Is prostitution morally objectionable? Should it be illegal?
First, I want to thank Debra Satz for being our guest on the show yesterday. It was interesting and fun. I hope it was also enlightening. The discussion certainly provoked lots of calls, e-mails, and even comments on the blog. Even in philosophy, sex sells, I guess.
Having sat with this topic for the last couple of weeks, I’m still pretty unsettled on my own final take on things. I’m pretty convinced -- I think -- that criminalizing prostitution – either on the supply side or on the demand side – is unworkable. I tend to side with those who think criminalization probably makes what is already a bad situation for many much worse. Moreover, some ways of “configuring” prostitution seem clearly to be more problematic than others – both for the prostitutes themselves and for society at large. And that makes it relatively easy to envision legal frameworks that outlaw or discourage certain forms of prostitution, but permit or incentivize other less debasing and destructive forms. Still, I don’t think the issue is completely cut and dry. there will always, I think, be a demand for even the most debasing kinds of prostitution. There will always be people in dire straits with few options but to strike desperate bargains. So there is no guarantee that the more destructive, debasing and exploitative forms of prostitution would disappear or even seriously decrease if the less destructive and exploitative varieties were legalized.
But my focus in this post is not on the admittedly difficult collection of social and political questions connected to the legalization of prostitution. I want rather to explore a little bit further an idea I was trying out on the air. I said, as I recall, that because of the kind of relation that our own sexuality has to our identity and agency in the world, it seemed to me that sex is the wrong kind of thing to distribute via the market. Neither Debra nor John accepted the proto-argument I gave on the air. So let me try to do it again, a little more slowly. I’ll say up front that I’m not yet fully convinced that I’ve got the right way of thinking about it.
John called the approach I was defending moralistic -- or perhaps “prudish” was his word. But that’s not right. It’s not because I condemn or fear sex and sexuality, but because I celebrate them and believe that they are crucial ingredients of many versions of a well-lived life that I have qualms about prostitution. We are deeply erotic beings. Our erotic nature is not just a source great pleasure, but is tied up with our very identities as beings in the world. The erotic partly defines the boundaries of the self. One who violates another sexually has violated not just the body but the very self. The erotic connects us to others in intimate, joyous union. In the deepest most exhilarating erotic encounters, one regards one’s partner not just as an object or instrument of one’s own pleasure or satisfaction, not just as one’s sexual tool. Rather, each takes the other as another self – as another self for his or her self. One takes the pleasures of one’s lover as further sources of pleasures for oneself. One delights not only in the giving and receiving of pleasure, but also in the recognition and respect offered up by the lover. Erotic encounters can be theaters in which our autonomy and self-valuing are recognized, respected, and taken bodily and emotional delight in by another self-valuing, autonomous being who we in turn recognize, respect and take bodily and emotional delight in.
I do not mean to imply that all or even most erotic encounters either do or should have such deep resonance. There are many varieties of mutually satisfying erotic experiences. No doubt, a well-lived life may contain some considerable variety of them. Indeed, a well-lived life may even be entirely devoid of erotic experiences all together. So I am not suggesting that one’s erotic experience must take some one definite form or occupy some one definite place in one’s life if one’s life is to count as well-lived. Still, I do find myself tempted to say that erotic experiences of this deeply resonant sort indicate something about the true “telos,” as Aristotelian might put it, of the erotic. I admit to not having a knock-down argument for this last claim. That is why it’s a conclusion to which I’m merely “tempted” and not yet one that I fully endorse. I’m not even sure that there could be a knock down argument for any such claim about the telos of the erotic.
But suppose we bracket such qualms for the sake of the present argument. If the erotic has a telos and if that telos is as I have described, then it’s possible evaluate erotic experiences, and their potential contributions to a well-lived life, by considering the degree to which they depart from said telos.
It seems clear that many, but perhaps not all, encounters between prostitute and john will depart pretty far from that telos. In the prostituted erotic encounter, the john alone remains more fully a sexual agent. But even his sexual agency is diminished. He functions as a merely self-regarding sexual agent, one who uses another as mere sexual instrument. This need not imply cruelty or violence. But it does imply the lack of the kind of mutual recognition, valuing and delight in the pleasure of the other that is the mark of erotic encounters of the highest sort. When I say that the john remains more fully a sexual agent, I do not mean to deny all agency to the prostitute. She offers her (or his) body and bodily skills to the john. She (he) may even take a certain delight in the use to which she (he) puts her (his) body and the excellence she (he) displays in deploying those skills. Moreover, she (he) does all this in some sense willingly and with the expectation of “fair” compensation for her (his) efforts.
We might say that even in the prostituted erotic encounter, the prostitute remains an economic agent even if she does not remain fully a sexual agent. In this respect, some will say, she is no different from anyone else who offers her brain or muscle to another for a fee in ways that neither reflect the value she places on herself nor demands of the other recognition of the value she places on herself.
There is something to this line of thinking. But less, I think, than at first meets the eye. First, if we distinguish economic agency from sexual agency, we now have two dimensions along which to evaluate prostituted erotic encounters. One might think that prostituted erotic encounters in which the prostitute is able to preserve her(his) full economic agency, even at some cost to her(his) sexual agency, are morally preferable to prostituted erotic encounters in which the prostitute must surrender both some degree of sexual agency and some degree of economic agency. There is, I think, something deeply right about this thought. And I think any scheme for legalizing prostitution should have as one of its aims to make it more possible for prostitutes to function as full economic agents. Any such scheme should protect them against economic exploitation and seek to fully integrate them into ordinary economic life. That some such scheme is possible and morally preferable to any scheme that denies the full economic agency of the prostitute is the grain of truth behind the observation that prostitution need not be – though it often is -- different from any other economic transaction.
But what this observation misses, I think, is the fact that ones sexual agency in particular is not the kind of thing the loss of which can be compensated for by a gain in one’s economic agency. Indeed, the two spheres of agency are, in a way, incommensurable. That, I suspect, is the difference between selling of one’s writings and the selling of one’s body. Selling one’s words does not diminish one’s “authorial agency.” Indeed, such transactions can be instrumental in many ways to one’s flourishing as an author. Someone will seize on this remark and insist that selling one’s sexual skills can, in a similar way, be instrumental to one’s flourishing as a sexual agent. After all, in every sphere of life, practice makes perfect. But the sense in which this is true misses the point. In the prostituted erotic encounter, the prostitute is alienated, at least for the space of the relevant encounter, from her full sexual agency. So too, in a way, is the john. But the john is alienated in a different direction. My worry is that such alienation cannot easily be limited and contained. There are many reasons why this might be so. One has to do with the fact that the largely male driven demand for alienated sexual agency is backed by great economic and political power. And that demand plays, I think, some role – but not an exclusive role -- in the social configuration of the sexual agency of all men and all women, even those not directly involved in prostituted erotic encounters. Marxists claim that all capitalist economic arrangements have such effects. I do not think this is true globally. But because the erotic remains at its core a distinctive sphere of agency, with a distinctive place in well-lived human lives, something akin to the Marxist global critique of capitalism does apply locally to sexual agency and prostitution.
Or so it seems to me. At any rate that is thought behind my on-air remarks that sexuality is the wrong kind of thing to be properly distributed by the market. I don't think that makes me a prude. And I don't think it means that I've over-romanticized sex.