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How Much for Oral Sex?

The going rate for oral sex in my city is twenty dollars. This is not the sort of market price that one can freely quote without accounting for how they know it, so allow me to explain.

There is a street in our town that the police and residents seem to have accepted as the red light district. It’s a fairly impoverished area and the people who live there have more important things to worry about than the prostitutes who leapfrog from corner to corner day and night. The hookers are fairly easy to spot in their unchanging uniform of miniskirts and day glo tube tops, many of them bearing the effects of meth or crack abuse. It’s also a slow-speed road and, if you make eye contact before stopping at a light or turning a corner, they will try to hop in your car, something that has nearly happened to me twice. As with a tourist safari, I find it’s best to keep your doors locked and windows rolled up.

By chance, the prostitute street runs perpendicular to the gentrifying street in Hamilton and, on one particular evening, I was in close proximity to this intersection at my favorite rock and roll bar to see the great Memphis singer and artist Tav Falco performing with his latest band. Tav has been kicking around since the 70s. His band “the untouchable Panther Burns” included such Memphis luminaries as Alex Chilton and his current act is a captivating blend of rockabilly, blues, and flamenco dancing. He was superb.

Around 1 a.m., as the show was ending and the band was getting on their way to the next gig, a few of us music fans were milling about the patio discussing everything and nothing when a tiny young woman burst out of a car angrily onto the sidewalk accompanied by two young men who looked like they just got done kicking sand in someone’s face on Muscle Beach.

“Where in the dickens is that rapscallion?!” would be the network television version of what they shouted. “We’re going to give him a sound thrashing!”

“He owes me twenty bucks for services rendered!” she yelled, more explicitly and more specifically than that.

The two thugs threatened us, they threatened anyone who looked like the guilty party, they considered chasing after Tav Falco’s tour van, and demanded someone find the missing john so they could commit assault. There was a thick and uncomfortable atmosphere of violence menacing what had been an otherwise enjoyable evening. They were sharks that had smelled blood. Above us, the silent streetlights dimmed to accommodate their violence. Finally, a musician friend among us asked the irate group:

“Look, nobody knows where this guy is and we don’t want any trouble. So how about I just give you twenty dollars and you get the hell out of here?”

It was as easy as that. The deal was made. The three took his twenty dollars and left fuming. Somebody found the weasel hiding in the women’s room and demanded he leave the property immediately. The club owner heard of what happened and paid my musician friend twenty dollars out of the till. Tav Falco escaped unscathed.

Except, I started to wonder how exactly the market decided that twenty dollars is the accepted rate for fellatio. This sounds extremely low to me. Truthfully, though, anything less than five hundred dollars would sound low. I assumed the price is not related to the time involved, but to the act involved, which is arduous and demoralizing, if not dehumanizing.

Searching around online, however, I find that street prostitutes do, very often, charge by the hour, and that the average rate in Canada is fifty dollars for one hour with a streetwalker. And so, perhaps, our city, which is one of the poorest in the country, reflects the poverty rate in this market as well. I still had questions, however, about just how prostitutes, johns, and pimps go about setting these wages.

Now, many of my friends support the decriminalizing of prostitution, which is quasi-legal in Ontario but still exists within a gray zone. This seems to be one sort of regulation that liberals frequently oppose, along with drug laws. At the least, it is extremely difficult to regulate prostitution, which has existed for centuries and is relatively easy work to find. For instance, one of the key planks of Mussolini’s Fascist program in Italy was the elimination of prostitution. And this simply resulted in prostitutes working out of restaurants as quasi waitresses. Ernest Hemingway wrote an amusing story about the time he and my great-grandfather tried to order food, but not sex, in one such restaurant.

Jaybird recently described “neoliberalism” in a thread as an attempt to decouple morality and the market and, certainly, in the case of prostitution there is some room for consensus between the left and libertarians on this. Even if we find sex work to be immoral, the futility of wiping out prostitution should give us pause, along with the fact of punishing people for what is usually a victimless crime.

And yet, the sex trade is not quite the same as other markets, or is it? In classical economics, what is called the “market theory of wage determination” holds that wage rates are determined by the supply of workers and the demand of employers. One argument against the minimum wage is that it sets an artificial wage floor, which is often higher than the equilibrium wage rate. And so, employers accept the minimum wage only grudgingly. If someone is willing to work for four dollars an hour, the argument goes, why shouldn’t they? An employer would gladly give the four-dollar-an-hour employee more hours, and thus more employment, than a twelve-dollar-an-hour employee.

And in fact many employers do try, as a result, to get more work for fewer hours from their employees. One of my coworkers in the toiletariat came to us after a temp service job in which he was required to clean a factory floor and offices in “three hours”, something that is essentially impossible. As a result, he had to finish the job in five hours and get paid for three. This is illegal, of course. But, if he had stuck with three hours and failed to finish the work, he’d have been fired. The prostitute had more immediate recourse when asked to work for free. And a golden rule of the “new economy” is that there’s always someone willing to work for less money than you.

Our company is thus becoming something of an anomaly in our city since we work full time for fifteen dollars an hour, while the trend (also a tenet of neoliberalism, sorry to point out) across North America, if not the English-speaking world, is towards “short term contracts” and the “flexibility” that they offer companies. We are expected to be replaced with contract cleaners in 2018.

The classical market theory of wages has always seemed somewhat lacking to me, and I think the market price of fellatio brought home why this is. To be fair, let’s say that the haggling that goes on in prostitution fits the model exactly: prostitutes charge the highest rate that the market will bear for their labor without exceeding that rate and thereby having diminishing returns. As George Bernard Shaw put it, “We’ve established what you are. Now we’re trying to fix the price.”

On the other hand, while we might romanticize prostitution, I think we generally do know that few people take up the trade because they have a calling or a fetish. Instead, hooking is a job of last resort with a high element of desperation baked in. When there is a drug addiction involved, as is often the case, this alone “artificially” lowers the going rate. Haggling is done under duress.

So, the first problem I see with the market theory of wages is that, of course, the decisions of workers are also driven by demand – without a job, most of us couldn’t eat, maintain shelter, or meet any of our material needs. When wages are kept artificially low, as they quite often are, the need on the part of workers to make a deal quickly is perhaps even more pressing than the need on the part of employers to find another worker. Prostitution is an extreme example of work that is done under duress, but in this city, we’ve all taken jobs with very little “choice” involved.

The second problem with the theory, which is glaringly obvious with prostitution, is that selling labor is different from selling any other good on the market in that it’s so intimately tied with one’s selfhood. We sell off a part of our life, our being, our physical condition, our purpose, and our autonomy as well. This is roughly what Marx meant by the “alienation” theory. Since there are plenty of problems with Marx though, let’s turn to Karl Polanyi, who wrote back in 1944 that would be a mistake to let the “market mechanism” be the sole director of human beings and societies:

For the alleged commodity ‘labor power’ cannot be shoved about, used indiscriminately, or even left unused, without affecting also the human individual who happens to be the bearer of this particular commodity. In disposing of man’s labor power the system would, incidentally, dispose of the physical, psychological, and moral entity ‘man’ attached to that tag. Robbed of the protective covering of cultural institutions, human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure; they would die as victims of acute social dislocation through vice, perversion, crime and starvation.

Polanyi was writing against the “liberal utopianism” of Hayek, among others, and is worth reading for his simple but important observation that “laissez-faire was planned” and his argument that an idealized free market society would eventually turn authoritarian in order to maintain the ‘freedoms’ of the privileged class that could actually afford such a narrow sort of freedom. Because free trade relies on disposable labor, its advocates recognize as valid only the government function of “protecting private property”, or essentially using government power to maintain the prerogatives of a privileged class (although not necessarily a hereditary one). The dangers of this seem obvious.

In the case of prostitution, an unregulated market in most locales, the element of private force maintains the system, but so does the element of social dislocation that Polanyi talks about. Prostitutes are not embedded in society in the same way that workers in other professions are. In a sense, however, they’re not so far removed from the effects that many of us “respectable” laborers have experienced due to the continual, top-down, three decade, planned movement towards the social dislocation of labor. Recall neoliberal diva Margaret Thatcher’s famous statement that: There is no such thing as society; there are only individual men and women.

Polanyi explained almost four decades before the fact why that was a pernicious lie. The good news is that societies arise spontaneously all the time, and continue to do so over and over, because individuals are not nearly as “flexible” as market mechanisms require them to be. Human thinking can be changed greatly over time. Humanity cannot.

In other words, labor is so intimately attached to the selfhood of the individual that, when we remove “morality” from the labor market, we remove all traces of humanity from the market, laying bare the power underlying every social structure thus far. This can, in no sense, be considered “free trade”, any more than could prostitution.


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Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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142 thoughts on “How Much for Oral Sex?

  1. You’re missing the interview with the prostitutes.

    Oh, well, I guess that’s what Mindless Diversions is for.

    I sincerely doubt that most people who advocate for legalization of prostitution will also advocate for legalization of child prostitution… or bestiality. Let alone the biological contamination involved in the satisfaction of certain fetishes (you … lick.. people’s… eyeballs? JAPAN!!)

    Perhaps the worst crime about prostitution, for the moralists, is convincing people that being a prostitute is better than being a wife.

    … because I actually watch documentaries.
    (Name the country if you can)

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  2. “I think we generally do know that few people take up the trade because they have a calling or a fetish. Instead, hooking is a job of last resort with a high element of desperation baked in. When there is a drug addiction involved, as is often the case, this alone “artificially” lowers the going rate…Prostitution is an extreme example of work that is done under duress…”

    Note that if prostitution weren’t illegal then the particularly unique problems in it would go away. If I can openly run a site like the many escort-services ones that have come and gone, then the job gets a lot easier (you can advertise openly, rate clients, create discussion groups and advice columns specifically for the trade.)

    As with drugs, most of the problems of prostitution are a result of the fact that it’s illegal and we aren’t allowed to use the many good tools we’ve created for solving those problems.

    PS there’s a lot of romanticization involved in the idea that “hooking is a job of last resort with a high element of desperation”. This is not some penny dreadful about the lovely girl with a bright future who had to give it all up and be a streetwalker to feed her family.

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    • Unless “hooking” refers to a particular subset of sex work, I’d argue with the description quoted here. If you have read any of the work that Freakonomics has done on the topic (which is not without its issues), you’ll learn that many women (and, presumably, men… though I don’t know that they’ve interviewed any) turn to this work because it can be highly profitable, they have zero moral qualms with it, and they do fancy themselves good at and/or fans of sex.

      This jives with what anecdotal information I garner from listening to Dan Savage’s podcast.

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      • Kazzy: I suppose the subset I’m referring to is the street walking in Hamilton, which is the group I encounter and, as far as I can tell, is not people of with a lot of options choosing this one because they fancy themselves good at sex.

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        • Yea, that makes sense. I assumed you were talking about that subset but wasn’t sure if “hooking” referred specifically to that subset or not. I do think it is worthwhile to note the different types and how folks find themselves engaged in it. In fact, this was chief among my criticisms of the Freakonomics guys work, namely that they took the story of a well-to-do college girl who charged hundreds of dollars an hour to high-status johns and acted as if it and the lessons that could be learned from it were universal to all sex work.

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    • PS there’s a lot of romanticization involved in the idea that “hooking is a job of last resort with a high element of desperation”. This is not some penny dreadful about the lovely girl with a bright future who had to give it all up and be a streetwalker to feed her family.

      Maybe so, but none of the prostitutes I’ve seen gave the impression of having too many other options for employment. So, it didn’t seem like lovely girls with bright futures forced into a life of vice, but it also didn’t seems like a situation where there was a great deal of choice involved. More that it was either that or unemployment insurance.

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    • If you’re not going to legalize everything (and trust me, you’re not. some people love their dogs more than their life), then you get the sticky situation of having to pick and choose who can consent and who can’t.

      Fun Fun!

      Even if prostitution were legal, there are certain people who would still use duress to obtain sex from individuals.

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    • The women Rufus describes don’t sound like they have a lot of options. I have also heard lots of stories about women and sometimes men paying for their educations via high end sex work. A lot of these stories are of the friend of a friend variety.

      I have also heard several female acquaintances say that they would have done sex work to pay for their educations if they were braver.

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      • “A lot of these stories are of the friend of a friend variety.”
        … if you interviewed people, you’d have better stories to tell. Also a lot more insight into the human condition.

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      • Even the “I’m doing this to pay for my education” high end sex work as an element of desperation to it. They might not be desperate in a way that Rufus’ prostitute was but they needed a way to pay for their schooling and found that prostitution was a better option than going into debt over student loans. If we funded higher education through a different mechanism or it was cheaper and good be paid for by other types of employment than I imagine that few people would choose to go into commercial sex to pay for it.

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        • Well sure, but how is this particular desperation distinct from any other choice that somebody makes in the free market? Far more people work as hotel housekeepers or plumbers or corporate HR managers or on North Dakotan oil fields than there would be if we all got to choose a vocation purely on the basis of what would most contribute to our bliss, but only sex work is discussed as if there is a moral component to how the market may push us to do things we would otherwise rather not do.

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            • Sex is not a commodity.

              This gets to the heart of the problem right here. Sex means different things to different people. For some people, sex is incredibly personal/spiritual/intimate/insert adjective here; for others, it’s something to do on a Saturday night with anyone they find suitable attractive; and for others, it’s something of value to trade for things of greater or equal value. Most of us live somewhere in between, having spent brief periods in all three.

              It is not clear to me why the government ought to have the political and legal authority to dictate to me just how much I ought to value sex. That strikes me as an incredibly personal decision.

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              • If it makes you feel better, its not really the government dictating this. Its the societal consensus on sex being enforced by the government as best as it can. When most people paid at least lip service to the idea of no sex before marriage, the government really attempted to enforce this to the extent that it could. Roger Ebert referred to how cops would go to motels and take down car licenses and than check up with the universities to see if they belonged to college students. This was in the early 1960s. Not sure what the colleges would do though. Most likely expel the kids. When enough people stopped caring about no premarital sex as an ideal, this stopped. The current ambivalent attitudes towards sex work in the United States reflect in a not very consistent government policy towards it.

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                • Why would that make me feel better?

                  I understand that Jim Crow was as much, if not more, about the societal consensus on white supremacy as it was about government-mandated segregation. I still find it repugnant.

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            • On past sex discussions, your the one reminding us that humans should stop trying to be logical about something that is inherently illogical. Saying that sex work is different from cleaning, restaurant, or other physical work by degree not type is trying to be logical. People get emotional about sex for a variety of reasons. That alone makes it different from other physical work. Attempts to rationalize sex and separate the physical aspects from the emotional aspect only really seem capable for a handful of people even under the best circumstances. Sometimes even than the emotional aspects strike and strike hard.

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              • But rather than insist that we can only see sex as a commodity in those supposedly rare instances when the physical can be disentangled from the emotional, but not consider all of the ways in which other things we consider to be commodities also suffer from entanglements of the emotional and the tangible.

                A man who built his house from the ground up — pouring blood, sweat, and tears into the effort — will likely feel unsatisfied if that house burns down and insurance offers him even full value for labor and materials.

                A teacher who busts her hump every day for a school for two decades is unlikely to turn heal if the school down the road offers her a slight raise because of the relationships she has formed in her time there and the investments she has made in the institution.

                Hell man, I’ve played in fantasy sports leagues where managers will turn down objectively beneficial trades because they can’t give up on the sleeper they drafted who far exceeded even their own wildest expectations because he is one of “their guys”.

                I’d argue that it is relatively rare for anyone to be able to entirely disentangle the tangible and the emotional.

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    • In LA County, at least, the streetwalkers tend to be very poor and mostly drug-addicted. City attorneys (who prosecute misdemeanors only) and County prosecutors learn their trade by prosecuting these utterly useless cases, along with such other stupid crimes like public urination and masturbation. (Public defenders learn their trade by defending these cases for the first three-to-seven years before they have the skill set to defend serious felonies.) It’s just meat through a grinder, over and over again. A true waste of lives, time and tax dollars.

      Also in LA County, you can find a wide range of in-call “massage” services advertised in the back of the alternative weeklys, not to mention a plethora of websites that are more refined and explicit. These people get prosecuted essentially never (with one or two notable exceptions). And, of course, we have a very robust porn industry that is perfectly legal.

      I recognize that most people don’t much like the streetwalker trade. I used to live right by one of those streets and frankly the level of public despair and misery was pretty awful. (Also, being solicited every single time I walked home from the local bar got tiresome.) So I very much understand the desire of the local merchants and residents to have the police push these people someplace else.

      But I gotta say, using the criminal justice system to address a relatively minor public nuisance is a terrible idea. Since the only people in our society with the power to arrest are the cops, then I suppose that we have to continue to use cops to maintain public order. But at least turn this kind of stuff into an infraction.

      Do people have a right to walk the streets without seeing prostitutes or homeless people? That’s actually a hard question. Where do the homeless go? How do the streetwalkers earn a living?

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      • Maybe if prostitution were entirely legal then there wouldn’t be streetwalkers, because johns would prefer to not be involved in that kind of a market.

        It’s not like speakeasies stuck around for very long after Prohibition was repealed.

        Heh. Maybe that’s the argument for keeping it illegal–because if it’s legalized it’ll gentrify, and rising consumer expectations will drive the lower-level providers out of the market!

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      • Do people have a right to walk the streets without seeing prostitutes or homeless people? That’s actually a hard question.

        It’s not a hard question at all. Obviously people don’t have the right to walk around without seeing homeless people. People do have the right to have somewhere to live – and Oregon shows that society would be saving money, as a whole, if it housed everyone who was homeless, because they’d be showing up in jails and emergency rooms a lot less often.

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      • I would say your questions have no answers. I understand that many activists believe the answer to be no and dislike the out of sight and out of mind issue. We should see the pain of the world and be compelled to do something.

        Unfortunately activists fail to understand that do something is often going to become make the problem out of sight and out of mind.

        There is no good solution

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    • Note that if prostitution weren’t illegal then the particularly unique problems in it would go away.

      This hasn’t been the case in the Netherlands, where it has been legalized. Instead, the Netherlands became a major destination for sex traffickers and sexual slavery.

      Sweden’s strategy – of punishing johns rather than prostitutes – is a far better answer, because it attacks exploitation by targeting the people whose behaviour is easier to change. Someone who becomes a prostitute out of economic necessity isn’t likely to stop because it’s illegal; but someone who has a good job and goes to prostitutes is much more likely to reconsider when faced with the probability of the public humiliation associated with a conviction.

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      • I’ve heard mixed things about Sweden’s solution. From what I’ve read the Swedish government actually has decided not to really study whether or not the arrest the johns solution really works but simply declare it to be a success.

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      • My impression has been that the Swedish approach looks good largely because the Swedish government only asked about the numbers it wanted to hear.

        For example, this article makes it seem an awful lot like the real effect of the law is to drive prostitution further underground, and to make anything that might protect a prostitutes’s personal safety – a safe workplace, the ability to take even a few minutes to assess prospective clients, a situation where johns might be willing to have their ID recorded so they know they’ll be identifiable if the prostitute is hurt – all impossible.

        Another piece on the subject draws much the same conclusion – that Sweden’s model doesn’t really protect women in prostitution, if anything endangering them more, but that by driving them further into hiding it lets the government claim it has protected them without fear of public contradiction.

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        • Incidentally I am personally biased against the approach because it was embraced by Harper and co. Hearing slimy smarmy Peter MacKay claim this was totally all about protecting the rights and wellbeing of the sex workers after they’d just spent the four years of Bedford v Canada fighting tooth and nail not to have to respect their rights, set my teeth right on edge.

          If MacKay goes into weather forecasting I’ll be in all kinds of trouble, because I’ll never believe him and be forever getting frozen, soaked, and sunburned in weather that was predicted days in advance.

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          • I don’t know. Its kind of admirable that the Harper government didn’t double down after losing a court case. I can’t imagine any administration in the United States not doubling down and going into massive resistance after losing in the courts.

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            • At least they didn’t just ban prostitution, it’s true. My understanding of the supreme court’s ruling was that it was because sex work itself is legal, that making everything around it illegal and therefore dangerous was the charter violation – it might have been consistent with the ruling to just add prostitution to the criminal code.

              But this was the most punitive thing they could manage short of outright criminalization. It was pretty clear that they didn’t expect this to be any less of a charter violation – the new set of laws will probably be overturned by the supreme court in a decade or so, and it’s not like the Conservatives didn’t have legal advisers to tell them so.

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        • driving them further into hiding it lets the government claim it has protected them without fear of public contradiction

          This makes my blood boil.

          I mean, I understand the reasons that we, as a society, want prostitution to not be an option that people (either buying or selling) would turn to.

          We want to live in a world without prostitutes and a world without johns.

          Great. I’m on board.

          The problem is the leap from there to “well, let’s just pass a law and make it illegal” that results in driving the shit that we hate even further underground and strengthens a handful of the dynamics that we want to live in the world without.

          Then I think that deontologists need to be more utilitarian and I get depressed again.

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          • Jay,
            Unless you’re willing to let 12 year olds do sex work (or younger), there’s always going to be a set of illegal activities associated with sex work.

            At least if you make them all illegal, you don’t have the whole “everybody likes the forbidden” on the least capable of defending themselves.

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      • I’ve always thought this response (Sweden’s) was in itself sexist. It rests on Victorian notions of women as helpless victims who wouldn’t sell their virtue but for desperate circumstances and/or coercion and men as inherently sexually aggressive and predatory. The better solution is a safety net combined with regulation sufficient to keep the transaction a free choice for the participants not more criminalization and entrenching backwards ideas about female sexuality.

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      • Every sex worker I know, and these are real people I know face to face, along with quite a number online, hate the Swedish system. They don’t want it. It just makes their already difficult lives even more difficult.

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        • Nothing is ever better when it gets pushed into the shadows. That’s what gives the people who want to exploit a situation some leverage. Removing the leverage is the only way forward. In this case, I’m not sure any of the potential solutions on the table actually do that, though…

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    • This is an excellent example of maintaining a position at the expense of an interest.
      The position itself is largely a matter of heuristics, and especially so these days; meaning escalation of commitment bias has creeped in to diminish consideration of other available options or strategies.
      Two standard strategies of dealing with such matters are identifying related issues, and improvement of the best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA). There are others I could probably think of, should I care to give the matter some thought.

      Essentially, the position is a result of an oversimplification, and is dependent entirely on one model of “illegality,” inter alia.

      And, yes, I am aware of what pointing out a specific instance of a common error does to the one making the error.
      I chose D. Duck because I thought he was a good target.
      “Good” in this case meaning that, were he to depart from heuristics and actually think about it rather than relying on matters previously thought, I would probably find the result worthwhile, whether I am in agreement or not.

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  3. I imagine that the rate depends on lots of factors.

    You mentioned living in a hard luck town, the prostitutes are really poor and drug addicts. Their customers might be equally poor. 20 bucks might be the most they can spend. Soliciting a street walker is also probably more risky for a John in terms of disease risk and arrest risk.

    Contrast this with someone who advertises his or her services more discreetly. Potentially at a higher income level customer. Those sex workers can and do charge more because they at least present themselves as less desperate situations for all parties.

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  4. You refer to prostitutes doing work “under duress.” “Duress” has a particular meaning to a lawyer, and perhaps a different meaning to an economist than it does to a lawyer, and I’m not sure that your comment reaches what either would be referring to.

    I could see “duress” as an implication that the prostitute’s pimp will beat her if she fails to produce a certain amount of money in a given period of time. I lack information to know how many sex workers have such pressure as part of their working scenarios.

    But I’m not sure I see “duress” as a need for a prostitute to feed a drug habit. Here, though, I wonder just how different that might be from a non-addict needing food, shelter, medical care, etc. Economically speaking, the addict has another consumption need, to be sure, so there is pressure the non-addict lacks. I lack information to know how many sex workers have this additional economic pressure for money. My point is, everyone needs money. That’s not “duress” as I usually think of the word.

    I might call that “economic pressure,” but in my world the fact that one party to a transaction suffers from high economic pressure does not mean the deal ought to be invalidated.

    In some other comments, I see some pushback to the idea that prostitution is an activity entered into out of desperation. I’m not so sure that pushback is justified, although again the word “desperation” may be doing different work in different peoples’ minds, the same way “duress” seems to imply something different for you than it does for me.

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    • Burt,
      When I say duress, I mean “we’ll make your entire family suffer.”
      Or, better, “If you don’t fuck the nice man, daddy’s going to choke you until you die.”
      (which, mind, he’ll probably do anyway, just later — dead children tell no tales)

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      • This is what I mean I when I use the word “duress” as well.

        My query to is that he seems to indicate “will need a fix later that night” is also a form of “duress.” Seems to me that “will need a fix later that night” is, from an economic modeling standpoint, not all that much different from “will need to eat a sandwich later that night” which is not all that much different from “will need to pay the rent in a couple of weeks.”

        Let us set aside the deplorable fact that an addict is more likely to prioritize getting a fix above paying the rent, because this is a function of what is done with the money once obtained, rather than a function of needing the money in the first place and what one is willing to do in order to get it.

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        • Yeah, really, let’s please set that aside. Because people have proven time and time again that they will pay to own a car while letting their medications and food lapse, as well. (You can thank wall street for the statistics on that one!)

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        • I take your point about the legal meaning of duress and would not consider a deal made in a state of desperation to be, thereby, invalidated any more than I would consider it legally invalid if an addict sold their wedding ring for a fix.

          But I’m not so interested in the economic modeling standpoint, which I think is lousy as far as describing what actually happens in that exchange. I also don’t think calling it a free choice quite cuts it. So, if there’s a better term for doing something “you never thought you’d do and would never do otherwise” as a musician friend who performed the same sex act for money during his years of crack addiction described it to me, I’ll try to find it.

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          • Actually a better word that we haven’t used, but which gets at the nub of the issue is exploitation.

            If you come to me and say you need a hundred dollars by tomorrow or you’ll wind up on the street and I say I’ll give it to you only after you clean my toilet with your tongue, it’s not really fraud or force and, therefore, not really a problem for the law or libertarians, but it’s not entirely a free choice either, is it? I think the main difference between libertarians and liberals is around the issue of exploitation and whether it’s a problem that society should try to ameliorate.

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            • I think it is important to understand the mechanisms in the economic modeling.

              If I where looking to provide jobs as an alternative to prostitution, I would be asking some damn hard questions of that modeling, to prevent exploitation.

              To start from a point of ‘free trade’ and ‘free choice’ there has to be removal of a unsurmountable volume of edifices that are creating the current economic model.

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              • I keep thinking of a woman who was killed several years ago. I read about her in the paper.
                She worked as a secretary for some big construction firm downtown. Evenings she worked as a prostitute to support a drug addiction which she struggled with through several failed recoveries.
                Her opportunity for recovery was taken from her by a serial killer who targeted prostitutes in that major Midwestern city.

                And I keep thinking that, were prostitution all that desirable of an outcome, she would have given up her job as a secretary; but that is not the case.

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        • I’ve thought this through for a bit, and without stepping out into the weeds to provide for every faction of outliers:

          The weakness of your argument here is in the assumption that all consumption needs are somehow equal, when it is relatively easy to spot some rather telling differences.
          Addiction, in particular, is an impairment of the capacity of rational action.

          Thus, engaging a prostitute (think of that next time someone announces an “engagement”) who is under the “duress” of an addiction is not substantively different from a date rape after slipping someone a roofie.
          The two are the same.

          I believe that, rather than party, litigant, adversary, etc., the term “chemical bond” satisfies the “other” in:
          1) P’s involuntarily acceptance of the terms of another, where 2) circumstances permitted no reasonable alternative, and 3) the circumstances resulted from the coercive acts of the other.

          Voila! Duress.

          I would now like to amend to state a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

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    • I think this is the heart of the matter. People opposed to the legalization of sex work consider what you call economic pressure a form of duress. They don’t see a world where sex work is something can actually consent to because there is some outside pressure that compels a person to sex work.

      I don’t think this debate will ever be resolved

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      • I think this is wrong though. We already know that many people go into sex work because they simply enjoy sex. We call them porn stars. A significant number of people go into porn because they can have sex for a living. Many strippers and other sex workers go into their profession because it is something they like and getting paid for it is even better. Many people go into sex work because of a lack of better options but not all of them.

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        • Do you got a cite for this?
          Because most “porn stars” are paid to simulate sex, often for long periods of time. While one might say that simulated sex is kinda fun… yeah, I’m not buying the whole “do this for four hours on videotape” is actually fun for either party.

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          • If it were a case of signing a contract to make a video and you didn’t know before walking in to the shoot if you were going to spend four to six hours:

            – Having lots of sex with one or more MOTAS that you were mutually attracted to
            – Making a sweaty exercise video and pushing the brink of exhaustion
            – Road-testing a badly sprung motorcycle over cobblestones while wearing a bikini, ending up chafed as hell

            Could be worse, I expect.

            One problem alluded to above is that in this discussion, some people first think about “Pretty Woman” and pornblogger April O’Neil (basically dilettantes who are empowered enough to be able to dictate good working conditions, and make a solid living), while others first think about the streetwalkers in the OP, and strung-out runaways making gonzo porn for barely enough to feed either their habit or themselves (and rarely, both).

            I’m not even sure that the same set of policy proposals is necessarily valid to cover the whole range of situations. But I’m damned sure I can’t see a simple way to extricate them.

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            • That’s a good comparison. Its sort of similar to the same problem we get when talking about capitalism or socialism. Everybody brings up their own preconceived notions and works from there. To some people commercial sex work is always going to be exploitative because it involves the latter groups your talking about, really down on their luck people doing what ever is necessary to survive. Others might not imagine “Pretty Woman” but they tend to think that people would be able to dictate endurable working conditions if commercial sex was legal for a variety of reasons. The thing is that commercial sex is always going to have a wide variety of people who end up doing it for a living even when legal.

              A lot of businesses are always going to skirt the border between legitimacy and criminal activity regardless of their illegality. The diamond (the gem stone) trade is perfectly legal but members in the diamond industry have been caught doing some very immoral things like the entire blood diamond conflict. Gambling has or had a similar problem. Even when legal, a lot of criminals are drawn to the profession. Commercial sex is going to be similar. Even when you legalize it, there is going to be a heavy criminal element involved for a variety of reasons.

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      • People opposed to the legalization of sex work consider what you call economic pressure a form of duress. They don’t see a world where sex work is something can actually consent to because there is some outside pressure that compels a person to sex work.

        People believe a lot of things. People think humans coexisted with dinosaurs. People think vaccines cause autsim. The thing about this pseudo-duress, or “exploitation,” as the term is used by the left, is that it doesn’t really make any sense, and totally misses the point of why coercion is problematic.

        The problem with coercion is that it allows you to force people into transactions that benefit you at their expense. Furthermore, such transactions are generally negative sum when you include the transaction costs. Robbery, for example, is rarely a net welfare enhancement. If I give you a hundred dollars because you threatened to kill me if I didn’t, I’m $100 worse off, but you’re less than $100 better off, because of the opportunity cost of the time it took you to to rob me. Plus if robbery becomes common, people expend resources trying to avoid being robbed. The end result is that robbery impoverishes society.

        “Exploitation” is completely different, in that it usually involves Pareto-improving transactions, i.e. transactions in which both sides benefit, with no negative externalities. Rather, the complaint is that A has a bunch of lousy options, and B offers A an alternative which is slightly better (sometimes significantly better) than the other options, but still pretty lousy in an absolute sense. The key thing to understand here is that A enters into the transaction voluntarily because he or she judges it to be a better option than anyone else is offering. B is making A better off. I guess you can tell a paternalistic story here where A is just too dumb to know any better and therefore shouldn’t have a choice, but there’s a lot more down that road.

        Offering a poor person a low-paying job, or offering a drug addict $20 for oral sex is nothing like putting a gun to someone’s head. In the first case, you’re offering a person a way to mitigate a problem that you had nothing to do with. In the second case, you’re creating a problem for the person so that he’ll give you what you want to remove the problem.

        To be blunt, the idea that B has somehow wronged A in this situation is even less intellectually respectable than the idea that vaccines cause autism. At least the latter was an empirical question that required actual research to answer. This really isn’t one of those things where reasonable people can disagree.

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        • I’ll tell you this on exploitation:
          When I punch your face bloody, and then ask you to pay extra for the bandages, that’s a little different than just asking you to pay extra for the bandages.

          How many meals have you lost this month to exploitation?
          Perhaps when that’s more than one, you can speak to exactly how good it is for the common man.

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            • Me? Zilch. I’ve mentioned I know trolls. I know trolls that work for Wall Street, so I know the whole scam.

              Riddle me this:
              What’s better than a payday loan at getting people to skip food and their meds? skip rent?
              [Note: this is not drugs. Financial instruments, people! ]

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  5. Rufus, this is pretty good but you’re omitting some things. You’re talking about street hookers. That’s not the entirety of the market. There’s high class hookers, escorts, etc. Their rate goes for a lot more, at least according to my, poorly researched, info.

    Assuming a market clearing price, you have willing sellers and buyers. The buyer for a quick “oral experience” on the side of road is one type of consumer. No doubt that there are as varied a client as there are providers. The legality of the product also effects prices and supply. Also, most streetwalkers are working in service of a pimp. So, there is that relationship and influence on the market price as well.

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    • “assuming a market clearing price” … umm, bullshit.
      I’d wager that more than 50% of whores are operating in some level of duress at any given point in time. I’d also wager that more than 50% of whores are under 18.

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      • “Also, most streetwalkers are working in service of a pimp” I said this. I think that covers “duress”. And Rufus already mentioned “duress” in the form of substance addiction. All that “duress” influences the price you know.

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        • See, my meaning of duress is more along the lines of Disappeared.
          Or unable to consent in the first place.

          I’ll assume that pimps do some amount of “actually good things for their workers” — along the lines of real estate agents, who really aren’t ever paid to act in your best interest.

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          • I’m guessing that if it was easy to steal a car along with the title straight from a dealer’s hands without legal recourse for the dealer, car dealers would have “pimps” hanging around to break your legs if you tried. So would plumbers if it was common for them to do the work, not get paid and have the police and courts shrug when they complain.

            It seems like extending the state’s protection of legitimate contracts to sex work would go a long way toward reducing the niche that pimps occupy.

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    • I’m wondering how long it takes someone to see that paying women less for the same work makes perfect sense if the only thing a woman can be trained to do is give a blowjob.

      Maybe I’ll just ask the next waitress that looks like she’s anticipating a tip if she wants to make a twenty.
      It would be a vocation more in line with her education, training, and experience.
      A resume-builder.

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  6. I want to address the legal issue as best I can here, although I think I said some of this before. I don’t think selling sex for money should be illegal largely because I don’t see which party would press charges or what charges they could press. I suppose I take the “libertarian” position too in that I think the laws not only fail to ameliorate the problems involved with prostitution, but exacerbate them.

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    • Well if it’s a criminal offense, then it’s not a matter of a party to the transaction pressing charges, it’s a matter of the cops deciding to investigate or not, then a prosecutor deciding to bring charges or not. And so, as with drug laws, there is no victim who is eager to alert the police to the fact that the crime occurred, which means enforcement tends to be uneven, capricious, and tends to erode the privacy of those being investigated.

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  7. You guys, sex workers are a highly marginalized group of people, and the last thing they need are ignorant people speaking on their behalf, talking about them, as if they were inert objects, instead of to them.

    The point is, sex workers are often talked about but rarely heard from. Furthermore, it’s easy to just make shit up, or just run with some random speculation that you heard somewhere, and share that with others, who themselves share it with others, and the conversation develops — without any input from those affected.

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    • Wager $500 none of these blokes has ever paid a prostitute to hear her side of the story. (I do know the type what does stuff like that — you learn fascinating stuff that way)

      Hope Jaybird runs my review of The Tribe. It’s… about half of what I’ve got to say on the subject.

      Bastards can’t even be bothered to watch a fucking movie before thinking they know everything.

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    • Welp, I had a friend who was (and, as far as I know, still is) a sex worker, and happily so, tell me about her experiences. And I’m glad that I bit down on my first response when I heard what she did (“oh gosh, how did that happen to you”) because she probably would have punched my teeth through the back of my head.

      Her attitude was–and I freely admit that I take my views from hers–that making it illegal causes more problems than it solves, causes most of the problems people complain about, comes more from patronising than from any desire to actually help (“watch me do the proper manly thing and save these poor girls from a life of sin and degradation”) and certainly isn’t going to make the whole business go away anytime soon.

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      • I think that the people who want to make prostitution legal, and the people who want to keep it illegal, have a basic fact-based discontinuity.

        How old do you think the average age of a prostitute is?

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    • Quite so. The Prostitutes’ Collective in New Zealand were ardent advocates for legalising prostitution, and as far as I am aware they still support it being legal. That counts a lot more in my mind that armchair theorising about exploitation. And, as I’m fond of pointing out, you don’t make desperate people better off by taking options away from them.

      As an aside, as far as I am aware statistics for sex trafficking tend to count any person who crosses a border for the purposes of engaging in the sex trade as “trafficked”. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how one country with legal prostitution surrounded by countries where prostitution was illegal would have high figures for “sex trafficking”.

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      • NZCP is pro-legalization, and played a pretty big part in drafting and passing the law that governs prostitution in New Zealand. They are related to other CPs, which are also fervently pro-legalization. There are other organizations, national and international, comprised of current and former sex workers that are just as fervently anti-legalization (those trend to favor the Nordic model that I believe Katherine mentions elsewhere in this thread).

        The battles between the two sets of groups, both of whom consider themselves the pro-sex worker activists, are fierce. After Corbyn’s recent comments, England is the current battleground (England’s collective is the ECP, of course).

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      • How old do you think the average prostitute is?

        If the average age of a prostitute is 14 (with significant numbers at age 12, say…), does that change your support for it being legal?

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      • as far as I am aware statistics for sex trafficking tend to count any person who crosses a border for the purposes of engaging in the sex trade as “trafficked”. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how one country with legal prostitution surrounded by countries where prostitution was illegal would have high figures for “sex trafficking”.

        That, and it seems to me that a country in which prostitution itself is legal (so prostitution participants don’t incriminate themselves, simply by reporting coerced trafficking or suspected coerced trafficking) would presumably detect more coerced traffickees, since there are presumably more people willing to “say something if they see something”.

        It’s one of those situations where it’s going to LOOK worse (oh no, more trafficking!), but is actually better (actually, more traffickers being caught!).

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        • This seems like a reasonable assumption, except in already legal industries (agriculture, say), human trafficking is rampant. And generally, the tactics are the same in all industries, both across borders and within (in the Mumbai red light district that I mentioned elsewhere in the thread, most of the women are from elsewhere in India, e.g.): promise the people visas and/or transportation, and a job, bring them to a desirable place (the big city, a wealthy country, wherever), and force them to work to pay off the “debt” they incurred in being brought there, with no real prospect of actually paying it off in many cases. And it’s very difficult to find and prosecute the people doing such things, particularly in the countries where the people being trafficked are the most vulnerable (like India), regardless of whether they’re sex workers or agricultural workers or garment workers or whatever.

          Added: While it is tempting to reason about these things from axioms or principles, as both libertarians and the anti-legalization feminists are wont to do, it is important to remember that there are complexities that are difficult to account for with pure reason, because they require empirical knowledge that just doesn’t fit neatly into the sort of principled chains of reasons that tend to be employed. It’s important to look at the data, therefore, and the data is itself complex and complicated, making it difficult to come up with simple, clean prescriptions using it.

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          • But I don’t see how legalization can possibly make that worse, rather than better.

            If I am a john and prostitution is illegal, but I think the prostitute is there unwillingly, any attempt I make to report the situation may also land *me* in jail. So why would I?

            If I am a john and prostitution is legal, but I think the prostitute is there unwillingly, any attempt I make to report the situation can only possibly help them, and I don’t risk jail. So why wouldn’t I?

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            • The argument that legalization might make it worse is pretty simple: by creating the possibility of a legal facade, it becomes much easier to hide illegal trafficking. Whether this is the case is, again, an empirical question, one that New Zealand, the model of legalized prostitution, is grappling with right now.

              To see how this works, just look at farms. The farms are legal, they have legal employees, but they also have illegal employees (people who are not in the country legally, say). By virtue of their illegal immigration status alone, not to mention intimidation related to the “debt” and a lack of familiarity with local laws, language, and institutions, they are unlikely to come forward themselves, which means that it largely up to the authorities to sort out the trafficked from the non-trafficked employees of a farm in rural California or a brothel in New Zealand. And that’s assuming that the authorities have the resources to do so, as they most certainly do not in India (where, again, there are areas in which prostitution is basically legal).

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  8. Just wanted to say that all day my RSS feed has been enjoining me:

    Comment on How Much for Oral Sex by Saul Degraw

    While I haven’t exactly been updating the spreadsheet with each new comment, please consider it a mark of the esteem I hold for you all that $20 always seemed a bit low.

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  9. Don Zeko:
    Well sure, but how is this particular desperation distinct from any other choice that somebody makes in the free market?

    It’s far more intimate.

    The one objection to legalizing sex work that I have the most trouble discounting is “if it’s legal, some bright legislator will propose a law saying that if you’re on the dole or collecting unemployment you’ve got to turn tricks to pay for it.” And given the recent clutter of laws saying that the state gets to rape you if you’re going to have an abortion, I can easily imagine a law like this being passed.

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    • Want to make sure I understand you…

      Your concern is that, if sex work (specifically, sex-for-pay) is legalized, some legislator or other ass hat will say something to the effect of, “No one is really unemployed so long as they can just sell their naughty bits.” Do I have that more or less right?

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    • Far more intimate than taking a job in HR, I suppose. But is it more intimate than being paid to be a surrogate mother? More intimate than working in porn? There are plenty of ways that prostitution is distinct from other economic activity. I just haven’t seen any that make it so different that prostitutes (the ostensible victims of the transaction!) should be thrown in jail.

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    • Another issue with prostitution is that the johns are putting a lot of pressure on society…
      I mean, seriously — a kid spends his 13-18 years on the street, selling himself. By 18, he’s no longer as attractive, and wants out of the job.

      This isn’t a long term job, and incentivizing jobs that are entirely short-term and don’t bank enough for the long term is just putting the burden back on society.

      Let alone the issue of pregnancy or STDs.

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  10. and his argument that an idealized free market society would eventually turn authoritarian in order to maintain the ‘freedoms’ of the privileged class that could actually afford such a narrow sort of freedom.

    There is quite a bit of projection. I can’t think of any free market societies that turned authoritarian in this manner. What are examples? To come up with any, I am guessing that you are going to have to do some linguistic gymnastics with the term authoritarian.

    All of the authoritarian societies of which I can think turned authoritarian, or started authoritarian, precisely so that those in charge of a command economy could remain so. This is the case for communism, this is the case for fascism, and this is the case for any number of third world dictators. I suppose that there is a case to be made for centralizing any, and maybe many, of the functions of the decentralized market, but opposition to authoritarianism just is not one of them.

    One of the functions of a decentralized market is to process the individual preferences of large numbers of people, allowing those people to make their own decisions given the particular set of constraints that they face. The nature of the command economy is that it simply lacks the computing power to do so; therefore, it has to strictly limit the set of choices available to individuals. That is, it sacrifices individual choice for the sake of some other goal: equality, universal access, moral certitude. If we think we know what’s best for sex workers, then by all means it makes sense to author rules that severely restrict how they practice their trade or just legally prohibit it all together. Of course, there is always the possibility that we don’t know as much about what’s best for other people as we imagine.

    By the way, one of the boons to legalizing sex work is that it would allow sex workers to organize, unions, guilds, freelance sex workers fora. Allowing the people who work in this world to stop hiding in the shadows would allow them the ability to start advocating for themselves instead of having us sitting around imagining what might be best for them. As with drugs, legalization is not the answer to the problem of prostitution; it is the answer to the problem of turning sex workers into criminals.

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    • ” I can’t think of any free market societies that turned authoritarian in this manner. What are examples?”

      He doesn’t mean that there will be a regulation that flat-out states “you must sell your body in order to receive government benefits”.

      He means that there will be a regulation that states “you must be engaged in income-providing work in order to receive government benefits”, and he’s further assuming that for a non-zero number of people sex work will be the only sort of work available, and therefore it’s “just like” the government requiring you to be a whore.

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    • You’ve never heard of that? It’s almost a textbook definition of a banana republic, or really any sort of plutocracy. I guess you mean you’ve never heard of arriving at a plutocracy by the free market, but I don’t see any reason that a market economy would be irreconcilable with an authoritarian government. I suppose there’s some reason that China doesn’t count as a market economy?

      At the least, it must be noticeable that the spread of privatized services and the development of a globalized trading network over the last 30 years was very much reconcilable with growing the power and reach of the state in the US. There was no contradiction between the “free market” ideology in vogue in policy circles and the fact that American life at the bottom, which is ever broader, has become increasingly unfree. State power increases on the bottom end of the scale and, to some extent, loosens on the top. It’s why I think Hitchens was on to something when he argued that America should be defined as a banana republic at this point.

      Really what Polanyi’s saying is that it’s actually somewhat bizarre to limit the function of a government to protecting property rights. Why should rights be defined so narrowly? If we assume that all societies will have power relations, which he does, limiting the violence of the state to the protection of a propertied class sounds like a fairly quick road to plutocracy, which is an authoritarian government, if not totalitarian.

      As far as the history of fascism, you realize there was a reason that the industrialists backed Mussolini and Hitler, right?

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      • None of your examples are free markets though. Industrialists backing Hitler? Corporatism. “I suppose there’s some reason that China doesn’t count as a market economy?” Oh, perhaps because it’s a mix, partially command, partially a regulated economy. It’s certainly not “free market”.

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        • But now this sounds like “Under true Marxism, the state would wither away.” Okay, so we’ve not achieved a truly free market. The point remains that increased privatization, globalization, deregulation, and free trade, which has been aimed at freer markets, has not reduced the power of the state over the non-owner classes and, in fact, has been simultaneous with increased power of the state over pretty much every other group in society.

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      • but I don’t see any reason that a market economy would be irreconcilable with an authoritarian government.

        I think there’s a bit of confusion in j r’s comment above: by the lights of most “free market” advocates it’s logically impossible for authoritarianism to emerge from free exchange of goods and services, since those two things are logically contradictory.

        Given that purely free markets are a hoped for dream waiting to materialize, maybe what you’re thinking of is authoritarianism emerging from capitalistic societies instead? Which actually seems more to the point if we’re going to talk about the real world.

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      • There is quite a gap between “an idealized free market society would eventually turn authoritarian” and “I don’t see any reason that a market economy would be irreconcilable with an authoritarian government.”

        China, for example, whether or not one counts it as a market economy (given the size and prominence of SOEs and direct state activity, it certainly doesn’t come particularly close to any idealized version, though the reforms of the last few decades have created a significant role for markets), clearly did not follow the trajectory from market society -> authoritarianism to get to its current point. Indeed, compared to the Mao era, the state appears to have eased up in many other areas of life, though it remains unquestionably authoritarian.

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          • Most notably, the Chinese state kills many fewer people than it used to, by an order of magnitude compared to the late Mao and early Deng-era estimates I’ve seen and by more compared to its worst years.

            Of course, this still leaves them as easily the world leader in executions, which encapsulates a lot about China.

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        • @rufus-f’s response to my original comment demands a more thoughtful answer, but I thought that I’d give a few thoughts about China as I am writing this from Hong Kong, which is China-lite.

          The whole “socialism with Chinese characteristics thing”, which in many ways has morphed into “state capitalism with Chinese characteristics” is an interesting phenomenon and one that I am only just beginning to scratch the surface. For one, direct comparisons to the west are difficult, because I don’t think that the Chinese had the same tradition of alienation between capital and labor (although I’m sure they had some other tradition of class alienation). The CCP’s official line is that, since the CCP is the vanguard of the working class and the people as a whole, conflicts between workers and state-managed firms are unpossible. We don’t need too much heavy analysis to see why this sort of circular logic is a problem. The lesson is that the nature of power relations between different groups of people tell is much more about a system than what the people in charge decide to call themselves.

          That said, I think that part of the Chinese economic miracle can be explained with two observations. One, is that Chinese culture, with its focus on harmony and hierarchy, seems quite amenable to top-down control. China was able to not only industrialize in a very short period of time, but establish a manufacturing sector that went from being not very well regarded to essentially owning a pretty wide bit of the value chain.

          Two, and the reason for one, is that once Mao died the CCP integrated large swaths of capitalist industrial organization principles in a way that most other leftist governments in developing countries were too ideological to do. The point being that the capitalist elements of Chinese state capital grew out of the authoritarianism of the CCP and not vice versa. Prior to Deng Xioping, the CCP was every bit as authoritarian, they just used that authority to enact ruinous economic policies.

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  11. You can’t really have a completely deregulated commercial sex or free market sex industry for a variety of reasons. The biggest one is that there are some sex acts that any decent, semi-decent, or just pretending to be decent government can not allow but that there will be a market for. There is going to be criminals keen on providing such services because they can make a lot of money doing so. Even with normal commercial sex, there seems to be a big criminal element even in countries where it is legal as KatherineMW points out above. This means that government is going to need to be more involved with observing commercial sex than other types of services like house cleaning.

    Commercial sex also has public health risks that other industries do not. Governments are going to want to make sure that prostitutes are inspected on a regular basis. Countries with legal prostitution also try to restrict commercial sex to certain areas like other industries that are considered nuisances to others.

    Since commercial sex is going to be a heavily regulated rather than lightly regulated industry under any circumstances, I could imagine that governments could suspend their normal positions against price fixing for the commercial sex industry. This wold allow a sort of standardized list of prices in the industry.

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    • “The biggest one is that there are some sex acts that any decent, semi-decent, or just pretending to be decent government can not allow but that there will be a market for.”

      Can you give some examples?

      “…make sure that prostitutes are inspected…”

      Perhaps you were just sloppy in your language, but this seems INCREDIBLY dehumanizing. I get my car inspected. People don’t get “inspected”.

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      • Its more about the ages of the people involved than the actual acts, although I’m guessing that governments are going to be reluctant about some of the more extreme forms of BDSM.

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        • The fact that some people will push the bounds of what is legal/acceptable is true in pretty much all industries.

          “You’re going to let them sell meat? What about the people who want to buy human meat?”
          “You’re going to legalize weed? What about the people who want to legalize heroin?”

          Regulating a legal sex work industry to prevent, say, 13-year-olds from being pimped out is probably easier than enforcing a sex work prohibition. Let’s assume all the legal sex work happens in regulated businesses and the illegal stuff happens in shady basements. Well, isn’t the illegal stuff already happening in shady basements?

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          • Do we have any commenters here with background or expertise in law enforcement? I’m genuinely curious whether legalization would make the remaining prohibitions (underage, trafficked, etc.) more or less difficult to enforce.

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            • Welcome to the minefield. On your left, you’ll find the pro-legalization groups who’ll tell you legalization make it easier to enforce age add trafficking restrictions. On your even further left, and in just about every other direction, you’ll find anti-legalization advocates who argue otherwise. Any step in any direction will trigger explosions from another direction.

              The evidence is mixed, as it is for almost every aspect of legalization. New Zealand, the model for legalization, still has problems with both, but are they better or worse than they would be? Other places where prostitution is illegal but the laws are not enforced (so it is legal for all intents and purposes), like Kamathipura, are inconceivable human tragedies with rampant trafficking and under age prostitution, though how much of this is related to the illegality of prostitution in surrounding areas is a matter of debate.

              The Nordic model is somewhere in between, and its impact looks good on both counts, though it’s too early to be sure.

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            • I’m sorry, but what does legalization have to do with those issues? The issue of legalization stands on it’s own and only from the perspective of whether or not society should be butting it’s nose into a person’s business. All the other issues are no relevant, and frankly, are already covered. It’s the same as saying “we can’t address SSM until we change the adoption laws for SS couples first.”

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              • On one side: Definite benefits to a non-minor’s freedom by legalization.

                On other side: Loss of tourism dollars, creation of paths by which you can wash dirty money, possibly more exploitation of people who aren’t free to fuck.

                I’m not willing to say that one side is better than the other without getting numbers.

                Do people in Thailand want to legalize the sex trade?

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            • I’m not the law. But I do know someone who deals with law enforcement on these issues.

              No law you’re going to pass is going to stop billionaires from doing exactly as they please, be that feeding people to snakes or killing 8 year olds. They have boats, there are international waters, they will do exactly as they please.

              So, given that we have a subset of highly amoral people who will do anything to get what they want and are likely to get away with it… we’re working on the rest of humanity.

              There’s probably about 33% of men who would go with the cheaper, legal option. I’m not sure how many of these guys were buying sex in the first place, though.

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      • Nobody’s going to legalize fucking a goat. Not even George W. Bush or John Kerry.
        Nobody’s going to legalize fucking a child (not an adolescent).
        People are probably not going to legalize mutilation for hire, or strangulation, or downright killing people for sexual pleasure.

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  12. [rant]

    OMG people, none of us know what really happens on billionaires boats, nor how widespread sex tourism really is. We read shit in magazines (or on websites), but those tend to be wildly sensationalized. The numbers we get are from advocacy groups with an ax to grind. Fine. Whatever. I’m sure every terrible thing you imagine happens somewhere.

    Which look, I’ve actually been to sex parties on a big-rich-dude’s estate. No really, crazy but true. They are nothing like what you see in the movies. They aren’t really much like what you might imagine from reading articles on these things either. Whatever. Blah blah blah.

    I know one Thai sex worker, but I know her from Boston. These days she works in Rhode Island. Needless to say, I don’t know shit about the sex industry in Thailand. I doubt you all do either.

    I’ve read some things. I’ve read all kinds of things. In some cases, I’ve been able to compare things-I’ve-read with things-I’ve-lived. Don’t believe everything you read.

    I don’t know what effect legalization in America would have on global sex trafficking. I don’t really care. I hope it doesn’t make it worse, but I cannot finely engineer each obscure fact of life. I doubt we could ever really know for sure what effect it has in any case.

    Certainly slavery should be illegal, whether it is sex slavery or some other kind. Likewise, no one approves of human mutilation nor child sex work. These are illegal, they should be illegal, they will no doubt remain illegal. This conversation is about adults who choose, within the context of a market economy, to do sex work.

    It seems obvious that any criticism of the economic pressures they face is a general indictment of capitalism, and we cannot condemn sex work while turning a blind eye to Amazon warehouses.

    Plus, even if you fix the issues with “wage slavery,” you’ll still have people willing to pay big bucks for sex, and you’ll have people willing to provide it. What is wrong with that? — which, a visceral disgust response is not an argument.

    I know this, the sex workers I know in America — they would benefit greatly from legalization. And that’s true legalization. It doesn’t help them to arrest their customers. They need their customers. That’s where the money comes from.

    Like most laws about human sexuality, these arguments are all post hoc rationalization. People want to control sex work cuz they want to control sex. They want to control who is doing it, to whom, when and where and how. And they realize that is invasive, so they search for rationalizations, any they can find, to back their ideas.

    Cut it out. Life is hard enough for sex workers with out the constant bickering of moralistic ninnies.

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    • Hmm… I agree with you that people here are by and large speaking from a place of near complete ignorance, but a.) most of them have agreed with your ultimate position (legalizatino), and b.) it’s not clear from anything you’ve said that you arrived at that position from a substantial knowledge of the sex industry in the U.S. any more than they did (“I know a sex worker in Rhode Island” may put you ahead of most people here, but it doesn’t get you very far).

      I mention this only because the tone with which you’ve approached this is, well, less than charitable.

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        • I do not doubt this, but it doesn’t really answer my complaint. I admit, I find this discussion frustrating, because this is clearly not a topic people here know much about, but I think it’s clear that they are trying to take pro-sex worker positions – the same position you adopt, mostly — even if without being sufficiently interested to do the research. I just don’t see any evidence that you have either, which, combined with their clear sympathy, makes your tone both unwarranted and undeserved.

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          • — Let me try to lay this out. First, I in fact know a lot of sex workers. I know maybe six face to face, to say hello to. We chat. I know a couple fairly well, actual friends I spend time with (although one moved away). Another is my ex-girlfriend. I was obviously quite close to her. I remain friends with her. (She is a former sex worker, if you are curious. But all the same.)

            All of the sex workers I know face to face are trans women, which maybe isn’t a surprise. There is a big overlap between “sex worker” and “transgender woman.” This is something I take very seriously, even if it’s rather distant from my everyday concerns.

            But there is more, I know what it is like to be objectified, sexualized, diminished. I know what it is like to be a “scandal,” or a “topic of general interest.” I know what it is like to see people project all kinds of nonsense onto my life — in fact onto deeply personal aspects of my life. I know what it is like to watch people wildly speculate about me and people like me.

            It’s really unseemly.

            But there is also an aspect of power. These conversations, when they are about trans issues — they make me feel so fucking powerless. It’s so hurtful to listen to people drone on and on, with preposterous ignorance, and with ZERO FUCKING ACCOUNTABILITY about my life. Add to that, they have power over me. Their dumbass speculation and bullshit gets turned into actual laws that hurt me. (Or often the absence of laws that might really help me.)

            I think it is very much the same with sex work. We are so curious about them, and feel so entitled to weigh in, but we don’t know what the fuck we are talking about. And we repeat and entrench ignorant beliefs. These beliefs become a kind of social reality, quite distinct from material reality. Norms are formed. Laws are passed. Those targeted by these laws are voiceless.

            I cannot help but see myself in them, at least in this aspect. These conversations hurt so much. Just understand that. “The discourse” is itself part of reality.

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            • I know what I’m talking about.
              But it’s a big beastie, and best seen by looking at little parts of it.

              I’d write up something for us to talk about… but I don’t think it would get published.

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            • Again, I understand, but my point about tone stands. If nothing else, you’ve arrived at precisely the same position as almost everyone here (though not me; I lean toward favoring the Nordic model). And then expressed not simply indignation, but personal pain, at their (perceived) relative ignorance in their getting to the exact same place. And nothing you’ve said even suggests that you have different reasons for arriving at that position. You’ve just arrived there having known a few sex workers personally (I’m quite certain you’re not the only one).

              Anyway, I’ll let this be, but I hope you get what I’m saying.

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              • — If you’ve “arrived at” the Nordic model, then we haven’t arrived at the same position. The point is, I’m the only one here saying, “Shut the fuck up and listen to what sex workers actually want.” It’s the voicelessness that is the issue. It is the gross inequality of political voice.

                Why do we even get to have a say over sex workers and their lives? Why do we feel entitled to weigh in?

                Like, we regulate many aspects of life, but there is this thing where those regulated with cruelty are also the people who have the least input on their own fate. I asking people to step back and think about the ways power plays out, and how it FUCKING STOMPS on the lives of the powerless.

                The point is, “concerned white liberals” are often just as power-crazed and hurtful as the most arbitrary and cruel evangelical Christians.

                If you want to contribute, instead of engaging in masturbatory speculation, listen to their voices. Amplify their voices. Let them speak for themselves.

                And indeed, listening to me is not the same as listening to them. That should be very obvious.

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                • You’re assuming they’re allowed to talk.
                  I let myself speak for those who are too scared (and rightly so) to speak. For the children who may not make it out alive.

                  Prostitution is a very big business, and “Empowered Sex Workers” are one portion of it. But they certainly aren’t everyone.

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                  • — Well of course. No one here supports sex slavery, nor any other kind of slavery. I’m talking about domestic sex work in the United States, conducted by adults pursuing their own self-interest. Let them speak for themselves.

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                • If you’ve “arrived at” the Nordic model, then we haven’t arrived at the same position

                  From my comment:

                  you’ve arrived at precisely the same position as almost everyone here (though not me; I lean toward favoring the Nordic model)

                  I don’t know how many of the sex workers you know, if any, are involved in sex worker advocacy/organizing, or with what groups, but if you want to listen to sex workers (and former sex workers), it’s important to listen to the range of their opinions. Not all are in favor of legalization, and the Nordic model was, like the New Zealand model, was created with a great deal of input from sex workers. And both models have undoubtedly made life better for many, if not most, sex workers where they are in effect, though to what extent is a matter of debate (among sex workers, former sex workers, and sex worker advocates).

                  And no your not the only one. James K, for example, said he listens to the NZCP, and gives them much more weight than non-sex workers. For better or worse, you are not the only one who’s genuinely trying.

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    • v,
      Billionaires are not immune from the bug of “take a picture to prove it”, any more than anyone else is. (stupid idiotic idea, if you ask me…)

      Putting photos on the internet, on the cloud, and then expecting you’ve got privacy is stupidity of the highest order.

      Plus, I do know rather inquisitive people who worked for billionaires.

      (I can well imagine that a techie millionaire’s sex party is… um, kinda tame. Probably less “wild and crazy” than the ones the Daily Show throws — and those are wild and crazy comedian style, which doesn’t necessarily mean sex at all).

      [A friend of mine knew the DC Madam well, having spent time in politics and DC]

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  13. If we legalize prostitution, then we can institute taxation and licensure.

    I imagine that we could do a good job of providing all sorts of public goods/services using the proceeds.

    We’ll need a policy for unlicensed contractors and people willing to engage in freelance work for goods/services but that can be addressed later.

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    • If we legalize prostitution, then we can institute taxation and licensure.

      And in twenty years we can add “Sex workers” to “barbers” and complain about regulation, licensing, and other impediments to the free market. :)

      It’s sex. We all do it. I don’t need to spend 60 classroom hours to bone my wife! So why do sex workers need those darn regulations and licenses? It’s just an abusive monopoly to keep prices high!

      (And yes, I’m quite aware of why regulating and licensing sex workers is a really, really good idea. I just know that 20 years afterwards, it’d be a Chesterton’s Fence thing….)

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        • I suppose I’m for it as well, in the whole “well, we will only make things worse by not doing it and might make things better by actually doing it but I still disapprove of this sort of thing” sense of the word “for”.

          I’m just thinking that this sort of thing will have all sorts of dumb unintended consequences in addition to the completely foreseeable unintended consequences we have already accepted as being baked into the cake.

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          • Yep. But when it comes to some aspects of human nature, you’re just stuck dealing with a reality you can’t change easily (and certainly not swiftly).

            Sex workers exist. They’ve existed for a very long time. They will continue to exist.

            Even legalizing and regulating it won’t get rid of abuse and exploitation. What it will do, at best, is reduce the amount to those at the margins. Like buying music, really. People will still steal and pirate it, but most people prefer to just buy it from Amazon or iTunes.

            Legalize sex work and you’ll still have people hunting the illegal fringes, either because they can’t get what they want legally or because they can’t afford it or for other reasons.

            However the bulk of the market will switch to safer, more legal means.

            And hey, there are places sex work is legal. It seems to work out better, at least.

            (I’d extend this to drugs in general, but bear in mind — cost/benefit analysis for each time of drug is kind of important. I think the benefits of legalizing pot and Ecstasy, for instance, are much higher than the costs — I’m not so sure on heroin and cocaine and meth. I dislike…sweeping statements and rules. They’re simple and make great slogans, are often crap in reality.

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  14. 20 dollars is a very low price! I’m amazed. And here I was thinking that Europe is bad when it comes to these particular services, I was clearly wrong.

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  15. In other words, labor is so intimately attached to the selfhood of the individual that, when we remove “morality” from the labor market, we remove all traces of humanity from the market, laying bare the power underlying every social structure thus far.

    We are touching on the same material here.
    More accurately, bludgeoning different victims with the same club.
    It’s a wonderful club.

    Just a note to let you know that I will respond more in-depth privately, recounting a bit of history of the line of thought from this end. An exchange of notes might prove beneficial.
    Please note that “promptly” is not a generally accepted synonym for “privately.”

    I would like to read the comments through to see if anyone has unearthed something interesting.
    Damned optimism.

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