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Immodest Proposals

By Russ Smith | Posted 3/16/2005

It’s a devil of a choice, but I suspect that the March 10 Sun op-ed by two Johns Hopkins professors (“Instead of slots, why not legalize prostitution?”) was heavy-handed satire. It’s actually a terrific idea—legalized prostitution, that is, in addition to slots—but more likely Julian Krolik and Jonathan Zenilman were, in a pedantic way, attempting to convince slots-straddlers that a civilized society has no rationale for state-sponsored gambling.

The odds of political leaders from either the Democratic or Republican parties even mentioning the words “legal” and “prostitution” in the same sentence are longer than Peter Angelos buying Washington Nationals season tickets. Still, just as gay marriage will one day, after the current rage (social conservatives) and shilly-shallying (Democrats) dies down, become an accepted institution, so too will the antiquated criminal penalties for prostitution be eliminated. And perhaps, not far behind in a reform movement advocating the abolition of victimless crimes (and boosting local revenue), will come the day when you can buy a pack of legal joints.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who can’t even muster the obvious inclusion of casinos in his never-ending slots campaign, would blush at the idea of legalized prostitution, as would Mayor Martin O’Malley and House Speaker Michael Busch, let alone the editorial board at The Sun. I hardly qualify as a hedonist, but the common sense behind ridding Maryland and other states of “vice” infractions that don’t harm fellow citizens and waste the time of the police, as well as clog jails, will at some time in the relatively near future win out. Perhaps it seems inconceivable to some, but this is the same mind-set that dominated American culture a generation ago, when the notion of showing a bare butt on prime-time television was attributed by the mainstream as the vision of LSD-addled kooks.

Frankly, I had to read the article by Krolik and Zenilman twice just to understand their real intention. A cursory glance at the opinion gives one the impression that the authors are libertarians, and The Sun was simply doing what a newspaper ought to, providing a provocative alternative to its standard schoolmarm pieces about gambling.

It’s humbling to admit I was taken in by this paragraph, agreeing completely: “As the only state east of the Rocky Mountains offering this perennially popular entertainment, Maryland could become a mecca for commercial sex services. In Nevada, where prostitution is legal and regulated, the state health department estimated two years ago that about 1,000 potentially taxable sex acts take place per day. Surely Maryland, so much closer to the nation’s population centers, can expect a far greater rate of use.”

The game was given away, however, when the writers said, “Numerous studies [none cited] have shown how state-sponsored gambling amounts to a tax on the poor. . . . If our plan is adopted, the Free State could truly become the national leader in financing government through encouraging vice.”

Give The Sun credit for printing a more novel, if unsuccessful, argument against slots. It’s more entertaining than the misleading and pious editorial the paper ran on March 8 (“The ‘true costs’ of slots”), which attempted to promote its view by citing the recent arrest of a Maryland man at the Delaware Park racetrack for the unconscionable act of leaving his 3-year-old son in the freezing parking lot while he gambled inside. In addition, the editorial pointed out that in New Mexico and Rhode Island similar “ugly abandonments of children by gamblers” took place in the past year. Certainly these individuals are criminally liable. By the same token, you don’t see The Sun calling for a return to prohibition because of the countless lives that are annually ruined by abuse of alcohol.

I’m as weary as many other Sun readers of columnist Dan Rodricks’ referring to Ehrlich as “Governor Bobby Slots,” but he’s correct in saying that if expanded gambling does become law in Maryland the locales of slots emporiums ought to be evenly distributed throughout the state. As Rodricks wrote on Feb. 27: “What’s wrong with historic Annapolis? Why are we ashamed to put slot machines down the street from the state capitol where [the bills were passed last month]? Think of the number of tourists who hit Nap Towne every year, as well as the yachting crowd. You’re talking an armada of serious scratch.”

So maybe Rodricks is being facetious. Nevertheless, just as Ehrlich and other elected officials ought to be allowed to pop some quarters in a slot machine during lunch, so should downtown residents and tourists, as well as those who live in Roland Park, Guilford, and Charles Village. The world won’t end, as is demonstrated in states across the country. For example, a two-minute walk from Manhattan’s wealthy Tribeca neighborhood leads you to an OTB parlor: No one minds.

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