Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
This piece of mine was published in today’s edition of Mail Today.
Three days ago, Deborah Jeane Palfrey’s body was found in a shed outside her mother’s home in Tarpon Springs, one of Florida’s top tourist destinations. Palfrey had earlier been convicted of running a “high-priced call girl ring”. She was awaiting sentencing. She did not want to go to jail. A nylon rope was handy.
It’s easy to imagine the emotions that must have run through Palfrey’s mind in her final moments: despair, fear, loneliness. It would be ironic if remorse was one of them. For Palfrey hadn’t harmed anyone. The tragedy of her case is that she was the victim.
The purpose of laws, I think you’d agree, is to protect the rights of individuals, and to punish those who infringe them. Every law that exists should serve these ends. But there is a category of laws, not just in the US but in India and everywhere else, that punish what are called “victimless crimes.” They are used to prosecute people who have harmed no one. They come about because of the universal human tendency to impose our preferences on others. And there is nothing we try to impose as much as our morality.
The many laws that exist against prostitution everywhere in the world are an example of this. Prostitution, the oldest cliché goes, is the oldest profession. If so, it also sets the template for every other profession. Take me, for example: I sell my skills as a writer, limited as they are, to write pieces such as this one. You no doubt have a job that involves selling your skills as well. Many people trade not their intellectual skills but physical labour. Most such trades, made to mutual benefit, are considered respectable. But when a prostitute offers her sexual services, that is somehow considered improper and unethical.
What is even odder is that in most countries, if two consenting adults get together and have sex, the state will not interfere – unless money has changed hands. On one hand, we sanctimoniously frown upon sex; on the other, we frown at commerce. The human race would not exist without either of these two.
Many opponents of prostitution conflate it with trafficking. They point out that young girls are forced into prostitution. Well, consider that making prostitution illegal actually increases the probability of this happening. If there is demand for it, and we outlaw it, we drive it underground. When the underworld runs prostitution, it functions outside the purview of the law, and such crimes become more likely. Also, even prostitutes who enter the profession willingly don’t have legal protection, and are at the mercy of their pimps. (Most cops, at least in India, look upon victimless crimes as revenue streams. They are more likely to take hafta from a brothel owner and sex from a prostitute than to enforce the law.)
If prostitution was legal, the women who enter the profession would be better protected. In Netherlands, there are unions to look after prostitutes, who pay taxes to the state, and whose rights are looked after. Brothels function like respectable businesses there, and advertise their services. In such an environment, the notorious cycle of abduction-and-rape is less likely.
A few weeks ago, Kiran Bedi appeared on We The People, the NDTV talk show, to argue against decriminalizing prostitution. She said that no woman can possibly choose be a prostitute, and implied that all prostitutes had been coerced into the profession. Barkha Dutt, the show’s anchor, then threw the spotlight on the prostitutes who were actually in the studio. They cheerfully insisted that they were in the profession out of choice, and preferred it to the other options open to them. Bedi went into denial, and kept parroting that no one could make such a choice. The prostitutes there looked rather bemused.
We condescend to others when we pass judgement on their choices. Sure, through our middle-class prism, it seems terrible to be a prostitute. (As it does to be a construction labourer or a ragpicker, for that matter.) But for some people, it is the best of all available options. To deny them this option would be to drive them to something that they prefer even less. That kind of sanctimony harms the very people it professes to help.
Betting and Drugs
We should not only legalize prostitution, but also other victimless crimes. Take betting, for example. Every investment we make, whether in the stock market or in real estate or in our choice of friends, is effectively a bet. So it becomes a bit silly to ban, say, betting on sport. If adults want to bet their money, and there is no coercion involved, why on earth should the state be involved, like a stern daddy convinced that his kids are immature and can’t make their own decisions? This is indeed the attitude the state has towards us in so many areas of our life – while it should serve us, it actually rules us.
Just as people confuse prostitution and trafficking, they conflate betting and match-fixing. Consider that match-fixing in cricket has been most rampant where it is banned. Consider also that there would be much less scope for it if betting was legal and respectable business houses ran betting establishments. If HSBC, HDFC, Citibank and ICICI offered betting accounts just as they offer demat accounts, would you really trust your money to the shady underworld types who now run the show? Competition among big players would ensure that customers get value for their money, and if their functioning was transparent, as the market ensures, there would be far less scope for corruption and fixing games.
Dawood Ibrahim has sometimes been connected with the match-fixing mafia. Where would he have the scope to operate if betting was legal?
Then there’s drugs. Soft drugs like marijuana, LSD and hashish are considered by medical experts to be no more addictive or harmful than alcohol, tobacco or caffeine, and it makes no sense for them to be banned from sale to adults. If I can have a beer or a shot of tequila whenever I feel like, why not a joint of something quite as harmless? And even if I take a more harmful drug, should that not be my choice, and not the state’s?
The underworld is sustained in many countries by the drug trade, and if these drugs were legal, and could be sold across the counter or in cafes like in Netherlands, drug mafias would be deprived of their main source of revenue. Customers would also be protected – adulterated drugs are a greater danger with an unaccountable mafia – and competition in a legal marketplace would ensure that they would get cheaper and safer drugs. A smaller percentage of people die of drug related deaths in the Netherlands than anywhere else in Europe.
What about crimes committed under the influence of drugs, you ask? Well, they should be prosecuted on their own merit, just as crimes committed under the influence of alcohol are. Or we might as well ban lust because it sometimes leads to rape. Imagine the dystopia where that is the case.
Our dubious sense of morality is responsible for all these stupid laws. In India, for example, section 377 of the Indian Penal Code effectively penalises homosexuality – a law that is said to have led to policemen running extortion rackets across the country. Even free speech can sometimes be a victimless crime, as a variety of laws make giving offence, especially on religious grounds, a crime. (Section 295 (a) of the IPC is the worst of these.) Morality’s a damn good thing, but only when it is rooted in respecting the rights of others. Laws that infringe on the rights of people to live their lives as they please are deeply immoral – and they exist even in countries that pay lip service to freedom. Deborah Jean Palfrey’s death, for example, was nothing less than a travesty, caused by an invasive law that had no business to exist. DC Madam had done nothing wrong.
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I’d made this same argument in a piece a year ago: Don’t Punish Victimless Crimes.
For more of my essays and Op-Eds, click here.
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