Over the past few decades, the battle lines over the question of prostitution have been significantly redrawn. Strange bedfellows, so to speak, have emerged, as both third-wave feminists and many libertarians embrace the right of individuals to engage in sex for pay.
Their reasons are bit different, but basically come down to the idea that a prostitute is in possession of her own body and has every right to charge a fee for others to use it for sexual intercourse. On the other side, radical feminists and social conservatives, who also share affinities on some gender issues, cling to the position that prostitution is bad for women and society.
The arguments against prostitution tend to be moral, or even religious in nature. It is a traditionalist position that views sex as a unique act. They place a moral approbation on making it a commodity to be bought and sold. For the religious, paying for sex is a violation of faith; for the secular, it is an activity that causes more pain and unhappiness for the many than good for the few, and is therefore an immoral act that ought not be sanctioned.
But as we move into an age in which basic concepts of morality vary widely, we need arguments against sex for pay that do not merely appeal to moral authority. For many, myself included, the old moral arguments are sufficient, but for many others, they hold little weight. Are there arguments against prostitution that require little or no moral framework? It turns out there are.
Two distinct issues are involved in the question of prostitution. First, are there kinds of sex that are not appropriate and, second, are there limitations on what we may purchase? In both cases our society and its laws answer in the affirmative. You may not have sex with someone underage or without consent. You may not buy a slave or a loan at a usurious rate.
These prohibitions are rooted in moral beliefs, but also have rational social underpinnings. Sex without consent, slavery, and predatory lending all have a corrosive effect on how our society functions. Regardless of whether they are right or wrong, good or bad, these practices undermine the safety and fairness of our society. In many ways prostitution does, too.
What Does It Mean to Consent to Sex?
There is an odd disconnect between how Progressive prostitution advocates look at sexual consent in private and as commerce. With regard to the former, consent is jealously guarded, and very narrowly defined: it must be affirmative consent, not merely a lack of resistance. But with sex as commerce, many progressives take the more libertarian view that an exchange of money is, by itself, a complete expression of consent.
But consent is complicated. Sometimes we consent to something because we want to do it, sometimes we consent to something even though we don’t want to, because it will get us something we want. Services offered in the commercial marketplace are rife with this latter form of consent.
As the recent situation in Indiana over its Religious Freedom Restoration Act recently illuminated, running a legal business requires doing things one might not want to. You don’t want to provide services to a gay wedding? Too bad. You chose to run a business, and you must offer your services in a fair and equal manner. But how would such prohibition of discrimination work in a regime of legal prostitution? If a woman is offering sex in the commercial marketplace, when can she refuse service? And the men paying for sex, how can they know if the woman is consenting because she wants to, and not because she feels she has no choice? These questions arise in any commercial transaction, but with sex they come with more dire emotional and physical consequences.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases Are Unique
There are dangerous jobs and dangerous products. One can choose to work on an oil rig or binge on energy drinks. So, is there anything unique about the danger of sexually transmitted diseases in prostitution? A broken leg or burn on an oil rig cannot be transmitted to anyone else. The same is true of a Red Bull-induced heart attack. But in the case of prostitution not only are both parties at risk, they put at risk all of their subsequent sex partners.
Advocates of prostitution argue that legalizing and normalizing the practice will lead to safer transactions. But there is no approach to safety that can completely protect the provider or the customer. And the more onerous and expensive the testing and protection, the more sex for pay gets driven back into the cheaper black market. If we accept that a woman can simply name her price on Craigslist, we must accept that we are risking the spread of disease for years, even decades, after the transaction takes place.
Sex Risks Pregnancy
It’s not popular to say any more, but for many people having sex has directly to do with conceiving a child. Even among those not impressed by procreation’s seminal role in sex, there is acceptance of evolutionary sexual drives based on passing on one’s genes. Prostitution is not the only commercial exchange in which a human life can be created. In vitro fertilization and surrogacy are also commercial transactions that result in a human life.
Unlike prostitution, though, people specifically engage in these technologies with the purpose of creating human life. In prostitution, it can happen accidentally. If a client decides to slip off his condom as Elliot Spitzer allegedly did, then all bets could be off.
What are the consequences of a pregnancy that results from prostitution? What responsibility would the employer of a prostitute have in such a situation? Could an employer demand that women be on birth control as a condition of employment? These are difficult questions that must give us pause before we rush headlong into a world of over-the-counter sex.
The Implications of Paid Sex for Education
If in fact we have reached a level of sexual sophistication in our society in which prostitution loses its stigma, then don’t we have a responsibility to train our daughters in its practice? If we detach morality from the question, then we are clearly remiss in not training our future prostitutes. But what form will this education take?
Are we to leave it up to the individual pimps, or the Uber-esque tech pimp companies of the future with their apps, to teach our kids this trade? Maybe it’s true that nobody needs to be taught how to have sex, but don’t they need to be taught how to deal with the emotional and physical consequences of sex with dozens or hundreds of partners with whom they have no connection beyond a paycheck?
The bottom line is this: If you are a guy and you hire a prostitute in good faith, with the best intentions, are you comfortable with your daughter or sister being educated in this lucrative business? If the answer is no, then you shouldn’t do it. Not because of G-d or Bentham, but because you are doing something you believe is harmful. Not bad, not wrong, not immoral. Harmful.
A Note About Porn
The concerns listed above are also valid in considering pornography, a form of entertainment which is perfectly legal. Porn comes with its own moral and societal baggage, and many of the people actively against legalized prostitution also crusade about the dangers of ready access to illicit sexual images and videos. This is an important conversation, but porn differs from prostitution in significant ways.
First and foremost, in almost all pornography cases both parties to the sexual act are being compensated by a third party. Everyone engaged in the physical act is operating as a performer, not as a surrogate lover. The question of when expressive conduct becomes personal conduct is complicated. But this question is not raised by prostitution, which has no element of expression.
It’s important to have a rational discussion about the implications of prostitution. Men need to seriously consider the overall effect of their actions when they hire a woman to penetrate. What does it mean to engage in so intimate an act for money?
Those of us with grave doubts about the practice of prostitution must make a better case. Emotional and moral appeals are quick, easy, and often effective. But they do not bear up well under the scrutiny of hedonists. Proponents of prostitution must be exposed to their own hypocrisy. Their arguments must be met on ground of their choosing. We have defended our moral objections to prostitution long enough. It’s time for them to defend the brave new world they propose as our sexual future.