Things you don’t know about maths and sex work

My recent interest in mathematics lead me to this website: http://betterexplained.com and also to the mailing list that the owner Kalid Azad runs.

His most recent email titled The Simple Intuition Behind Counting, is a cracker. I won’t try to explain it, but take a moment, go to the site, have a look at the archive. It really is eye opening to have your fundamental ideas about the things that you “know” challenged.

To this end I want to mention another occasion where I had my beliefs altered by evidence. That was in the debate surrounding sex work. I used to believe that regulation (meaning licensing) of brothels was a good things, while private worker should be decriminalised fully (meaning no regulation, no licensing etc).

It was a naive view that came from a lack of education, even if I thought that it was reasonable.

What changed my mind was listening to other sex workers (predominantly women).

The traditional (conservative) thinking goes something like this:

Some things can be harmful and dangerous to people and society, so we must regulate those things to improve society, protect it and people.

If you have read the Better Explained post about the intuition of counting, then you may be feeling slightly uneasy about that statement. Things that seem simple often aren’t. And they aren’t in ways that can be very difficult to understand intuitively – which, lacking good information, is how most of us have to make decisions about things that we see and hear. Especially things that pop up in the media and politics.

What’s important to know here is that the above statement about regulation is – or should be expressed as – conditional:

Some things can be harmful and dangerous to people and society, so we must regulate those things to improve society, protect it and people
But only if regulation if is practical and ultimately beneficial.

Or to put it all another way:

Regulate where practical and necessary
Reduce harm where it’s not

By accident of history we already practice this, for instance: owning and operating motor vehicles is heavily regulated and results in safer road use. However, owning and operating bicycles is by and large unregulated (even though NSW is currently trying to change that), but we take steps to reduce harm, like one meter separation for passing laws. These laws don’t prevent anyone from participating, but they keep people safe when they do participate.

But why the difference? Both are road users, why not treat them the same?

It’s nothing to do with speed or danger – I can ride a bike fast enough to kill myself in a crash easily and cyclists are inherently more vulnerable on the road. No, it’s about practicality – the threshold for participation in cycling is _much_ lower than for driving cars. I can pick up a bike for free from someone’s rubbish, get on and ride away. Policing that is impractical. It would also be a monumental waste of our societies resources, as – despite the danger – cycling isn’t a particularly dangerous activity for society as a whole, even if individuals will sometimes die while cycling.

So as a society we tend to take a harm minimisation approach to cycling, we accept it’s social benefits may come at the cost of some injuries and deaths and we try to enact laws that maximise participation and those benefits while minimising the injuries. But the important thing to note is that we _do_not_ regulate cycling itself. Anyone is free to cycle, so long as they don’t hurt other people.

Regulating cycling like cars and driving, on the other hand would required the application of massive resources to register and test both cyclists and bikes and then to police them, to what end? At best we might prevent a hand full or less injuries and deaths each year. There simply isn’t enough social benefit to justify it.

There is also the very important fact that it simply wouldn’t work. People would still ride bikes because there is no way that the required resource would actually be applied to police them. So the rules would not be enforced, or they wouldn’t be enforced consistently. People would find ways to fake licenses, registrations etc. The lack of enforcement would encourage people to just ride anyway. In response the penalties would be increased and occasionally some single mother ducking down to the shops for bread and milk would end up in gaol for five years to “make a point” about bikes needing to be registered.

It sounds ludicrous, but just try googling cases of sex workers being gaoled for “trafficking” themselves in the US. Yes, it’s every bit as moronic and unfair as it sounds.

Sadly, when it comes to things like illegal drugs and sex work, our society, seems unable to make this calculation about actual harm. In fact we completely ignore rational debate and discussion. We ignore the evidence of significant society wide benefits that decriminalising drugs in concert with harm reduction programs has had in Portugal (for example). We ignore the clearly demonstrated benefits of needle exchange and safe injecting rooms have had in Sydney. We also ignore the massive benefits of decriminalisation of sex work in New South Wales in Australia, as well as decrim in New Zealand.

Why? Well, partly its politics (America is “tough on drugs” and it doesn’t like it’s minions departing from that script). It’s also cultural – vocally religious minorities stand up and claim the moral superiority of abstinence (from drugs and sex), and for the most part, the rest of society is happy to accept that as “right and proper”. While also masturbating to porn, visiting sex workers, snorting coke, and smoking dope, because they want to, but they aren’t prepared to stand up and tell the community that they don’t agree with the hard line moralists and their abolitionist agendas.

So the prohibitionists go mostly unchallenged. The politicians play it safe and pander to the vocal minorities. And people continue to die or suffer harm because we can’t get past our desire for simple answers to complex problems.

I thought that regulating brothels was a good thing – it certainly seems like it should be, after all that would help keep the “undesirables” out of the industry right, and make sure that brothels are run properly?

Well, I was wrong. Here’s what really happens when you impose rules and regulations on the operation of brothels:

  1. It becomes much harder and much more expensive to legally operate a brothel
  2. Everyone who wants to buy sex still wants to buy sex. Rules don’t diminish demand in any significant way
  3. People who want to sell sex still want to sell sex. Rules don’t diminish their need to earn a living and pay their rent
  4. People who can’t meet all of the requirements to get a license and who don’t want to risk fines and possibly gaol move out of the industry
  5. People who don’t care about having a license and are prepared to risk a fine, or even a conviction and gaol move into the industry
  6. Workers (who still need to pay their rent) lose the safety of being able to report violent or abusive clients and managers to management and police
  7. Workers are at the mercy of brothel managers who’s now operate outside of any form of oversight and consequence

This list could go on, but you get the idea. In short, some or all of the industry goes underground, clients and workers are more vulnerable, and abuses are harder to see and deal with.

The regulations that are ostensibly meant to protect the “community”, end up doing the exact opposite, they create an opportunity for the unscrupulous to make huge amounts of money via exploitation. And authorities are largely powerless to prevent it, because brothels are cheap and simple to establish for anyone with some spare cash and the nerve to do so – and the pay off will be very big, so it’s worth the risk.

Illicit drugs are much the same. It is literally impossible to stop people growing and cooking up drugs. No matter how hard authorities punish people, there will always, always, always be someone else ready to step up and supply to the demand, no matter even if the penalty is death.

All this does is create an ever deepening pool of violence, damage, and misery. I hardly need to provide examples, but just look at the ongoing drug wars in Central America and Mexico. The numbers of people who continue to die for our failed “war on drugs” defies belief, yet still we pursue it in the name of preventing deaths in our own countries – which is doesn’t do either.

Our obsession with abolition and abstinence is obscene. It is born from a desire to answer difficult, complex questions, with simplistic answers, and it will continue to blight our society, and force abuse and hardship on sex workers until we grow up and realise that sex work is more like riding bicycles than driving cars.

John.

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