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Prostitution, Society, And The Law

Megan McArdle has an interesting piece explaining why she isn’t a prostitute, despite being for the decriminalization of prostitution. She argues that there is a social stigma against being a prostitute, but that social stigma isn’t enough to justify criminalization:

So I need a better reason than “it’s icky” or “there’s something wrong with a woman who would do that” to justify either a moral or a cultural ban on the practice. I’m probably more open than Will or Kerry to being convinced, but I’d take some pretty strong convincing that prostitution is so inherently damaging to society that we should declare war on it. I start with the principles that sex has equal moral significance when performed by a man or a woman; that it isn’t anyone’s business how many or what kind of partners you choose; and that government intrusion on private, voluntary exchange should be sharply limited to a) practices which produce demonstrable harm to third parties, and b) you can reasonably expect to control. This quickly leads me to “don’t you have something better to do than poke your nose into someone else’s hotel room?”

From a libertarian perspective, sex is just another voluntary human exchange that the government has no business regulating. The reason why I’m not a libertarian is because things like sex are more than just voluntary human interchanges. Humans are social creatures. Sex is, or at least should be, a deeply personal relationship between two people. A culture of casual sex and legal prostitution “diminishes the currency,” so to speak. When sex becomes something as prosaic as getting an oil change, it loses that personal value.

The other problem is that prostitution—even legal prostitution is innately exploitative. Even in a place like Amsterdam where prostitution is legal and there’s much less of a social stigma, there are plenty of women who are the victims of human trafficking and sexual slavery. The proponents of legalized prostitution argue that there’s only a minority of women who are treated that way. Perhaps so, but even that small minority deserves protection. Even in an environment where prostitution is very well regulated, you cannot prevent the exploitation of women. Even if there are success stories of prostitutes who end up leaving the business successfully, that doesn’t justify the perhaps millions of women across the globe who are systematically brutalized by the “sex industry.”

Society also has an interest in the family. We look down on things like prostitution, adultery, and pornography because they’re not good for the family. In order for a society to continue, it needs to keep its population growth at a sustainable rate. In order for that society to function, it not only needs people, but it needs people who can function well with other members of society. We don’t like married men visiting prostitutes because it’s deeply harmful to their wives, their children, and their families. The family relationship is the mortar that holds society together. Every other institution in society can fall apart: the government, religion, commerce, but if the family remains intact society can grow again. Without the family, there is no society. Anything that harms the family should rightly be looked at with close scrutiny because the value of family is so critically important to every other larger unit in society.

There’s also something that bothers me about a feminism that equates sex with “empowerment.” Does anyone really think that Ms. Dupré, a naïve 22-year-old woman who never finished high school and was living well beyond her means, was really “empowered” by having sex with people like the former Gov. Spitzer? Feminism rightly criticizes a culture that treats women as sex objects and values them only from the neck down. Yet at the same time, it’s hard to say that treating women as sex objects is a bad thing even if those women ostensibly consent to it. If every woman wanted to be a prostitute, would that be good for women? Even if a significant minority of women wanted to be prostitutes, would that be good for women? The feminist argument for prostitution doesn’t seem to hold much water to me.

The libertarian critique fails on its own terms. You cannot say on one side that the government should not interfere with what consenting adults do without explicitly giving the government the power to determine whether or not there really is consent—at that point, the government is poking its nose into someone’s hotel room, just perhaps not as far as if prostitution were banned outright. A self-regulating “sex industry” just isn’t a good idea, and if the “sex industry” can’t be self-regulating then even libertarians have to give the government some ground to regulate. At that point, it’s no longer a question of whether government has a role, but a question of what that role should be.

There will always be prostitution—there’s just too many incentives for women to sell themselves and far too many men willing to do the buying. Even so, that doesn’t mean that society should recognize prostitution. There is a social stigma against prostitution not because people are overly judgmental, but because that stigma is in many ways deserved.

9 responses to “Prostitution, Society, And The Law”

  1. Mark says:

    “There will always be prostitution”

    Knowing that, what possible good can come from the pretend-world of prohibitions? The idea that a “social stigma” can somehow subvert supply-and-demand laws is on its face preposterous and delusional. For all the talk of how liberals are trying to create a “perfect world”, it’s really the morality police on the conservative side of the aisle that, after centuries of failure, continues to insist that society can be perfected by enacting and maintaining more prohibitions on goods and services where a demand exists. How can you possibly reconcile your hysterical remarks about conservatives being the grown-ups who don’t ascribe to societal perfection with a sanctimonious culture of “social stigmas” and prohibitions against naughty products and/or activities?

    Just goes to prove that conservatives, for all their bravado and self-assurance, are seldom capable of a consistent thought.

  2. Jay Reding says:

    You said:

    “Knowing that, what possible good can come from the pretend-world of prohibitions? The idea that a “social stigma” can somehow subvert supply-and-demand laws is on its face preposterous and delusional.”

    My original post said:

    “There will always be prostitution—there’s just too many incentives for women to sell themselves and far too many men willing to do the buying. Even so, that doesn’t mean that society should recognize prostitution. There is a social stigma against prostitution not because people are overly judgmental, but because that stigma is in many ways deserved.”

    Did you bother to read that part, or did you just ignore it in the rush to make a fool of yourself once again?

  3. Mark says:

    Are you agreeing with me that prostitution should be legalized? If that’s the case, your post certainly contradicted that support for legalization. If that’s not the case, then it’s you who’ve made a fool of yourself once again by splitting hairs and getting caught.

  4. Jay Reding says:

    Are you agreeing with me that prostitution should be legalized? If that’s the case, your post certainly contradicted that support for legalization. If that’s not the case, then it’s you who’ve made a fool of yourself once again by splitting hairs and getting caught.

    My original post said:

    “There will always be prostitution—there’s just too many incentives for women to sell themselves and far too many men willing to do the buying. Even so, that doesn’t mean that society should recognize prostitution. There is a social stigma against prostitution not because people are overly judgmental, but because that stigma is in many ways deserved.”

    Read it again.

  5. Mark says:

    “Even so, that doesn’t mean that society should recognize prostitution.”

    Sounds to me like you support its continued criminalization. Why are you playing coy? Because you’re trying to have it both ways perhaps?

  6. Jay Reding says:

    Sounds to me like you support its continued criminalization. Why are you playing coy? Because you’re trying to have it both ways perhaps?

    Playing coy? Given that the original post was about why we should keep prostitution criminal, if that’s “playing coy” I can’t imagine what being blatant would be.

  7. Mark says:

    Alas, we’re back where we started….keeping prostitution criminal, recognizing it will have no effect but to fill jails up with nonviolent criminals at massive taxpayer expense, as a means of attaining “perfection” in society, the exact practice you decried as the domain of emotional “brain-dead liberals” only three days ago. You guys….

  8. Jay Reding says:

    Mark: Here’s a hint—try reading the argument first. The whole point of the argument that even though prostitution can’t be stopped, it’s still good policy to criminalize it because on balance the harms of decriminalization will be worse.

    Had you bothered to understand the argument being made, you wouldn’t have made a fool of yourself by arguing yet another straw man…

  9. Mark says:

    I read the post thoroughly the first time and assumed from it that you favored continued criminalization, even though you never explicitly said so, and implied in your replies to me (when I called you on ideological inconsistency regarding the “pursuit of perfection”) that may not necessarily favor continuing the prostitution prohibition. After all that dancing, we’re right back to where we started from with my original hunch being correct….you DO favor the continued criminalization of prostitution.

    As for the “balance of harms” measured in favor of criminalization, all that you outlined was that prohibition is naughty and harms families. The same could be said about alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and fireworks, among many other things. Do you favor prohibitions against them as well?