Side effect of new trafficking law: More street prostitution?

Normally when we talk about prostitution here it has something to do with politicians bargaining away their votes. But there are issues which literally involve the world’s oldest profession being debated these days. Back in April, Ed covered the closure of, who’s founder pretty much admitted that he know the site was being used in the sex trade. The authorities were able to move against Backpage because congress amended Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act specifically to make this possible. Prostitutes were using the service to connect with clients, but even worse, it was discovered that child sex traffickers were using the site in their horrid affairs.

But what about the aforementioned adult prostitutes? There were more than a few people claiming that shutting down Backpage was going to put sex workers in danger. They wouldn’t be able to vet clients as easily and might wind up back out working the streets. This was a position that Ed didn’t have much sympathy for, but was the prediction accurate? A new report at the Associated Press suggests that those forecasts may have come true.

The number of sex ads online plummeted by 75 percent, an indication that the law was thwarting human traffickers no longer protected by the anonymity of the internet. But sex workers and their advocates say another casualty was the income of escorts who advertised online, along with the ability to vet clients better than on the street.

Statistics establishing a pattern are hard to come by, but police in some of the nation’s biggest cities told The Associated Press they are also seeing a shift, if sometimes only in the age of the sex workers they’re encountering.

“I have seen a group of fresher faces, so that would make me think that they’re new to the street, maybe from the internet,” said Lt. Jimmy Sides, of the San Antonio police.

Law enforcement in San Antonio arrested 296 people for prostitution between March 21, when the Sex Trafficking Act passed Congress, and Aug. 14, according to a public records request — a 58 percent increase from the same span the year before, when police made 187 arrests.

As the article suggests, data on this is difficult to pin down so they’re largely relying on more anecdotal estimates from vice squads around the country. Still, a more than 50% increase in arrests in one major city is difficult to write off as a statistical anomaly.

I tend to take a more libertarian attitude toward prostitution laws than some other conservatives. It’s a business which has been around for all of recorded history. It’s rife with abuse and can cause more problems than it solves for many women who go into the trade. Violence and disease are always a threat. But in the end, it still seems that consenting adults should be able to do with their bodies as they wish, and if that’s how they want to explore capitalism, it should be up to them.

Unfortunately, you can’t separate “legitimate” prostitution by adult individuals from trafficking, particularly on the internet, and child trafficking definitely has to be shut down, with its perpetrators being thrown into a dark cell for a very long time. How do you balance those two problems? Nobody ever seems to want to hear about this solution, but perhaps we need a fresh look at legalization or at least significant decriminalization of adult prostitution across the board. That would allow law enforcement to ignore the advertising of above-board adults in the sex trade and focus on the human traffickers. If this change in the law has wound up putting more women and girls out on the streets, perhaps the law of unintended consequences should be heeded in this case.