I should have known: Sooner or later, something would come between me and my platonic politi-crush, Bob Herbert. So often, I read his column in the New York Times and my heart goes aflutter, his razor-sharp feminist -- or humanist -- writings making me swoon mentally. But, alas, it was not so with his recent series of columns about prostitution. First, Herbert wrote about the exploitation of prostitutes by pimps and johns; then came a rote profile of a young Las Vegas stripper aspiring toward a better life; and, finally, he penned a treatise for the criminalization of prostitution.
Herbert makes excellent, necessary points about abuses within the industry. But he also implies that men who exchange money for sex are necessarily predators and rails against "the empowerment fantasies of prostitution proponents." Thanks to his apparent anger, Herbert paints those of us who are "thoughtful" proponents of legalized prostitution with an awfully broad brush. So, Broadsheet called upon Sherry F. Colb, a professor of law at Rutgers Law School, to throw into the mix the nuanced voice of a legal expert who has argued against the criminalization of prostitution -- and, boy, did she deliver.
"Without knowing precisely what happens in the prostitution industry, my inclination would be to allow consenting adults to engage in whatever conduct turns them on and harms no one," Colb said. "I also would, without knowing specific facts, tend to think that a legal prostitution industry would be easier to monitor and regulate than an illegal one (and the alternative of no prostitution industry at all strikes me as unrealistic)." She soberly added: "The exchange of money does not inherently trouble me, as money is the way in which we allow people to acquire what they want when the other participant has less (or nothing) to gain from the exchange."
Colb concedes that Herbert makes three important points: 1) Many minors enter the sex industry, 2) it can be extremely difficult to leave the industry and 3) the legalization of prostitution typically increases illegal prostitution by legitimizing the exchange of sex for money. "Given all of these three pieces, the prostitution industry begins to look more like the illegal immigration schemes by which 'employees' smuggled into the country are actually debt-slaves rather than voluntary participants," said Colb.
Fittingly, Colb concluded her dispatch to Broadsheet with this shades-of-gray statement: "The argument that prostitution is inherently exploitative -- as a matter of its 'meaning' -- is not persuasive to me, the reality of women and girls on the street is." Now, what that reality persuades you to believe is legally right is where Herbert and I differ.