Mayor Richard Daley announced the tool in 2005, with some harsh words for anyone
thinking of paying for sex. "In Chicago, if you solicit a prostitute, you will
be arrested, and when you are arrested, people will know," he declared.
It requires a leap of faith to think that a guy who is not deterred by the risk
of being arrested and fined and losing his car will be deterred by the fear of
being publicly shamed. But the city has to resort to futile measures because
those are the only ones available.
Fighting prostitution with cops on the street is like going into the woods with
a fly swatter in the hope of eradicating the mosquito population. In 2004,
Chicago police arrested 3,204 alleged prostitutes, or about eight a day.
Judging from online sites and phone-book listings for escort services and
massage parlors, that is a tiny fraction of all the mercenary coupling that
takes place every day. Even Mayor Daley admits there may be as many as 25,000
women involved in prostitution in Chicago, to say nothing of the suburbs.
The police admit that existing policies don't do much more than move the trade
from one spot to another. As Supt. Philip Cline told the Chicago Sun-Times, "If
we put on a lot of police pressure, it's going to move a couple blocks." He
admitted that existing enforcement efforts apparently don't work, "because it's
still happening out there."
Yes, it is, and it always will be. The trade brings together two of the most
unstoppable forces in American life: lust and avarice. But that combination is
potent just about everywhere. There is a prostitution problem in Iran, for
heaven's sake. If mullahs ruling an Islamic theocracy can't stamp out these
transactions, the Chicago police aren't about to.
What they can do is waste a lot of manpower that could be deployed against
truly dangerous criminals. Each prostitution arrest takes a cop off the street
for two to three hours. And for what? Most of those arrested are soon free and
doing business again.
Mayor Daley has his reasons for the crackdown. Not only is the business a
blight on neighborhoods, he asserts, but women involved in it "spend their
lives surrounded by criminals and drugs and sexually transmitted diseases. It's
a terrible life."
All of that may be true. But the mayor is confusing the effects of prostitution
with the effects of laws against prostitution. Streetwalkers don't stand
outside in Chicago in January, annoying law-abiding residents, because they
like fresh air. Prostitutes work on the street because fixed sites are
particularly vulnerable to the cops. In a legal environment, more of them would
gravitate to places with walls and roofs.
As for criminals, hookers tend to be surrounded by felonious confederates
because what they do is illegal. The enterprise attracts violent people because
violence is often useful in a business that can't expect protection from the
cops. The retail liquor trade used to be that way too, during Prohibition.
Since repeal, it's been about as dangerous as the dairy industry.
Sexually transmitted diseases are another occupational hazard that existing
laws do more to cause than to cure. If prostitution were legalized, the
authorities could enforce health regulations in the interest of provider as
well as patron. In a black market, the only controls on risky behavior are
Politicians may think prostitution is a grim, degrading life. But prostitutes
may think the same of politics. At any rate, arresting practitioners doesn't
exactly improve their lives. And if they see it as the best of the available
options, eliminating it merely forces them into choices they see as worse.
Legalizing prostitution would not be a moral endorsement of paid sex, any more
than the First Amendment is a moral endorsement of supermarket tabloids. It
would just be a recognition of the right of adults to make their own choices
about sins of the flesh -- and of the eternal futility of trying to stop them.
Before he continues his crackdown, Mayor Daley might reflect on the wisdom of
one mayor of New Orleans. "You can make prostitution illegal in Louisiana," he
said, "but you can't make it unpopular."