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Friday, May 2, 2008

The oldest profession revisited.

Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the operator of an alleged prostitution service in Washington, D.C., was found dead yesterday, an apparent suicide by hanging. Having been convicted after trial in federal court on charges of racketeering, money laundering, and mail fraud, she was facing a likely sentence of four to six years. Her elderly widowed mother found the body in a storage shed behind her mobile home in Florida.

Members of Washington’s political elite were rumored to have been Palfrey’s clients. Senator David Vitter, a Republican from Louisiana, admitted to utilizing the services provided by Ms. Palfrey’s business. Vitter, who is married and has four children, apologized and said he had committed a “very serious sin.” But neither he, nor any of Palfrey’s other customers, was prosecuted for violating laws against patronizing a prostitute.

Palfrey had been jailed for 18 months in the early 1990s and vowed in a TV interview that she would never go back to prison. She had also spoken about Brandy Britton, one of Palfrey’s former escorts, who hanged herself in June 2007, shortly before her scheduled trial for prostitution. Britton had been a professor at the University of Maryland.

The Palfrey case is only the most recent example of how devastating the antiquated and puritanical laws about sex workers in this country can be to those who work in this business. There is no easy solution to this problem. Efforts at legalization in the Netherlands have apparently led to an increase in human trafficking in underage girls. Other countries, such as Germany, regulate sex work and permit it in specified areas. Here in the U.S., COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), an organization that acts as a support network for sex workers, is in favor of the decriminalization – as opposed to legalization – of commercial sex among consenting adults.

The cost of criminal enforcement of the laws against commercial sex work is significant. High-profile arrests recently ended the political career of New York Governor Elliot Spitzer, though he has yet to face prosecution for criminal laws he may have violated. An unregulated sex industry provides a fertile ground for other criminal conduct. But lengthy federal sentences for madams and arrests of sex workers and their clients will not solve the problem, and the problem is surely not going away. Only efforts at decriminalization and regulation will help to lead the way toward a safer and less degrading sex industry, and avoid the waste of public dollars spent on futile enforcement efforts. CR

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