“It’s hard to feel excessive sympathy when a colossal hypocrite is exposed,” said Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune, but former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer got a bum rap. The law-and-order crusader resigned this week after being busted for frequenting high-priced call girls. Unfortunately for him, prostitution may be the last private, sexual act between consenting adults that is still against the law. Society wastes precious dollars and resources trying to shut down an industry that has been around since the beginning of history. This intrusion into the privacy of the bedroom wasn’t justified by the fact that the sexual transaction was accompanied by a financial one. If Spitzer had seduced a young woman with a $50 bottle of wine or a $5,000 diamond ring, “only his wife and his financial advisor would have objected.” What Spitzer did “was stupid, selfish, reckless, immoral, and a betrayal of his family. What I don’t understand is why it was illegal.”

Here’s why, said Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times. Most prostitutes are not middle-class adults like Spitzer’s “Kristen.” They’re teenage girls “who are battered by their pimps, who will have to meet their quotas tonight and every night, who are locked in car trunks or in basements, who have guns shoved in their mouths if they even hint of quitting.” Studies show that prostitutes have one of the deadliest occupations in the country. Many were abused as children and have learned to expect degradation. The vast majority tell researchers they desperately want out. The solution is not to legalize prostitution, or to arrest prostitutes, but to prosecute the people responsible for it: the pimps and the johns.

That strategy has been very effective in Sweden, said Emily Bazelon in Slate.com. Since police there began targeting johns in 1999, prostitution and human trafficking have dropped dramatically. But some prostitutes there have complained, insisting that they work of their own volition and that the law has driven down their incomes. Obviously, the point of any government policy on prostitution “begins with the premise that it’s base and exploitative and demeaning to sex workers.” But what if some prostitutes, such as the women who are paid $5,000 a night by guys like Spitzer, don’t want the government to protect them? Until we know what percentage of prostitutes choose the world’s oldest profession as the best of their available options, we should hold off on deciding whether to legalize prostitution, or whether to round up and ruin even more Eliot Spitzers.

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