The Absurdity of Legislating Sexual Morality

The Absurdity of Legislating Sexual Morality May 16, 2013

I used to joke that there was a glaring, if not largely ignored, loophole in all anti-prostitution laws across the United States. It seemed to me that, if any house of ill repute wanted easily to skirt the laws against money for sex, they simply needed to set up cameras in each boudoir and claim that the participants are making a movie. The fact is that laws about making sexually explicit films are sparse and largely unenforced. There is the so-called “2257 Regulations” that was supposed to require filmmakers to certify and keep record of proof of the legal age of all film participants (sorry, not calling them actors), but that was even struck down in 2007 by the U.S. circuit court of appeals for being too restrictive of free speech. Interestingly, adult films are protected by the First Amendment, according to the U.S. government.

How in the hell has no one figured out this workaround yet?

The point here is not to give birth (ahem) to a burgeoning new industry of quasi-legitimate prostitution. Rather, it is simply one example of how ridiculous it is to try and legislate sexual activity of any stripe with laws. Yes, there are laws to protect minors and to ensure the relative physical safety of those participating in such movies, but as for the line between paying someone to have sex with you and exercising your right to free speech, it seems the legal distinction could be as minor as whether you had the camera on your cell phone on during the act.

Imagine if Hugh Grant had had an iPhone back in the day. Heck, he even has his SAG card, for crying out loud!

I understand the desire of a people to have culturally agreed-upon standards of decency, but to try and explicitly state such standards and to enforce them when it comes to what consenting adults do with their naughty bits, that’s just dumb. The fact is that, while we fret over the end-result of something like prostitution,  we fail to deal with the real issues that brought people to that point in the first place, including (but likely not limited to):

  • The hyper-sexualization of women
  • Economic disparities
  • Sexual addiction
  • Sexual and physical abuse

Granted, some things like economic disparity can be addressed to a degree by government. But in general, these boil down to basic societal/cultural issues, for which the society and its various cultures must take personal stock and accountability. And if they aren’t willing to affect such changes as necessary to eradicate the end-results they find so unpalatable…

Well, they’re not actually that interested in changing, are they?

Making such practices illegal generally only serves to make those willing to risk violating the law incredibly wealthy. And in many cases, when it comes to prostitution, the ones cashing in aren’t the women themselves, but rather the “managers” and sex traffickers who organize it all. Yes, we can pursue them and put them in jail, but more will rise up in their place. We can even go to the source and arrest the women and their Johns.

And as they say in twelve-step circles, how has that strategy worked out for you so far?

The truth is we often aren’t that serious about changing ourselves in many cases, and we’re certainly not so invested in the victims of such circumstances to change the social order in a way that reduces or eliminates the prurient behavior. Better to pass it off to government, so we may sit back and castigate them for the problem when, inevitably, nothing really changes.

I’m sure this all sounds particularly cynical, but as the father of a four-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old son, I spend a disproportionate amount of my time and energy wondering how in the world to keep them healthy and safe. Churches will continue to preach morality, governments will keep passing laws, and society will keep saying one thing while doing another. It may not be much, but sometimes I feel like all I have to offer them is a hugh, my time, and the assurance that, as inspired children of a loving God, they owe themselves and others much, much more.

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  • An absolutely beautifully poignant illustration of the larger point you raise is the highlighting of 2 links following the entry: “Mark Driscoll’s Oral Fixation” and “Selena Gomez Is Spending All Her Time in a Bikini These Days.” As with so much that people – whether individually or corporately in church or government or media – do today, there seems to be a strong undercurrent of (if not explicit instruction to) “everybody else needs to fix themselves to be more in line with me (and my great thinking behavior)” rather than persons and groups who examine the motes in their own eyes. Thank you for raising this for discussion …

  • smrnda

    I actually can’t think of a rational argument for why having sex in exchange for money should be illegal.

    It’s possible to point out that prostitution is something that only desperate people do, and that they would prefer not to do it, but if that’s the issue then make sure everybody has a job with a living wage or shut up and go home. If you look at prostitution as a symptom of poverty, criminalizing it only punishes the victim.

    If the view is that prostitution is exploitation of women by men, some case can be made that men should be penalized for doing the exploiting. However, exploitation doesn’t occur without people being unequal, so again, if the issue is women and poverty, work on that, or work on teaching men not to objectify women.

    The other problem is you can look at marriages or other sexual relationships and encounters as just a less blatant form of prostitution.

    Overall, making this illegal solves nothing. Prostitution, if it is bad, is a symptom of other problems, and otherwise, it’s nobody’s business.

    • Christian Piatt

      my point more or less too.

  • For starters, a society cannot possibly have enough laws to assure moral behavior. For someone who is committed to a goal, a law is a challenge, a test of innovative skill. It is not a deterrent to anyone who really wants to do something. So, you are correct that we cannot legislate morality.
    On the other hand, a society with no laws and nobody to enforce laws is pure hellish anarchy. The strongest person is safe only until somebody stronger comes along. Think, Rwanda for a model of what this looks like.
    It is fine to engage in philosophical exercises about the validity of law. Law is completely incapable of transforming people who want to do the forbidden. Only the Holy Spirit can transform people. Since many, many people reject that idea, there never will be a place on earth where we humans don’t need law and law enforcement in order to have peace and safety. We must reconcile ourselves to the best workaround we can manage.

  • I get the desire to prevent exploitation and violence towards women, and I do not personally plan to hire a prostitute, but I’m always bothered when a writing goes from “we can’t legislate morality” to “people obviously participate in abnormal sexual practices because of economic/social/psychological distress.” This post is definitely right in pointing towards reevaluating how we think about things like prostitution, but the conversation probably shouldn’t start with the absolutizing statement that all prostitutes are damaged people who have been coerced into their work. Rather than try to figure out who to punish for what we don’t agree with, we should seek to empower people to make their own moral decisions, even if they differ drastically from our own. This probably means not shutting down prostitution, but seeking economic development in other industries, and probably legalizing prostitution so that the women involved can be better equipped to avoid the exploitation we say we’re against.

  • mroge

    I agree with you in general, however there is still the issue that many prostitutes are under-age. I don’t consider them to be at fault, but for the client that would be statutory rape. If we make an exception in the case of prostitution, then there goes our protections for children who are molested. There is also the issue of sex-slavery.
    I think prostitution should be legal, but regulated so that women are protected from abuse and harm as much as possible.

  • Quentin Styger

    The only important message for this day and age though, is that through the blood of Jesus Christ, the perfect gift from God to us, is found the forgiveness of sin; Christ, through His blood, also gives us the power to live sin free lives from the moment we truly repent and turn away our foot from evil. As we walk with Him, He shall reveal to us our defects of character and it will be a delight to give of ourselves freely to Him until we perfectly reflect the image of our Father in Heaven.