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Philosophical Perspectives

Prostitution as Degradation of Women: Implausible

Olympia (a harlot) by Édouard Manet, 1865.

Paternalism of the old conservatives has been replaced by maternalism of the radical feminists...

For many years, I taught a course at the University of Iceland called ‘Introduction to Political Philosophy’ where I discussed the ideas and arguments of some major Western thinkers. One of them was John Stuart Mill who in his Essay on Liberty (1859) argued against paternalism, the idea that the freedom of individuals to choose could and should be restricted for their own good, or in their own true interest, and not only in order to protect the equal freedom of others to choose. Mill pointed out that paternalism presupposes the existence of a group who knew better than ordinary citizens what would be for their own good, or in their own true interest. A further premise is that this group could be identified, empowered, kept uncorrupted by power and renewed smoothly when old members inevitably die or retire. Each and any of these assumptions are highly debatable. It is therefore tempting to conclude, with Mill, that paternalism as a consistent, effective policy is implausible, although it is certainly widely practised.

From Paternalism to Maternalism

In the past, those who supported paternalism were mainly conservatives who wanted government not only to favour traditional values such as the family but also to use the law and its sanctions for imposing those values on the citizens, prohibiting for example fornication and adultery (pre-marital or extra-marital sex), homosexuality, prostitution and pornography. In some Muslim countries, such as Iran of the Mullahs and Afghanistan of the Talibans, these sexual activities are still illegal and if discovered, subject to severe punishments, including stoning for adultery. In the West attitudes have however changed considerably in the last few decades. Today terms like fornication, adultery and even homosexuality sound strange and outdated. Sex between consenting adults is regarded as a matter of choice. Government is expected to stay out of the bedroom, unless it is protecting groups that cannot be expected to make choices for themselves, such as children.

However, a vocal and powerful movement does not accept the extension of individual choice to prostitution and pornography. Radical feminists employ various arguments for using the law and its sanctions to prohibit such activities (although they often want only to punish the buyers of these services, not the sellers). Prostitution and pornography are not victimless crimes, they assert. They involve both the degradation and exploitation of women and thus maintain the invisible fetters in which patriarchy has kept them over the centuries. Here I would like to focus on prostitution and on the argument from degradation according to which women engaged in prostitution are treated as objects or commodities, mere means of gratification, not as human beings. These are harmful and demeaning activities, radical feminists say, both for the buyers and the sellers. Sex on the market is impersonal and emotionally unfulfilling, the argument goes, leaving the participants with a sense of shame and self-inflicted humiliation. Women selling sex do not know what is for their own good, or in their true interest, radical feminists add.

It is somewhat ironic though that radical feminists resort to paternalism. As the name suggests, paternalism casts the relationship between government and the citizens in the image of the relationship between a father and his children. He knows better than his children. Perhaps this new paternalism should therefore be called maternalism. It should also be noted that it is not strictly speaking true that all prostitution involves women as providers. Some of them are men. But this only weakens and does not necessarily refute the argument from degradation. The fact remains that in the market for sex the buyers are overwhelmingly male and the sellers female.

An Intriguing Canadian Case

Leaving male prostitutes aside, is it true that women are always humiliated when selling sex? In 1994, the Canadian police raided what was called ‘a bawdy house’ in Thorntill, Ontario, or in plain English a brothel. The services provided by the women working there did not involve sexual intercourse or any other intimate physical contact. Instead, they were dressed in black leather from head to toe, brandishing riding crops which they used on their customers, also in other ways humiliating them, at the men’s own insistence and as agreed beforehand. It certainly seems somewhat of a stretch to claim that an activity where men are paying women for degrading them involves the degradation of women. What this real-life example shows is that not all prostitution by women involves the degradation of women. If that argument is valid, it is only valid for some kinds of prostitution, not all.

This was however not the end of the Canadian story. The ‘dominatrix’ running the brothel (vividly described by the Canadian press as the ‘bondage bungalow’), Terri-Jean Bedford, took the case to court, and after a long legal battle where she was joined by two other ‘sex workers’, as they preferred to call themselves, in 2013 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in their favour. It accepted the arguments of the plaintiffs that existing laws against keeping a brothel, living on the avails of prostitution and street soliciting endangered the safety of sex workers and that they violated their constitutional rights. It should be noted also that in the eminently conservative country Switzerland prostitution is legal.

The Pitchfork Does Not Work

It is an old insight that the consequences of prohibiting prostitution might be worse than the consequences of tolerating it. It is hardly a coincidence that prostitution has been called the ‘oldest profession’. Or, as Horace exclaimed: Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret. You may drive out nature with a pitchfork, yet she’ll be constantly running back. The most distinguished thinkers of the Church, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, both recognised this insight. Aquinas writes in the Second Part of the Second Part of Summa Theologiae (Question 10, Article 11): ‘Human government is derived from divine government and should imitate it. But even though God is almighty and supremely good, He nonetheless permits many bad things to occur in the universe which He could prohibit—lest, if those bad things were suppressed, greater goods should be removed or even worse bad things should follow.’ Aquinas then quotes St. Augustine: ‘Remove prostitutes from human affairs, and you will convulse the world with lust.’

The argument endorsed by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas is that the need for sex is a real human need which probably cannot be fulfilled only by non-pecuniary activities of consenting adults. Discussions of prostitution have however been mostly about the supply rather then the demand in the market for sex. They have typically been about the plight of the (female) prostitutes, not about the needs of their (male) customers. But consider the young, shy, awkward man who has never made sex with a woman and who therefore visits a brothel in order to learn and train. Or look at the man who is in a happy relationship with a girlfriend or a wife but who has certain fantasies which he does not want to reveal to his partner, but which he can easily ask a harlot to satisfy. Or imagine an obese, handicapped or otherwise deformed individual who is unable to find a consenting adult with whom to have sex and whose only way of obtaining it is therefore to pay for it. (I hasten to add that I have no prejudices against fat or handicapped people, although it seems likely to me that they have more difficulties than other groups in finding willing sexual partners. If this is not the case, I stand corrected.)

It is true that the relationship between a prostitute and her customer is impersonal. But so are many other relationships in the marketplace, such as that between a house owner and the garbage collector. It is also true that the prostitute allows access to her body, in an intimate way. But so does the helpless elderly patient at a hospital who has to rely on the help of a nurse for his basic bodily functions. He (or government on his behalf) pays the nurse for assisting him, just as the customer of a prostitute pays her for satisfying his wants. Some tasks which nurses have to undertake may be unpleasant, but it hardly follows that nursing as a profession is degrading. The same can be said of wet nurses and surrogate mothers. Furthermore, personal trainers, masseurs and gynecologists typically are in some physical contact with their customers without any opprobrium. Of course there is the counter-argument that people can stay alive even if they have to be chaste, whereas they will not survive if their bodies cannot perform some basic functions. Thus, the nurse is indispensable unlike the prostitute. But this does not alter the fact that in most people the need for sex is real, and that it may only make matters worse to try and suppress its sale on the market.   

Recognition of Vice Without Supporting Vice Squads

Nevertheless, both conservatives and radical feminists, the paternalists and the maternalists, may be right that prostitution is degrading. But it is not degrading because women are involved, but because it is in itself degrading as it reveals certain human imperfections or deficiencies, both of the buyer and the seller of sex. These are however imperfections or deficiencies which have to be tolerated, if St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas are to be believed. They may be vices, but they should not be crimes. From the plausible assumption that prostitution is degrading it does not necessarily follow that it should be prohibited by law, with the police in hot pursuit, diverting resources from other more urgent tasks. Vice may exist, but it does not mean that vice squads should. Indeed, prostitution seems less degrading to women than its legal prohibition which forces it underground and leaves the women engaging in it without the protection of the law. As Aquinas argues, if some bad things are suppressed, greater goods might be removed or even worse bad things might happen. While liberals like Mill cogently argue that paternalism (or nowadays maternalism) does not work, they seem to believe that the state should be neutral about values and that we should respect all choices, if the rights of others are not violated. But by this they refuse to recognise the distinction between good and bad choices, between vice and virtue. They conflate toleration and acceptance. They give freedom a bad name.

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