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Thursday, March 13, 2008
I'm not going to get into the details of the Spitzer scandal, but just let me say that after having been involved in New York politics during his rise to power - it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. More interestingly, the scandal has sparked a debate over the legal status of prostitution. Bradford Plummer and Kerry Howley (via Matt Yglesias), and sort of Samhita at Feministing are all arguing for decriminalization - on a variety of consequentialist, feminist, and autonomy grounds.

The issue of legalizing prostitution has always been philosophically tricky for me. I remember an argument with La Blonde Parisienne over it while waiting at a train station in Italy I understand the basic (good) arguments: that people have a right to do what they like with their own lives, that criminalizing sexual behavior only forces it underground and makes life worse for prostitutes, among others.

But I've never been convinced. I can't get past the inherent exploitation, the uniquely degrading situation of people selling sex for money. For the same reason that we don't permit people to sell themselves into slavery or sell their organs, I think we probably shouldn't condone selling sex. It's dehumanizing in a way that sitting at a desk or building houses for a paycheck isn't. The latter is a question of time, or sweat, or thought, but it isn't intimate the way prostitution is. Prostitution makes people into things, into pure commodities for another's use. I suppose one could argue that having any job at all is to be treated as a means to some other's end, but can you really tell me that a blow job is commensurate with typing on a computer? Would you do your friend a favor doing the latter, but I sincerely doubt you'd do the former.

And by the way, I don't like the way employers treat their employees as commodities anyway. Let's not exacerbate the problem, shall we?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:03 AM
  • So do you think pornography should be outlawed too? It's also selling sex, but with an indirect cashflow and lots of middlemen.

    And how about the more prosaic form of exchanging sex for money/stuff known as "marrying well" or "finding a sugar daddy"?

    By Blogger Mad Hatter, at 9:08 AM  
  • Ouch.

    I don't have any clear thought about pornography. There's nothing "wrong" with "dirty pictures", but acts of simulated sex? I'd have to consider that one.

    As for marrying well and finding a sugar daddy, those aren't inherently institutional forms of autonomy-destroying behavior - it's just some people do stupid or silly things. Can't make that illegal.

    I'm not saying that we should put prostitutes in jail, by the way. I'm just not sure how it helps to implicitly condone it by legalizing it.

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 9:41 AM  
  • Um, I'm not sure it's all simulated....

    Completely agree that sugar-daddying can't be made illegal. The point I was trying to make is that people make money off of their looks, skills, strength, intelligence, etc. And people freely trade what "assets" they have for what they want. So why should sex be an exception? We don't regulate why people have sex. Is there any rational reason why getting money for sex is inherently more dehumanizing and degrading than getting dinner and a movie, a posh Manhattan apartment, or social/political status for sex? Isn't the concept of marriage based on exchange of money (dowry) or power (alliances) for sex?

    I'm also not sure the slavery and organ-selling comparisons are valid. Slavery is involuntary servitude without compensation or choice. Organ-selling can be detrimental to one's health and organs are not a regeneratable resource, which is why one can sell blood and sperm, but not one's spleen. This, of course, means that two great arguments against legalizing prostitution are that (1) no one actually wants to be a prostitute--they were all forced into it, and (2) prostitution is detrimental to one's health.

    Well, sex isn't inherently detrimental to one's health. Violence and disease associated with sex are. The risks of both of those will be reduced by legalizing prostitution and implementing regulations and health care provision. Legalization would also enable victims of violence to report those crimes without fear of repercussions to themselves.

    Whether anyone actually wants to be a prostitute, I don't know. One could argue that anyone who claims to want to be a prostitute was abused as a child, poorly socialized, or maladjusted in some way. I don't like this kind of paternalistic reasoning because the implication is that anyone who wants something one wouldn't want must be defective.

    By Blogger Mad Hatter, at 10:47 AM  
  • Huh. Good point on the "simulated."

    I get your point about sugar-daddyism. I just think that there's a difference between an informal arrangement and a regulated profession. And marriage was more about land and reproduction than sex per se.

    I've deliberately avoided the practical arguments against prostitution in favor of strictly theoretical ones, mainly because I think a lot of people have pretty effectively talked about the former already.

    Having said that, I think that there are certain decisions we don't allow people to make, even if they want to - like selling oneself into slavery, or doing illegal narcotics, etc. I don't think that makes it paternalism.

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 12:25 PM  
  • Personally, I find most discussions of prostitution to be annoying because they fall into the "personal motivation" trap or the "exploitation" trap. If we are going to talk about the state regulating prostitituion, the state must have a compelling reason to regulate it. There are three viable reasons are: (1) public health concerns, (2) economic concerns, (3) maintaining public order.

    I really could care less about the idea of personal autonomy. There is no economic relationship that is based on personal autonomy. Capitalism, by its very nature, is based on exploitation of employees by employers. Prostitution is merely another form of exploitation.

    Instead, the state should be aware of the STDs that are linked to prostitution, and regulate accordingly, as well as the economic benefits/drawbacks of prostitution, and regulate accordingly. Economically, prostitution is a waste of human capital, and so the state should legalize prostitution but tax it severely in order to minimize it. If there is no economic benefit to be derived from prostitution, there will be no prostitution.

    By Blogger Marriah, at 3:40 PM  
  • "I really could care less about the idea of personal autonomy."

    So are you founding the American Totalitarian Party or something?

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 4:24 PM  
  • No, I'm just stating that personal autonomy is a philosophical idea, not an economic reality.

    By Blogger Marriah, at 5:58 PM  
  • Well democracy and liberty really aren't "economic ideas" either, but I'm not ready to jettison those either. Given that autonomy is the core of both of those noble aspirations, it deserves a little more respect than you're giving it.

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 7:21 PM  
  • I could write a comment detailing all about how I support the Swedish model and talking about it, but luckily it has been catapulted into the mainstream media, so I'll let others fill you in on the sound bites:

    Today's Op-Ed

    Yesterday's by prostitution research expert Melissa Farley

    Scotland, the latest country considering enacting the swedish law met with a delegation from the Swedish government this week.

    Then, of course, there is always the Swedish government's fact sheet on prostitution.

    Arrest the pimps and the johns, not the prostitutes. That's what I say, and that's what has been working in Sweden.

    By Blogger lost clown, at 9:30 PM  
  • I forgot to finish the sentence with "as opposed to the Netherlands which has seen a huge increase in trafficking and violence, the opposite of what proponents of legalisation say will happen."

    By Blogger lost clown, at 9:31 PM  
  • Last one for now, I promise.

    You can find Melissa Farley's research here.

    From the research:

    Here is what 475 prostitutes from 5 countries said:

    United States: 56% don't want it legal, 88% want out now.

    South Africa: 62% don't want it legal, 89% want out now

    Thailand: 72% don't want it legal, 94% want out now

    Turkey: 96% don't want it legal, 90% want out now

    Zambia: 92% don't want it legal, 99% want out now

    If that's not reason enough to be against legalisation, I don't know what is.

    By Blogger lost clown, at 9:39 PM  
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