  There is a surprisingly high prevalence of police officers demanding sex from prostitutes in return for avoiding arrest.  For prostitutes who do not work with pimps (and thus are working the streets), roughly three percent of all their tricks are freebies given to police.

For those interested in a very different type of perspective on the oldest profession, I also found this interesting website titled "Prostitution Research & Education."  The website has a strong anti-prostitution message, and it includes this page which states:

In order to understand prostitution, it is necessary to understand:

  1. lethal gender inequality
  2. incest and other childhood sexual assault
  3. poverty and homelessness
  4. the ways in which racism and colonialism are inextricably connected with sexism in prostitution
  5. domestic violence, including rape
  6. post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, mood and dissociative disorders as consequences of prostitution
  7. drug and alcohol addiction
  8. the fact that prostitution is a global business which involves interstate and inter-country trafficking as a necessary part of its profitable operation
  9. in non-dominant states — the ways in which economic development programs erode traditional ways of living
  10. the need for culturally-relevant treatment
  11. the ways in which diverse cultures normalize and promote prostitution
  12. stripping, exotic dancing, nude dancing, table dancing, phone sex, trafficking, child and adult pornography, lap dancing, massage brothels, and peep shows as prostitution

March 11, 2008 at 05:15 PM | Permalink


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I don't have much new to add beyond my initial post on the subject of Spitzer. I'm just waiting to see if and when he will resign (I think it seems likely) and if and when he will be indicted [Read More]

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Tracked on Mar 12, 2008 10:58:13 AM


Let's add a couple more to the list, Doc, that seem like obvious ones that are missing. To understand prostitution, certainly, you must also understand that:

13. Men like sex, so some men who can afford it have sometimes sought sex through a commercial transaction with no violence or exploitation intended.

14. Women may choose to engage in sex work for reasons other than exploitation, as evidenced by the International Union of Sex Workers, who advocate "based on the principle that everyone should have equal freedom to choose how they earn their living and freedom to choose what they do with their own body."

Finally, apparently to judge by 1-12, to understand prostitution, you must understand that:

15. The sex market behaves like no other commercial market on the planet. It is a place where the rules of capitalism and free market economics remain suspended in deference to the author's ideology, where no one makes rational choices and exchanges are never voluntary nor mutually beneficial, but instead are always, inevitably exploitive.

That said, the data about frequency of arrests is pretty interesting, and to me argues that "making an example" of the occasional high profile john (like the occasional celebrity athlete steroid user) provides little real-world deterrence. Despite whatever publicity goals are achieved, the actual likelihood of anyone else paying a similar price is miniscule.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Mar 11, 2008 8:33:31 PM

The Obscene, Disgusting, and Vile Meese Commission Report paints the debate in broad strokes.

Posted by: George | Mar 11, 2008 10:04:54 PM

NCJRS has a few published studies listed at: http://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Topics/Topic.aspx?Topicid=79.

Most focus on juveniles, human trafficking, etc., (and almost all on "street" prostitution, which I gather is different from The Emperor's Club), but see Brewer, Potterat, Muth, et al, showing that in Colorado Springs, "arrest for patronizing a prostitute reduced rearrests for the same offense by approximately 70 percent." (http://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/Abstract.aspx?ID=239951) Interesting that the researchers found that the technique only worked in that jurisdiction, not elsewhere.

Posted by: Anne | Mar 12, 2008 2:34:37 PM

"arrest for patronizing a prostitute reduced rearrests for the same offense by approximately 70 percent."

Anne, maybe I'm being dense, but I'm not sure I understand what that means. If you're arrested, it reduces the chance you'll be rearrested by 70%. But compared to what? The statement is particularly puzzling because the data in Doug's post indicates arrest rates for johns are exceedingly low.

To have a new arrest, you have to have a first arrest, so what does it mean that "rearrests" declined after they were arrested the first time? I'm not being snarky, just obviously missing something.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Mar 12, 2008 6:41:37 PM

Rearrest = recidivism

I believe it means that, compared to offenders who were not arrested (i.e., a majority of johns), arrest was a good deterrent in that the arrestees did not re-offend.

Again, this was the Colo. Spgs. research. Other jurisdictions did *not* experience this type of reduced recidivism when arrests were made.

Gaggle of geese, murder of crows...I think "majority of johns" is the proper term for those guys.

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The paper is focused on just the economics of prostitution in Chicago, and it has lots of interesting findings.

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