“if I’m in someone’s car, about to die, ain’t no pimp in there helping me”

Two recent stories on prostitution make a pretty decent case for legalization. First, prosecutors in New York discover that not prosecuting the women themselves in prostitution busts makes it much easier to prosecute abusive pimps:

[T]he men accused as ringleaders were a father and his son, a pimp team coercing women to push their trade like traveling sex saleswomen, handing out business cards at hotels and strip clubs.

The women were branded, tattooed with the pimps’ monikers, Mr. Vee for the father and King Koby for the son, Manhattan prosecutors said. One woman was even tattooed with a bar code.

But what makes the case noteworthy is not how the operation was run, but how the men are being prosecuted. The Manhattan district attorney’s office is employing a sex trafficking charge, added to the New York State penal code five years ago, that is helping to redefine how law enforcement agencies approach organized prostitution.

In a stark departure from decades of such prosecutions, the women who were working as prostitutes are not facing criminal charges but are instead being treated as their pimps’ victims….

The law that Albany passed in 2007… broadly defines sex trafficking by the methods a pimp uses to control a prostitute. The threshold can be met if the pimp instills fear of a beating, but also by more subtle intimidation, like spreading a secret that might subject the person to ridicule, or doing anything “calculated to harm” the health, safety or immigration status of the prostitute.

I think there’s something to this — when you decriminalize prostitution for the women, it’s much easier to go after people who are coercing young women into doing things they don’t want to do. Good all around. But of course, the rationale for this is not free from a certain kind of paternalism:

Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, said his office had embraced the new approach, long advocated by those who see brutal oppression of women as the defining component of the commercial sex trade.

“They basically live as slaves of the pimps,” Mr. Vance said. “These are sad cases. These are women who need help.”

Of course at least part of the reason that sex trafficking flourishes is that we’re frequently incapable of assigning prostitutes any roles other than either harlots (who should be punished) or victims (who must be protected). New York has abandoned the first definition and concentrated on the second. That’s an improvement. But why doesn’t the state also recognize a third possibility: namely, that some prostitutes are women who’ve made a certain economic and personal choice that’s neither blameworthy nor — except to the extent that the law denies them its protections — particularly correlated with victimization?

Here’s a kind of heart-warming story about a woman who raised four children while working as a prostitute:

Like many single mothers, Barbara Terry, 52, scrounged for baby sitters and leaned on her own mother while raising her four children and working the night shift.

But Ms. Terry is a prostitute who has worked nearly her entire adult life on the streets of Hunts Point, in the Bronx.

“When they were old enough to understand, I would tell them the truth,” said Ms. Terry, whose daughter and three sons are now grown. “I’d say, ‘This is how I’m supporting you.’ For me, it’s a business, a regular job.”

Yes, she said, she was arrested more than 100 times, sometimes landing at Rikers Island for several days or weeks — but that never deterred her from returning to this area of industrial warehouses and repair shops off the Bruckner Expressway.

The whole story is worth reading — it’s quite short, and it doesn’t shy away from troubling details:

[N]ever enter a car with more than one person in it, and never let someone drive you out of the area. Get your money up front — Ms. Terry charges $50 or $100 — and try to work with a buddy.

“You look for weapons, you check the back seat, and you go by your vibes,” she said. “If they look strange, you stay away.”

There have been close calls, like the time a trucker locked her in and tried to rape her.

Of course, a huge part of the reason prostitution remains dangerous is that it’s illegal; if you’re not constantly trying to avoid the police, you can instead work with them to ensure that the trade is safer.

And on a purely pecuniary note: what good did it do the state of New York or its citizens to spend the non-trivial amount of tax dollars that it took to arrest this woman 100 times? Who was helped by these arrests? Who was protected?

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