Presidential hopeful Kamala Harris recently supported legalizing prostitution in an interview she gave to the Root: “But when you are talking about consenting adults, I think that you know, yes, we should really consider that we can’t criminalize consensual behavior as long as no one is being harmed,” she said, meaning that she would still support laws that would punish human trafficking and exploitation of women.
Surprisingly—or not—this idea has also been embraced by certain segments on the right, especially among libertarians. Elizabeth Nolan Brown, an associate editor at Reason Magazine and an advocate of the sex trade, said Harris is trying to have her cake and eat it too since her proposal brings the Nordic model of sex work here to the states. Brown says that doesn’t work and, while Harris says she wants to decriminalize prostitution, Brown notes that often still entails “cracking down” on people who try to pay for sex.
At The Federalist after Patriot owner Robert Kraft’s arrest for soliciting prostitutes, Jocelyn Glabach, the Red Headed Libertarian, said that in a truly libertarian society, there would be nothing illegal about two consenting adults trading sex for money.
These arguments for legalizing prostitution hinge on two points: What consenting adults do in their bedrooms or hotel rooms is nobody’s business but theirs, and if we really want to live in a free society, we shouldn’t punish the selling of sex.
Forget, for a moment, that decriminalizing prostitution does not bring about the promised results, New Zealand being the latest country to discover that human trafficking and exploitation do not decrease if prostitution is decriminalized. If the two principles stated above are true, then the moral action would be to legalize prostitution, regardless of whether harmful effects from it decreased or not. The catch is that they’re not.
Consent has become a magical concept today. If it is there, then whatever has happened must be good or, at the very least, is not a crime and cannot be condemned except by puritanical busy-bodies. But consent is not a magical key or a silver bullet that can make anything good, or even permissible. If it were, then cannibalism could become morally licit.
You may laugh at that, thinking that that is pure hyperbole. But cannibalism has not been consigned entirely to tribal cultures of yore. In 2003, in Germany, Armin Meiwes was arrested for “murder for the purpose of sexual pleasure” and “disturbing the peace of the dead.” Meiwes’ victim, Bernd Brandis, had agreed to be eaten, answering Meiwes’s online advertisement requesting a well-built young men who wished to be eaten. As a result of that detail, Meiwes was only convicted of manslaughter.
People may shrug the story off as an outlier, but the fact remains that if consent is the only barometer of legality and moral licitness, nothing is off the table. A nod of the head, a signature at the bottom of a notarized contract, and actions like cannibalism—which is correctly regarded as appalling—would be permissible.
Consent as the sole test of moral correctness has a deeper problem: it violates the principle of non-contradiction, which declares that a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time, i.e., stealing $20 from your parents cannot be good and bad at the same time. The ideology of consent breaks the principle. For example, if Fred and Ned decide that cannibalism is good and agree to engage in it, cannibalism is then considered good for them, but if Jim and Tim decide that cannibalism is wrong and do not agree to engage in it, then it remains wrong for them.
This raises a whole host of questions: Can a legal system exist where the propriety of actions constantly shifts depending on the whims of individuals, whims that can change from day to day? Can we even engage in reality if we disregard the principle of non-contradiction?
Language is a reflection of reality, which is why words have meaning, but if what we see as reality constantly changes based on our feelings, desires, or ideas, how can people talk to each other? And, if we cannot talk to each other, can there even be such a thing as self-government?
The idea that freedom is served by legalizing prostitution is just as flawed. People who make this argument see the law as a restrictive—which it is—but they don’t recognize it as a teacher. If prostitution is decriminalized, it means that more women (and men) will enter into the “oldest profession” because sex sells and, if the law doesn’t forbid it, why not make a few extra bucks from one’s physical attractiveness?
When that happens, the law will have put an invisible price tag on every person. The law will, in effect, sanction people to look at other people as sex objects, as slabs of meat. It’s true that only people who actually become sex workers will permit themselves to be looked at like this, but the social effects will extend to everyone. In a world where prostitution is legal, the law, or lack of law, will teach that everyone is a potential sex object, that our bodies are just another commodity to be exchanged on the marketplace.
Some would argue that we do this right now. If you have a job, you do work for which you’re compensated. But there is an important difference. In a job, it’s our work that is compensated. Our pay is for the value that we add to the world; our employers do not own our bodies. We are not company property.
But with prostitution, it is the exact opposite: we are not paid for our labor but for our bodies. And this is wrong because, as Angela Franks put it, our sexuality is not something that we possess like a house or a car—it is intimately bound to our bodies. Being male or female means that we are intrinsically sexual creatures. And we cannot be separated from our bodies. A world that allows and encourages people to be seen as simple objects for pleasure isn’t one where freedom is taken seriously because it encourages the use of people as objects.
Legalizing prostitution would set freedom back because it equates freedom with licentiousness. Today, we often equate freedom with a releasing of restrictions; the fewer rules, the more freedom, because the more choices we have. But, like philosopher Jacques Maritain asked, if that is all freedom is, how could we actually do anything? Every choice we make constricts us to some degree. Freedom as simply choice, and an unshackling from rules eats itself.
Freedom has to be for something in order for it to be any good to anyone. And what should freedom be for? Samuel West, in his election day sermon given at Boston in 1776, said that only what was good, right, and moral constitutes true freedom. Abraham Lincoln echoed that sentiment when he said freedom is doing what we ought, not merely what we want.
This idea of freedom for the purpose of virtue harkened back to the glory days of the Roman Republic, where libertas was understood to require moderation and self-discipline. Licentiousness, on the other hand, was a wantonness, a doing whatever one wanted whenever one wanted. The Romans and the Founders understood that freedom without a purpose, like a ship without a captain, will destroy not only society but individuals as well.
Decriminalizing prostitution would empower licentiousness, not liberty, because, seeing people as potential sex objects encourages people to loosen their self-control. Sex is pleasurable, of course, and if buying it is no bigger deal than buying a Big Mac, why shouldn’t we indulge in it as much as we can afford?
With that mentality, individuals would become enslaved to their passions, as we’ve already seen with the obesity problem and the addiction to pornography. Rather than have the freedom to say “No,” too many people would be enslaved to saying, “Yes.”
Prostitution is called the world’s oldest profession for a reason. It has always existed and probably always will. But its problems will not magicked away by simply saying that the practice is morally neutral, and making laws match that fantasy. Doing so creates even more and possibly worse problems.