Recently Senator Craig of Idaho was arrested for soliciting sex from an undercover policeman in a public restroom. Not surprisingly, the senator publicly endorses a conservative agenda and has actively denied being gay for quite some time.
The senator was not specifically targeted. He was simply caught in a net that is routinely cast in the United States to catch men soliciting gay sex in public places such as restrooms. Interestingly, the men are not arrested under laws governing prostitution (unless, of course, they are offering to buy sexual services). Instead they are typically charged with indecent exposure and committing sexual acts in public places.
Not surprisingly, there is considerable debate about whether the police should be enforcing such laws.
The main argument against having the police enforce such laws is that such enforcement uses resources that could be better used elsewhere. From a moral standpoint, police resources should be deployed in way that does the most good for society. While such sexual behavior is clearly not a very good idea, it does not seem to generate enough harm to warrant such extensive police efforts. Instead of staking out restrooms to arrest men looking for sex, the police could be dealing with people that pose a clear danger to society. Thus, it could be concluded that such laws should not be enforced.
The standard and correct reply given by most police officials is that the police have a duty to enforce the law. It is not their role to decide which laws should and should not be enforced. It is the responsibility of the law makers to decide what the laws should be.
Of course, the police do get to decide the extent to which they will commit resources to enforce a law. Since there are so many laws, the police cannot hope to equally enforce them all. For example, speeding is illegal but the police lack the resources to patrol all streets twenty four hours a day year round. Instead, they assign traffic control resources as they see fit. So, the police could spend less effort enforcing the laws in question and thus better utilize their limited resources for the good of society.
Naturally, if such laws do not adequately serve the good of society and are wasting resources, then such laws should be repealed. If it is not a good idea to enforce a law, then it is clearly not a good idea to have that law. This raises the question about whether such laws serve the good of the community.
On one hand, soliciting sex from strangers in public places is clearly a bad idea. There is the risk of disease and, as the senator found out, the risk of damaging one’s reputation. Further, many men who have been arrested are involved in long term heterosexual relationships. Some are married and some even have children. Such men are clearly doing wrong-they are violating the trust of their partners, potentially exposing them to sexually transmitted diseases, and engaged in deception. Since the law should aim at preventing harm, it seems reasonable to have such laws.
On the other hand, there are many types of harmful behavior that are not illegal. For example, a person can smoke, drink, not exercise and cheat constantly on his girlfriend and everything is perfectly within the law. So, the question comes down to what sort of harms should be dealt with by the law.