Editorial: Stemming the sex trade intelligently

It assaults the conscience. Right here, in one of the most humane cities of the world’s freest nation, where slavery was abolished a century and a half ago, San Franciscans wake up to find this most diabolical institution thriving in their midst. The issue is sex trafficking, and it is, yes, slavery.

You could shade the definition by arguing that the practice of luring young women from foreign countries to America, where they’re told they can work off their expenses as “hostesses,” more closely resembles the archaic-sounding practice of indentured servitude, which connotes some sort of “consent” at the outset. Don’t buy it.

The alpha of the relationship is fraud, the omega brutal violence. The young women quickly find that working as hostesses or masseuses means prostituting their bodies for the profit, not of themselves, but of elaborate, underground networks skilled in defying U.S. immigration laws. If they try to escape, they’re beaten or their families back home threatened.

What rudely interrupted San Francisco’s self-concept as a place of benign sexual services were last year’s federal raids revealing the extensive coercion involved in this trade. With unassailable intentions, last week the Board of Supervisors voted the first of several steps to ensure the legitimacy of massage therapists who plan toset up shop. Supervisor Fiona Ma, now assuming membership in the state Assembly, vowed to take the cause statewide.

If The City only now awakens to this sordid business, the reason has to do with its unwillingness to give up a mistaken assumption — namely that it wouldn’t become a magnet for monsters — that accompanied its historically tolerant attitude toward “sex workers,” too often a euphemism for prostitution. We wish the authorities success in eradicating coercion. As with any newfound moral cause, suddenly politicized, this one should be conducted with caution.

Always there are unintended consequences, as the great William Wilberforce learned when he persuaded his fellow parliamentarians to regulate slavers by taxing their shameful trade. When British enforcers approached their ships, the slavers simply threw their human cargo into the deep seas. It took years more for Wilberforce to succeed in abolishing the ownership of human beings altogether.

So local and state legislators must ask sober questions of social ecology: Does banning brothels increase streetwalking? Does more legislation drive traffickers even further and more violently underground? What about the corruptibility of city inspectors? Care must be taken not to spread related vices more widely.

Students of urban planning sometimes come across the sublime wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas: “Prostitutes in a city are like a sewer in a palace. If you get rid of the sewer, the whole place becomes filthy and foul.” And be it known that our own 13th Amendment banned people from owning other people; it did not ban, say, agriculture or other industries in which slaves toiled.

It’s hard but necessary work, abolitionism.

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