On the Morality of: Prostitution

On the Morality of: Prostitution November 26, 2007

Today’s installment of “On the Morality Of” concerns the topic of prostitution, and whether it should be legal. Would a perfect society permit this practice, or would it be banned under the law?

As I’ve said before, universal utilitarianism was intended to promote the happiness of all human beings, and no person can decide what makes you happy with more knowledge or authority than you yourself. Consistent with this conclusion, any society that follows UU should place the highest value on freedom, autonomy and self-direction. Unless a practice harms someone against their will, there can be no justification for banning it. In particular, we shouldn’t ban something because someone else has decided that no one could possibly find happiness in doing it. No person has a right to make that decision on behalf of all of humanity.

For that reason, it seems – at least at first glance – that rational, consenting adults should be able to engage in any kind of economic transaction they see fit, including the exchange of sex for money. If entered into freely, I see no reason why such an exchange should be degrading to either party.

If the objection is that it’s wrong to pay a person for sexual gratification because it treats them as an object to serve our needs, I answer that many other kinds of economic transactions do the same thing. We pay others to cook for us, to clean for us, to oversee our health, to give us vicarious thrills and excitement, and no one seems to find anything at all unsavory or disturbing about any of these. Sex is a basic human drive the same as all the others. Why should sex be the only one it’s forbidden to sell?

However, these neat, simple theoretical arguments always encounter the complications of the real world. In the real world, it’s true, we find prostitution almost invariably associated with a range of social ills – drug abuse, kidnapping, STDs, physical abuse, and many more. Unquestionably, these are evils that we should prevent. The issues are twofold: first, whether banning prostitution will prevent the problems that accompany it, and if so, whether these practical reasons outweigh the considerations of economic and personal liberty that argue for permitting it.

First consider the issue of whether to ban prostitution entirely. The problem is that, self-evidently, there’s a strong demand for this service, and that demand can’t be done away with by fiat simply by passing a law. Like it or not, the exchange of sex for material gifts (even if done through a more indirect route) has been a part of human society since the beginning. Not for nothing is prostitution called “the oldest profession”. Outlawing prostitution doesn’t stop it from happening; it just drives the practice underground, and when this happens, there’s reason to believe that abuse will become more prevalent.

If prostitution is illegal, prostitutes who are cheated or suffer abuse at the hands of pimps or customers can’t bring their complaints to the police, and there’s little incentive for them to submit to testing for drugs or disease. Similarly, the lack of oversight makes possible the kidnapping and sexual slavery of women. In fact, there’s a strong case that many of the social ills surrounding prostitution arise not despite but because of its illegality. If this is true, it would do more good to bring it into the light, where it can be overseen and regulated.

And yet, again, real-world concerns complicate simple abstract arguments. One of these concerns is that, even in areas that have experimented with legalizing prostitution, the problems haven’t gone away. Horrifying articles like this expose from the Guardian show that, even in Nevada where prostitution is legal, many of the women who work in brothels suffer in conditions of abuse and near-slavery. If legalized prostitution is the means to do away with the exploitation of women, we must answer the question of why legalizing it hasn’t improved the situation in Nevada. I can suggest one potential answer.

I doubt that most people who are prostitutes turn to that career out of enthusiastic choice. Far more often, it’s a last resort for the desperate. By this argument, most of the people – most of the women, I should say – who turn to prostitution would not be doing so if they had other options. Banning the practice would not solve this underlying problem. But here’s the important point: permitting it doesn’t solve that problem either.

People who are in dire straits, people who are desperate, are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. This is just as true for legal professions as it is for illegal ones. As long as women turn to prostitution out of desperation, these problems will likely persist. But in a society with a strong social safety net, where the necessities of life were guaranteed to all citizens, no one would be forced to turn to prostitution. Anyone who chose to engage in it would do so out of legitimate desire, not desperation.

This step, I think, would truly eliminate most of the social ills that come with prostitution. These ills are not an intrinsic part of the career, but rather a reflection of the fact that many women who choose prostitution lack alternatives and are vulnerable to those who would mistreat and take advantage of them. In a world where it was a career of choice, these problems would be greatly reduced if not eliminated.

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