Defending the 'D.C. Madam'

John Stossel wonders why the D.C. Madam is being prosecuted at all?


May 1, 2007 — -- Some people are saying it's ridiculous that the investigators are only going after the women-- that they should be going after the Johns as well. I think it's ridiculous that the police are going after ANYONE. Don't prostitutes own their bodies? Shouldn't they be able to freely contract to use their bodies as they wish? Who was hurt here? This is a victimless crime.

Here's how I covered this topic in my book "Give Me a Break." And my newest book, "Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity: Get Out the Shovel -- Why Everything You Know Is Wrong," comes out in paperback today. Click here to buy the book.

I understand the rationale. Drug abuse, prostitution, gambling, and dwarf tossing can destroy lives. But so can overeating. What America forbids keeps changing. In colonial days, idleness and cursing got people put in the stocks. Some who had sex outside marriage were whipped. And there really was a scarlet letter. Adulterers were forced to wear an "A," usually for life. The laws didn't stop adultery, cursing, or idleness any more than today's laws stop prostitution.

And I'm confused. Alcohol destroys lives too. So does watching too much TV. All do tremendous damage to individuals, and impose big costs on society. Why are they legal? Because they're popular?

Vice is part of life. I want to discourage immoral behavior, too, but outlawing it doesn't make it go away; in fact, it makes it worse by driving it underground. This endless crusade against prostitution shows the pointlessness of the crusade. Vice squads arrest a tiny percentage of the lawbreakers, put a few of them in jail, and then usually release them the next day. The madams may get longer sentences.

Hollywood's Heidi Fleiss was jailed for a year and a half. But Sydney Biddle Barrows, who admitted to running a big New York City call girl operation, got off with a $5,000 fine. Barrows (called the "Mayflower madam," because she's a descendant of a Pilgrim family), appeared on "Sex, Drugs" to point out that prostitution arrests change nothing. "People who are going to do it are going to do it whether it's legal or not. There are a lot of women out there who simply donot feel that it is immoral to sleep with a man for money, and who are we to criminalize their doing something that is OK with them?"


But isn't it better if it is illegal? Aren't we better off protecting ourselves from what you did?


What are we really protecting people against? We're protecting women from making a living, and we're protecting men from spending their money as they please. I don't think that anyone needs to be protected from that.

I've found it relatively easy to get reports on prostitution on TV news broadcasts. Producers know we'll attract more of those "young-viewers-advertisers-want" with a story about sex than with one on, say, economic freedom. What's tougher is getting "working girls" to agree to an interview, because flaunting their criminality may get them arrested. So thank goodness for Barrows and Norma Jean Almodovar of COYOTE, the prostitute activist group. COYOTE stands for "Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics," and COYOTE can be counted on to assemble a group of working prostitutes for TV interviews.

I ask the usual questions, and they knock them out of the park.


This is degrading for women.


I don't think a lot of women would choose to scrub toilets for a living. Nevertheless, because a lot of people might think that's degrading, we don't put them in jail.

One prostitute, Heather Smith, made an interesting comparison: "It's legal for two men to go into a boxing ring and beat each other bloody for money," she said, "but it's not legal for me to go in and give someone sexual pleasure for money. What kind of sense does that make?"

Not much. If adults want to rent their bodies to other adults, that should be their choice.

In most of America, prostitution is plagued by violence and disease and often run by thugsbecause it¹s illegal. In much of Nevada, the sex business is legal. The sky hasn't fallen. In fact, Las Vegas keeps appearing on those "best cities to live in" lists. The sex business in Nevada is relatively safe and clean.

"It's shameful what we're doing in the name of morality," Peter McWilliams said. "So, you have to ask yourself not, 'Is prostitution a good idea?' You have to ask yourself, 'Is prostitution worth putting people in prison for?'"

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