Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Hamptons just got a little more interesting

The inhabitants of two well-heeled towns on New York's Long Island are reportedly shocked to discover that brothels have been operating in residential neighborhoods -- and enjoying a booming business in otherwise trying economic times. Given the large number of politicians who maintain vacation houses in the area, you'd think the good people of Westhampton and Southampton would be accustomed to their neighbors peddling favors from their homes. But if they really want to minimize the disruption caused by underground prostitution, they should learn a lesson already taken to heart elsewhere, and eliminate laws against the trade.

Prostitution, for example, is legal in much of Nevada. The ability to work in legal -- and heavily regulated -- brothels has cut down the need for sex workers to operate under the radar by selling their services in venues that might not always be perceived as appropriate (such as residential neighborhoods).

But Nevada's solution isn't ideal. That heavy regulation forces sex workers into brothels, limiting their independence and their negotiating power. Given that an imbalance of power is already an issue (the prostitutes in the Hamptons brothels kept only $15 of the $40 charge for each trick), something a little more liberating may be in order.

Which brings us to New Zealand. In 2003, that nation decriminalized prostitution, essentially returning the sex trade to legal, free-market status. The government enforces laws against force and fraud as it does for other above-ground industries, but otherwise generally stays out of the way.

Last year, a government reviewed the impact of the reform -- and liked what it saw. According to the conclusion of the Report of the Prostitution Law Review Committee on the Operation of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003.

The PRA has been in force for five years. During that time, the sex industry has not increased in size, and many of the social evils predicted by some who opposed the decriminalisation of the sex industry have not been experienced. On the whole, the PRA has been effective in achieving its purpose, and the Committee is confident that the vast majority of people involved in the sex industry are better off under the PRA than they were previously.

In contrast with conditions where prostitution is illegal, only 4.3% of female sex workers (and half as many male prostitutes) in New Zealand have been coerced into the business. Employment conditions have dramatically improved now that sex workers have access to legal redress for mistreatment by employers and customers. They can also go to work on their own, without need of the "protection" of an established pimp.

Most importantly, the trade is now above-board, and doesn't need to pop up in odd locations, like rental houses in the Hamptons, in an effort to avoid the authorities.

Laws against prostitution don't do much but make life difficult for sex workers and the occasional unlucky customer -- just ask Eliot Spitzer, the last governor of New York, how deterred he felt by the laws he had enforced as attorney general. They also drive the trade into inconvenient locations through efforts to evade the police (and let's not forget the corrupting effect on public officials who take money or sex to look the other way).

So if residents of Westhampton, Southampton and points beyond want to get prostitutes out of their neighborhood, their best bet is to get rid of the laws against the sex trade.

As for getting politicians out of their neighborhood ... That's a tougher challenge.

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Blogger Laura Agustín said...

You might be interested in my writing, in books, articles and a blog, Border Thinking, at

September 3, 2009 12:13 PM  
Anonymous Mark.V. said...

I live in New Zealand, local brothels ("discrete genlemans clubs"), regularly advertise for sex workers ("sensual ladies")in the situations vacant section of the newspaper, offering upwards of $100 per hour.

September 8, 2009 5:52 PM  

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