Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Massage Parlor Blues

Houston's futile war on sexually oriented businesses (SOBs) continues. The Chronicle reports on the city's difficulty in closing brothels that are operating under the pretense of being a massage parlor or spa.

Not surprisingly, the primary driving force behind this effort is the desire to "protect neighborhoods". Bart Jones, president of the Briargrove neighborhood association, tells the paper:
There’s too much crime associated with those businesses that we don’t want to spill over into where our children play or into our neighborhood. It’s been our long-held hope that we could eventually run them all out.
While it might be natural to sympathize with Jones--I certainly would not want a brothel in my neighborhood--there is much more to this issue than keeping hookers off of neighborhood streets. Council member Anne Clutterbuck, who recently helped close a brothel near her home, states a common position:
These are not victimless crimes. It’s a blight on neighborhoods.
Clutterbuck, like Jones and many others, is using a "package deal" to justify her position. She sees drug use, public intoxication, and assaults occur near SOBs and proceeds to treat all activities at the establishment as essentially the same. But they are not the same.

Voluntary activities involving consenting adults do not violate the rights of anyone. This includes prostitution and taking drugs. Rights can only be violated by preventing an individual from acting according to his own judgment, which can only be accomplished through the use of force (or the threat of force). Consensual sex does not involve force. The exchange of money for any service provided voluntarily should not be a crime.

The absurdity of laws against prostitution becomes clear when one realizes that sex is a part of many "trades". It is not unusual for a man to take a woman to dinner, dancing, a movie, etc. with the implied expectation of "getting lucky". Nor is it unusual for women to willingly participate in such schemes. The fact that the exchange does not directly involve money does not change its essential nature. Consistency would demand that Jones and Clutterbuck call for the city to monitor the dating activities of the citizenry to prevent such exchanges. But the absurdity of anti-prostitution legislation is not the fundamental issue.

The premise underlying prohibitions on prositution (and many other laws) is that an individual does not own his own life, that the state may dictate which actions are acceptable and which are not. The number of people who find prostitution demeaning or disgusting is irrelevant--the state has no right to impose the morals of some upon the entire community. The individual's moral right to his own life is the reason prostitution should be legal.

It should not be necessary to point out that forcing a woman into prostitution is a violation of her rights. Assaulting a woman (or a man), whether she is engaged in prostitution or not, is a violation of her rights. But such actions are properly banned, and laws against prostitution are unnecessary. Further, if patrons of brothels are urinating in lawns, or littering private property, or otherwise violating property rights, then they should be prosecuted for those specific offenses rather than their choice of "entertainment".

While prostitution should be legal, property owners may not use their property as brothels with impunity. As with any right, the right to property does not allow one to violate the rights of others. Creating a nuisance--such as generating excessive noise or drawing excessive traffic--may be a nuisance. But such a determination requires clear and objective criteria.

As an indication of an objective criteria, let us consider noise. Objectively, loud noise can a disturbance--it can interfere with sleep, or watching television, or reading, or many other activities. But the fact that a neighbor generates loud noises does not, in and of itself, constitute a nuisance. If he does so at noon, such noise may not interfere with anyone's activities. If he does so at midnight, his actions are more likely to do so.

Further, if the noise generated--even at midnight--is not perceived in the normal course of one's activities, it cannot be claimed to be a nuisance. If I cannot hear his music inside my home, but must go outside and put my head over the fence to hear it, I cannot claim that his music is interfering with my sleep. In other words, if I must engage in extraordinary actions to perceive the alleged nuisance, my claim has no validity.

As I said, the above is only an indication of how valid and objective criteria should be established. The mere claim of a nuisance is insufficient--if it were, anyone could claim a nuisance on pure whim.

The government's proper purpose is to protect our rights, including the right to engage in activities that others find offensive, demeaning, or immoral. To claim otherwise is to reject America's founding principles--that each individual has a right to his own life, his own liberty, and the pursuit of his own happiness.


Anonymous said...

Another key point that some people don't grasp is that you don't need government to bring a nuisance claim against a neighbor. All you have to do is take them to court. Or even better, the neighbors could simply talk to the spa owner and air their grievences in private. If the spa owner is a good businessman, he will probably step up security to ensure that his paying customers don't annoy the neighbors.

But as I've said before, in this country we have an unnatural aversion to talking with people with whom we disagree. The government has anointed itself as the arbiter of right and wrong for such a long time that Americans have forgotten how to cooperate with each other, and rather look to use coercive means to settle even minor disputes.

Brian Phillips said...

Good point about talking to the spa owner. An extra security guard is probably a lot cheaper than fighting a nuisance suit, and certainly better for public relations.