Vice Squad
Wednesday, January 07, 2004
One-Sided Enforcement of Prostitution

In the last few months, Vice Squad has noted movements to liberalize anti-prostitution laws in Thailand, Las Vegas, New Zealand, the Czech Republic (sort of), and Great Britain. Vice Squad friend Pak Shun Ng brings our attention to this article in the Straits Times Interactive (Singapore), regarding a similar dynamic in Taiwan, where the decriminalization of prostitution is under consideration.

Currently in Taiwan prostitution is illegal, though it is not a crime to be a customer of a prostitute. An official with the interior ministry's women's welfare unit is quoted in the linked article: 'There is no justification as to why prostitutes are subject to legal punishment whereas patrons are excluded from it.'

Though I won't argue that such one-sided enforcement of anti-prostitution laws is optimal public policy, I think that one can come up with some potential rationales for this double-standard (beyond the patriarchy). First, for vice crimes in general, sellers tend to be subject to more severe punishments than buyers: drug laws in the US provide a case in point. And this might make sense, on the grounds that an individual seller plays a much larger role in a vice market than does an individual buyer, because there are many more buyers than sellers. But second, one-sided enforcement might be a way to make it harder to conduct vice transactions. When both parties are subject to criminal sanctions, the potential punishments set up a sort of mutual exchange of hostages. A buyer is unlikely to go to the police if the buyer will be punished, too. So, it may be easier for sellers to trust buyers when buying is also illegal, than it is when buying is unpunished. If the goal is to minimize vice exchanges, one-sided enforcement might be the way to go. (This argument is spelled out in J. Lott and R. D. Roberts, "Why Comply?: One-Sided Enforcement of Price Controls and Victimless Crime Laws," Journal of Legal Studies 18: 403-414, June 1989; on hostage exchange, see the wonderful "Contract Law and the State of Nature," by Anthony Kronman, Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 1 (1): 5-32, 1985.) At any rate, one-sided enforcement of prostitution laws no doubt has been promoted by the fact that it has traditionally been the men who were making the laws. State prostitution controls in the US generally did not criminalize the behavior of buyers until the last 50 years or so, and in some states the penalties are less severe than they are for sellers.

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