Armies, prostitutes, and slaves

Phil Carter relays a troubling story about the role of forced labor in staffing the Korean brothels that serve US soldiers there, and adds some of his own reflections from his days in Korea as an MP lieutenant*.

According to Phil, soldiers are forbidden to patronize prostitutes, and the MPs make somewhat futile attempts to enforce that rule, while the Korean authorities don’t seem to do much to enforce their laws against prostitution or forced labor.

Arguably pimping, and buying prostitutes’ services, ought to be against the law. (I have a harder time seeing the justification for laws punishing the workers, as opposed to the customers and the managers.) If Korea has domestic laws against prostitution, surely we have some responsibility as guests to prevent our soldiers from patronizing establishments that violate that law. But there are arguments on both sides of criminalizing the sex trade, and if the local authorities aren’t complaining loudly I wouldn’t make enforcing the ban on servicemembers’ visits to brothels a high priority for the MPs.

However, when it comes to forced prostitution, the issues are at once simpler and more urgent. Slavery is a crime against humanity. Slavery in the sex trade is, if possible, even worse than other kinds of slavery. To my mind, someone who pays for and uses the sexual services of a slave is morally — and, if I got to write the laws, would be legally — a rapist, since he has engaged in sexual relations with an unconsenting party. And in a country where sexual slavery is known to be an issue, I’d make that a crime of strict liability, as carnal knowledge of a minor is: the customer should be responsible for assuring himself that the person he’s about to have sex with has consented to it.

As to the people who sell the sexual services of slaves, that is one of the instances where my analytic support for capital punishment is backed by my emotions: I, for one, would be happy to spring the gallows trap-door under the operator of a forced-labor brothel, preferably at the front door of the establishment.

Given that view of the matter, enforcement of the ban using prostitutes’ services by US servicepeople ought to be a high priority with respect to establishments that use forced labor. But that moral simplicity and urgency runs into economic complexity, on two levels.

First, the distinction between free and forced labor may not be as clear in practice as we would like it to be. In what sense is a fifteen-year-old rural girl whose family takes money from a big-city brothel operator in return for sending her to work there, and who will wind up disowned and homeless if she refuses, “free”? At minimum, though, any institution that physically prevents its workers from leaving is engaging in slavery.

Second, suppressing forced-labor prostitution may conflict operationally with suppressing free-labor prostitution. Since free-labor brothels and forced-labor brothels compete, the strongest stance the US military could take against sex slavery would be to place specifically forced-labor establishments, but not others, off limits to servicemembers. (That assumes we can tell the difference, which isn’t obviously true.) Enforcing the ban on visiting prostitutes even-handedly on both sorts of establishments reduces demand overall but does nothing to change the competitive balance between them. If the goal is to minimize the number of our soldiers who commit rape-by-money, it would probably be better to leave the ordinary brothels alone and ban only those that employ slaves.

The harder problem has to do with tourists, as opposed to soldiers. Americans (like Europeans and Japanese) patronize forced-labor brothels from Port-au-Prince to Bangkok. My instinct is that doing so by U.S. residents should be made a violation of U.S. domestic law. But I don’t know how to either write such a law or enforce it.

One thing I’m sure of, though: if I wrote the Freedom House report, I’d give much greater weight than now seems to be the case to enforcement of the ban on forced labor, especially forced sexual labor, in the calculation of how “free” each country is. FH gives Thailand, for example, a “civil liberty” rating of 3 (where 1 is best, 7 worst) despite this summary of the sex trade there (*):

Tens of thousands of Thai women and children work as prostitutes, many of them after being trafficked to cities from their villages. Authorities prosecute relatively few traffickers, and many police, soldiers, and local officials are involved in trafficking, the U.S. State Department report said. Some women are forced into prostitution, and in addition, many prostitutes work as bonded laborers in order to pay off loans made to their parents by brothel owners. Thailand has at least 200,000 prostitutes, according to NGO and government estimates.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: