Deep Thoughts

Will Prostitution Become Legal in America?

June 01, 2018

Multiple Pages
Will Prostitution Become Legal in America?

In a recent op-ed for The Washington Times, Grazie Pozo Christie takes feminists to task for their opposition to the shutting down of Backpage.com, a website that had long been involved in sex trafficking and sex slavery. Christie writes:

If you think feminists everywhere are celebrating the prosecution of the world’s largest online sex market, Backpage.com, as a major blow against the exploitation of women, you would be wrong. The Women’s March is perhaps the most vocal and visible group to self-appropriate the label “feminist,” but others as well have come down decisively on the side of prostitution as sexually empowering because “the real mark of feminism is trusting women to do what they want with their bodies.”

According to the Women’s March Twitter feed, “The shutting down of #Backpage is an absolute crisis ” and the crackdown is “motivated by the patriarchal notion that women should not be free to do what we want with our bodies.”

The story of Backpage.com, where thousands of children and women kept as sex slaves were being sold again and again by their pimps, illustrates how modern slavery and human trafficking pervades the sex industry—and how the “happy hooker” is a statistical blip. Most women (and of course, all children) who sell their bodies have arrived there through poverty, grooming, coercion, and a host of societal dysfunctions and failures. Even when not coerced, prostitution is a last resort for desperate women. No matter how vigorously ideologues celebrate the “choice,” renting out one’s body to a stranger comes with many obvious negatives.

“Legal prostitution would be relatively simple and straightforward, a man knowing just what he’s in for.”

Christie goes on to make a cogent and principled case. Still, given the overwhelming changes that have happened in America since birth control became widely available and since the Sexual Revolution, it is worth considering whether prostitution might become legal in this country. Of course, legalizing what most people believe to be a moral evil may now seem unthinkable. And yet, it wasn’t long ago that gay marriage and “sex change” surgery were regarded in the same manner. As American culture becomes less determined by its traditional Christian morality, the way is clear for citizens to decide moral and legal issues via a libertarian approach.

The essence of libertarianism was best captured by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty (1859).

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right…. The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Here, in what is often called “the harm principle,” the feminist who advocates the legalization of prostitution may find powerful support. For while you may not approve of prostitution, what right, what authority do you have to stop the prostitute from doing her business, so long as others are not harmed? This is America, a free country—so mind your business!

Yet this immediately raises the question: What is harmful? Everybody will agree that physical pain is harmful, but outside of that it is generally difficult to make a case for which there will be consensus on whether legal intervention is justified. (I take it for granted, I should add, that the exploitation of children, and the subjection of unwilling agents generally, constitute grounds for legal intervention.) Anyway, since physical pain is the default premise, and since, presumably, the prostitute is not as a matter of course subjecting johns to physical pain, the libertarian argument for legal prostitution seems pretty compelling.

Then there is the pragmatic argument, a matter of trade-offs, at bottom. As Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs put it, “Sexual marketplaces take the shape they do because nature has biologically built a disadvantage into men: a huge desire for sex that makes men dependent on women.” Of course, for most of history female sexuality was controlled by certain official arrangements: religious, moral, and legal. But it is no longer so. Women now have the same legal status as men, and no longer being answerable to external systems, they serve as the gatekeepers of sex. Add to this female hypergamy—a socially destabilizing force, akin to global capitalism—and it follows over time that even many fairly high-value men struggle in the sexual marketplace.

That last remark calls to mind the incels, those unhappy souls about whom we have been hearing so much of late. It is important to understand, though, that they are not altogether representative of the general disadvantage men now face in eros. The situation, indeed, is much more complicated than the frustrations and resentments of the lowest sexual market-value men suggest. In his essay “Pilgrim at Tinder Creek,” the academic Andrew Kay describes his hilariously futile efforts to find a decent woman in the age of hypergamous instrumentalism, when it’s natural for women to equate Mr. Right with Mr. Perfect. Kay seems to be your classic nice guy (read: weak and boring to the most selective women), and certainly he is intelligent, successful, and not unattractive. And yet, many women found him “inadequate.”

While Kay is a benign figure, as we know from the incels, many men are not so. In fact, men who lack access to sexual partners have always been a dangerous social evil, and as female hypergamy, like global capitalism, runs its unforgiving course, we should expect that problem to become more prevalent. In the face of this, legal prostitution may be a means of mitigating one evil by tolerating what is arguably another.

However appalling it may be to Christians, this view, in a certain sense, is not so far from Christianity itself. It is best to be chaste, according to St. Paul, but if we lack the will for that, marriage is the next best option. Per the pragmatic argument, legal prostitution is a somewhat similar compromise on what, after all, has always been a material arrangement, founded on value exchange. Besides, from a historical point of view, monogamy and marriage are essentially customs based on prudence and utility, and no more consistent with human nature itself than are prostitution, polygamy, or hookup culture.

The compromise would be particularly useful now that marriage makes such little sense for men. “Women rate an incredible 80% of guys as worse-looking than medium,” says OKCupid founder Christian Rudder. “The average-looking woman has convinced herself that the vast majority of males aren’t good enough for her.” Rudder gives us several representative photos of men who range from truly average to handsome. Then he concludes the summary of his research with this comment: “Females of OkCupid, we site founders say to you: ouch!...it’s women, not men, who have unrealistic standards for the ‘average’ member of the opposite sex.” Rudder’s finding corresponds to the fact that women file for seven out of ten divorces, in a reflection of their delusional expectations.

Now, to be sure, human nature is itself delusional, and if women are more delusional than men in regard to sex and romance, the main reason is that, given their superior value and power in the sexual marketplace, they can be. More than men, women are able to realize the intrinsic inclination. Anyway, add to this commonly delusional perspective how badly divorce laws affect men, and we should expect that in the future more men will view marriage as an investment not worth making. This seems all the more likely since men still pay for more than women do in marriages, even as the latter control more of household spending and get preferential treatment in most areas of life.

In our age of feminist hysteria, when the criterion for “unwanted advance” is a woman’s personal whim, and when a casual joke can cost one a job, a growing number of men are distrustful of women in general. Soon, a man who has much to lose may not only avoid marriage; he may eschew dating as well, for today the very act of pursuing a woman can be a risky endeavor, and is a massively inefficient use of time in any case. On the other hand, legal prostitution would be relatively simple and straightforward, a man knowing just what he’s in for.

So, men may well join feminists in calling for legal prostitution. Certainly these two groups—feminists and disadvantaged men—are not going away anytime soon. On the contrary, they are likely to become only more numerous and more influential. Feminist advocates of legal prostitution include the prominent Martha Nussbaum, who has made a nuanced argument in favor of it.

Another causal factor might be the elimination of jobs through artificial intelligence. If work is scarce, may not some women, and some men too, want to sell themselves to pay the bills?

But I don’t mean to be misleading. It is simply not the case that every prostitute is poor and without better options. Indeed, today there are many women from middle-class backgrounds who choose to be sugar babies—which is no different in kind from turning tricks on the corner. These are women who have graduated from college, or are in it, and though they could do any number of other things to make money, they choose to be prostitutes because doing so is simpler and better-paying.

If those who support legal prostitution can overcome the formidable religious and moral objections to and prejudices against it, then corporate America, always spineless and soulless, will be happy to get in on the business. For corporate America stands for nothing but making money. It will follow the crowd to hell itself, virtue-signaling the entire way. And undoubtedly there is plenty of money to be made in regulated prostitution.

The best case against legal prostitution is from a traditional conservative point of view, which I will outline in brief. Human societies are too complex to be determined by sheer individual autonomy, or the harm principle, or purely pragmatic considerations. It is necessary to ask what people, and states, and things are for, and how we should live accordingly. There is such a thing as indirect harm, and not only to the agents involved, but to everyone over time. Conservatives are wary of big changes, because they have a keen sense of how fragile the good is, and they know that even progress has a way of producing unexpected problems. Marriage must be protected, for it is the character-forming social unit on which the state itself depends; but legal prostitution, by allowing for easy and readily available sex, is destructive of marriage and therefore of the state itself. We should respect, and revere, what has worked well enough so far, because it is the hard-earned fruit of experience, wiser than us and more valuable than that which seems desirable to abstract reason.

I lack the space to make a stronger argument, but I will say that, in view of the changes that have happened in America—in view, in other words, of what America has become—it’s not clear to me that this traditional conservative argument is worth much these days.

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