Vice Squad
Saturday, January 17, 2004
Testing Accused Prostitutes for STDs

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution today links to a
2000 story out of Singapore, concerning deporting
foreign women with HIV. There is a long history
of essentially scapegoating women, particularly
foreigners and prostitutes, for the spread of
sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). As the
Marginal Revolution post concerns foreigners with
HIV, Vice Squad will focus on prostitutes.

The notion that sellers should face stricter regulations
than buyers in vice transactions isn't per se nutty, by any
means, in that the typical seller is involved in a
much higher volume of trades than the typical buyer.
And in vices from gambling to drugs to prostitution,
enforcement efforts are regularly focused on sellers.
(Here's an earlier Vice Squad post on this issue.)

But scapegoating is another matter entirely, and
many of the mandatory testing regulations seem
aimed more at humiliation than at public health.
Recently, a Ukrainian woman accused of prostitution
in Turkey tested positive for HIV. She was then
marched, weeping, in front of television cameras, while
the police encouraged her former customers to get
tested. Then she was deported. The police were
relying on a ruling -- it had been rescinded, but they
didn't know that -- that required public exposure for
HIV-positive foreigners arrested for prostitution.
(Apparently you can't contract HIV from a fellow
countryperson). Here's a Chicago Tribune article
(registration required) about the incident. The article
quotes one local as saying that the town is
conservative and that prostitute women are not
welcome there. Perhaps he should have checked
with the men involved in the more than 1300 sexual
encounters in which the woman was alleged to
have engaged during the previous three months.

Surely such treatment would never happen in America,
no? Well, maybe not, but an article concerning that
over-the-top prostitution sting in Maricopa County,
Arizona, in November claimed that Arizona state law
requires STD testing of those who are accused (not
convicted!) of being prostitutes. Here's the original
Vice Squad post
on the Maricopa County incident,
with the article link and a quotation concerning the
presumed state law.

In the late 1860s, Britain was finding that some of
its naval ships were unfit for service because so
many of the crew were disabled by STDs. How did they
respond? They passed the Contagious Diseases Acts that
made it possible for the police to arrest and test
women who happened to be in the wrong neighborhood
or were otherwise believed to be prostitutes. Funny,
isn't it, how punishments for vice crimes have a way
of avoiding that messy due-process-of-law tradition
that requires conviction for a crime before punishment
is meted out?

Vice Squad hero John Stuart Mill, author of (among
other things) The Subjection of Women and On
, asked to testify before a Royal Commission
formed to look into the Acts. Mill was magnificent,
if years before his time. He basically took an
economic approach. He suggested that men who
frequented prostitutes understood the risks, as
did the prostitutes themselves. Like other
contracts among adults, these exchanges did not
require government intervention. The public interest
was twofold. First, some of the customers might
pass along their diseases to their unsuspecting
wives -- an externality, if you will. So rather than
scapegoat the prostitutes, Mill suggested that those
who passed on the diseases to innocent victims
should be punished. The second public issue was
the fitness of Her Majesty's seamen. Here, Mill
testified in favor of the direct approach, testing the
seamen themselves and punishing those who allowed
themselves to become unfit for duty in this manner.

For the story on Mill and the Contagious Diseases
Acts, see The Life of John Stuart Mill, by
Michael St. John Packe, New York: Macmillan, 1954.

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