Is prostitution morally objectionable? Should it be illegal?
The American Heritage Dictionary defines prostitution as “the act or practice of engaging in sex acts for hire.” This definition may be a little obsolete. First, while people of my generation include such things as oral sex under the term “sex acts,” the term now is often restricted to sexual intercourse. Whether this is the effect of President Clinton’s use, or he was in fact simply very up-to-date, I do not know. But if you look at online solicitations of prostitution, such as on Craig’s List under “erotic services,” you can see that the more restricted use is common. Some ads say “no sex,” while it is clear that oral sex is on offer. I’ll use the term “sex acts” with its old-fashioned meaning, however.
Second, paid sexual activity by actors and actresses involved in making pornographic videos seems to fall under the definition, but is usually not regarded as prostitution, as far as I know. As far as I can tell making such movies and selling or renting them to adults is legal, and in fact a significant factor in the economy of a number of nations and states, including California. Again, I’ll stick with the narrow definition, so that engaging in sex for pay, where the pay comes from the producer of a pornographic video rather than from the other sex partner or partners, doesn’t count as prostitution. A philosopher will immediately ask, “what about the case where the producer of the video is also one of the actors?” but we’ll set that question aside, at least for the time being.
The paradigm act of prostitution is a female performing sexual intercourse with a male, not her husband, in exchange for money. How, as is clear from Craig’s List, there are plenty of opportunities to purchase sex from males, too.
Philosophically, the main issue is presumably the rightness or wrongness of acts of prostitution and the distinct question of whether prostitution should be illegal in some or all of its forms.
On the former there seem to be four main positions, which of course overlap in various ways.
First, there is what I’ll call the moralist position. Prostitution is immoral as a special case of the immorality of adultery. This would be true even if the institution of prostitution, that is, the actual social, economic and marketing practices that surround the activity of prostitution, were not exploitative or in other ways damaging to prostitutes themselves. The moralist tradition is often based on religious principles, like the Ten Commandments, one of which is not to commit adultery, but it need not be.
Second, at what we might call the other extreme, is what I’ll call the Consenting Adults position. Sex acts for hire, between consenting adults, are perfectly moral in and of themselves, although of course it may be wrong to perform them in certain circumstances, say where one or both partners is breaking a promise to others, or in front of children, or traditionally, anywhere it might “scare the horses.” The exchange of money doesn’t change anything.
The third position I’ll call the Exploitative-Institution position agrees that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with sex acts between consenting adults. However, the socio-economic practices that in fact, and as it seems inevitably, support the practice of prostitution ensure that it is almost invariably damaging to prostitutes, often economically, and also in terms of their self-esteem, opportunities, social position, health and myriad other ways. To be involved in such an institution is wrong. Our guest Debra Satz holds a subtle and well-argued version of this position.
The fourth position seems to me to be the one that underlies “COYOTE,” the San Francisco based prostitutes rights organization (See http://www.bayswan.org/COYOTE.html for links). The acronym stands for “Cast off your old tired ethics”. The fundamental idea is that “sex work,” including prostitution, stripping and other activities, needs to be de-stigmatized and de-criminalized, the role of “third-parties” --- i.e., pimps and other exploiters --- needs to be dealt with legally, and health and psychological services need to be made available.
The difference between the third and fourth positions has to do with the extent to which prostitution is contingently degrading, exploitative, and in other ways damaging to prostitutes. An adherent of the third position need not maintain that prostitution has these causes and effects as a matter of necessity, but may think that the social attitudes and institutions involved are so deeply enmeshed in American society and probably most others, that as a practical matter damage is inevitable and any participation in the institution is wrong. An adherent of the fourth position may feel that prostitution, for some women, is at least potentially, and in some cases actually, a reasonable and attractive if not ideal occupation.
In The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir provided a classic and influential discussion of prostitution, which is a good place to start reading, especially in chapter XIX, “Prostitutes and Hetairas.” “Hetaira” is Greek for a high-class courtesan or concubine. Hetairas might seem to provide the role-models for those who envisage non-exploitative prostitution, but de Beauvoir doesn’t see it that way. Hetairas are...
...women who treat not only their bodies but their entire personalities as capital to be exploited... The hetaira does not reveal the world, she opens no avenues to human transcendence; on the contrary she tries to captivate the world for her own profit....she does not repudiate that passive femininity which dedicates her to man...
Well, we’ll understand these issues better tomorrow, after our discussion on “Philosophy Talk” with Debra Satz.