PROSTITUTION AND THE VISITOR INDUSTRY
Some people have questioned the remarks I made in a recent column about the lack of support for the idea that prostitution was harming Hawaii's visitor industry. This is an issue I haven't been much involved in since the late nineties so it is possible some actual research has been done in the interim. Anyone aware of such research may feel free to cue me in on it. In this article I will address the evidence that I have seen.
All the negative evidence on prostitution as it relates to the visitor industry seems to have come from complaints from individual visitors. Advocates have said many times that there are a lot of complaints, but no actual attempt to quantify them has ever been made. Nor are the complaints evaluated and categorized. One letter written in 1994 by a couple from Nebraska indicating they would never return to Hawaii because they were offended by seeing so many prostitutes in Waikiki was referred to over and over again until one got the impression this was really the only letter ever written on the subject.
There is a very large problem in relying on complaints to indicate the opinion of a group. Negative people speak up. Positive ones do not. A good generic example would be a theater owner who's run a new movie. As the line of movie goers files out of the theater one or two come up to him and passionately complain about the picture. Based on their complaints he terminates the picture's run early. Across town a rival theater owner gives ratings cards to everyone leaving the theater. He receives responses form over 100 people of which 85 had a favorable reaction to the movie. He extends the run in his theater. Which theater owner did a better job of decision making?
My own experience with visitor complaints came from when I worked in Waikiki in the late 1970's. There were plenty of prostitutes, but I never received a complaint about them from any visitor. Most complaints were about prices. There were also a large number of complaints from older mainland visitors about the large Japanese presence in Waikiki. They did not like coming to Hawaii and seeing Japanese visitors all over the place and a visitor industry happy to cater to them. Should we have reacted to those complaints? After all here were visitors saying they don't want to see some other group of people on our streets.
More specific examples of government by complainers can be found routinely in Hawaii. Our van-cam fiasco was supported by a handful of residents who were fearful and angry at other drivers. Only when the majority realized what was being done to them did the legislature understand that the handful of complainers did not represent the community as a whole.
The only random samplings of visitor opinion on Waikiki prostitutes I have seen were done by KHET in a prologue to one of their Dialog programs back in 1996 and a story in the Honolulu Advertiser of similar vintage. In both cases results indicated most visitors out on Kuhio and Kalakaua where prostitutes were soliciting customers were in no way offended by them. In fact a large number seemed interested and intrigued by the working women, stating that the prostitutes added something positive to the environment. Reporters had to work hard to find negative comments. Positive reactions outnumbered negative ones by four or five to one. These are not scientific studies, but there is no random sampling to contradict them.
Another way of evaluating prostitution's effects on the visitor industry would be to see if tourism declined when prostitution increased. This method hasn't revealed much of anything. Prostitution increased along with the increase in tourism until the late 1970's. Visitor counts continued to increase while prostitution leveled off. In the 1990's tourism slumped and prostitution declined. At the height of the public frenzy over Waikiki prostitution in the mid to late '90's there were actually only about half as many women involved as there had been five years earlier.
About four years ago I discussed the possibility of having the University of Hawaii do actual research into the economic impact of prostitution on the visitor industry with then Senate Judiciary Chair Matt Matsunaga. He actually considered moving ahead with this, but when I saw him questioned on TV he said it might be worth doing although he was sure the research would show that prostitution was bad for Waikiki. Well no research was done.
Surveys have been conducted on the opinions of residents. One I saw by a State Representative showed that most of the Waikiki voters who mailed back his questionnaire saw prostitution in Waikiki as a negative and wanted something done. The problem with this is that independent polling done by reform groups found most Hawaii residents opposed to criminal prostitution laws. Due to the way questions were written and sampling problems neither one of these surveys could be considered remotely conclusive. Nor could they be counted on as accurate to opinions today six or seven years later. However, they do point to an interesting divergence between public attitudes about prostitutes and criminal prostitution laws. I found this divergence early on when I interviewed the two point people for cleaning up prostitution in Waikiki in 1995. Both the spokesperson for the City's Waikiki improvement efforts and the woman from the private Waikiki Improvement Association indicated personal opposition to using imprisonment of prostitutes as a way of addressing their issues. Both felt compelled to support increased penalties on the grounds that such methods were the only options elected officials were willing to consider. Ideas that I had that would actually address most of their concerns without attacking people would never get a hearing by our government leaders.
It seems to me the real problem with prostitution is bad government. Prostitution is a business that flourishes in Waikiki because there are thousands of men there interested in purchasing the services provided. Prostitution is part of the visitor industry. That's the reality. Whatever legitimate issues residents may have can best be addressed when that reality is recognized and prostitution is allowed legal means to survive.
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