Does Putting Prostitutes in Jail Really Stop Prostitution?

Have we learnt nothing from the racist, ineffective laws that form the basis of America's longest war: the War on Drugs?


The War on Drugs has been around since the 1970s and is so embedded in our culture, there’s even a band named after the government slogan. The United States spends an astonishing $51 billion a year to "fight" drugs, which is roughly what Donald Rumsfeld estimated the Iraq War would cost in total (he was off-base by about $750 billion). You could even say that the war on narcotics is the longest war in United States history.

But that all could change with the new War on sex trafficking. While the U.S. government’s success at fighting drug proliferation, use, and profiteering has largely been lambasted as ineffective and, even worse, racially motivated, a so-called war on sex trafficking seems a little more cut-and-dry. No one approves of sex trafficking, right?

[N]o matter who is involved or how they involve themselves, the punishments are severe and modeled after drug laws that have not worked over the past 40 years.

Sure, except it may not be a war on sex trafficking, per se. As Elizabeth Nolan Brown notes in her extensive report for Reason, the statistics about sex trafficking in the United States are unreliable at best and, varying from state to state, the punishable offenses related to sex trafficking are often conflated with prostitution. Basically, since the Bush era, conservatives and what she calls “radical feminist activists” have pushed for stricter punishments for prostitution, while at the same time, sex trafficking has fallen more and more under that umbrella.

While there is reason to caution against conflicting and harsh laws that do not deter the problem, some areas of the United States are real hubs for trafficking. Atlanta, for example, does nearly $300 million a year in illegal sex work. But back to Brown’s point about the problem of conflation — how much of that is trafficking and how much of it is consensual prostitution?

Brown is not saying that sex trafficking shouldn’t be a punishable offense; she’s saying that current sex trafficking laws are feeding the prison industrial complex. A 17-year-old runaway sex worker may be punished differently than if she were kidnapped by a pimp. A pimp may or may not be a trafficker. But no matter who is involved or how they involve themselves, the punishments are severe and modeled after drug laws that have not worked over the past 40 years. Punishment should be the answer for some, but not all. Nevertheless, the question of how to enervate the sex-for-money slave trade without feeding the prison system remains.

John Mackey explains that libertarians come in many colors but that ultimately, it's all about freedom.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.