(Part One, Part Two)
This is third part in my ongoing series about the ethics of prostitution. As per the previous two entries, this one continues my odyssey through Ole Martin Moen’s article “Is Prostitution Harmful?”. Assuming I don’t wear myself out first, I’m hoping to eventually get to some critiques of Moen’s piece, but for the time being I remain focused on it alone.
To briefly recap the previous two entries, Moen is arguing that there is nothing particularly objectionable about prostitution. To be more precise, he is arguing that prostitution is not harmful, at least no more so than casual sex. Since most people don’t think the later should be prohibited or restricted, we have no good reason to think that the former should be as well. To defend this basic thesis, Moen critiques nine arguments for the harmfulness of prostitution. So far, we’ve looked at six of these arguments. Today, we look at the remaining three.
1. The Selling One’s Body Argument
Prostitution involves the sale of one’s body. This is troubling to many people. But let’s try to be clear about this. There are at least three things we could be mean by the phrase “selling one’s body”:
Complete Transfer: The sale is much like that of any other piece of property. The seller transfers the property (in this case their body or some part thereof) to the buyer, and the buyer thereby acquires total ownership and control over that body.
Unrestricted Rental: The body, or some part thereof, is rented to the buyer for a certain period of time, within which the buyer can do with that body as he or she pleases (i.e. there are no restrictions on usage within the rental period).
Restricted Rental: The body, or some part thereof, is rented to the buyer for a certain period of time, within which there are restrictions on what the buyer can or cannot do with the body.
Moen argues that the kind of sale taking place in prostitution is of the third type: the client gains temporary access to a particular set of bodily services (usually negotiated in advance). It is not complete transfer, nor is it unrestricted rental. It is true, of course, that some people are sold into sexual slavery, and that prostitutes can be abused and assaulted in their course of work. But in the former case, it is the slavery itself that is objectionable not just the sexual aspect, and in the latter case no plausible permissive regime would tolerate abuse and assault of prostitutes. Again, this is because those things are objectionable in and of themselves. Thus, when we talk about whether prostitution should be permitted, we are only really talking about restricted rental of one’s body.
Clearly, some people think that even this kind of restricted rental is harmful. They would have to make the following argument:
- (33) If an activity involves the restricted rental of one’s body, then it is harmful.
- (34) Prostitution involves the restricted rental of one’s body.
- (35) Therefore, prostitution is harmful.
The problem is that once you spell the argument out in this more precise manner, its motivating principle looks somewhat dubious. Lots of perfectly acceptable businesses and trades involve the restricted rental of the body. Moen gives the examples of “dancers, masseuses, sumo wrestlers and football players”, each of whom temporarily rents their bodies in return for some economic reward, and some of whom are lauded and respected for doing so. Why should prostitution be viewed any differently?
- (36) There are many perfectly acceptable, perhaps even laudable, occupations that involve the restricted rental of one’s body.
- (33*) If an activity involves the restricted rental of one’s intimate bodily parts, then it is harmful.
- (34*) Prostitution involves the restricted rental of one’s intimate bodily parts.
- (35) Therefore, prostitution is harmful.
The term “intimate bodily parts” is deliberately vague. Obviously, it encompasses the genitalia, but given the range of sexual activities and proclivities out there it must encompass more than that. Fortunately, the precise scope need not concern us too much here. We can try to deal with paradigmatic organs and see whether the principle (33*) applies to them.
Again, we have some possible counterexamples. Nussbaum gives the hypothetical of a colonoscopy “artist”: a person who rents out his or her colon to medical engineers so that they can design more effective and comfortable colonoscopy equipment. If that isn’t paradigmatic enough for you (since it doesn’t involve the genitalia), you could also imagine a woman who rents out her body so that more effective and comfortable cervical smear testing equipment could be designed. To be sure, both professions would be odd. But is there anything morally troubling about them? Would the participants really be harmed? The suggestion from Nussbaum and Moen is that they wouldn’t be. In which case, it’s difficult to see why prostitution should be viewed differently.
- (37) There could be acceptable, perhaps even laudable, occupations that involve the restricted rental of intimate bodily parts (e.g. Nussbaum’s hypothetical colonoscopy artist, or my hypothetical cervical smear test model.)
Of course, these arguments focus purely on the “bodily” aspect of prostitution. Could it be the combination of the intimate bodily “transactions” with certain mental states that makes prostitution harmful? That’s what the final two arguments try to claim.
2. The Habitual Faking Argument
Here’s an interesting thought: prostitutes may have to consistently fake sexual responses (excitement, enjoyment, willingness etc.) in order to succeed in their profession. Could it be that this habitual faking is psychologically harmful?
- (38) If an activity requires habitual faking, then it is harmful.
- (39) Prostitution involves habitual faking (of sexual responses).
- (40) Therefore, prostitution is harmful.
There is some prima facie plausibility to the notion that habitual faking is harmful, or certainly suboptimal. People are often concerned with maintaining an authentic personality or self, and habitual faking would seem to undermine that. But, still, there are problems with the argument.
For starters, it’s not clear that premise (39) is true. At least, not strictly speaking. A prostitute may not need to feign sexual interest or excitement for every client; and it’s possible that some may even authentically enjoy the process. But leave that to one side since some faking will probably be required.
The main issue is with premise (38). It would seem to be vulnerable to counterexamples. Moen considers the case of acting. Professional actors often have to “fake” emotional and psychological states in order to succeed at what they do, and they have to do this on a routine, day-to-day basis. Some go to great extremes. Consider the multiple Oscar-winner Daniel Day Lewis, who is renowned for his ability to completely embody the character he is playing. This involves “faking” an alternative persona. Are we to believe that he is harmed by this process?
- (41)There are acceptable, even laudable, professions that require habitual faking, for example: acting.
I should add: the argumentation here is a little bit weak. Ending on a rhetorical question is never a great idea: it could be the case that actors are harmed by this kind of habitual faking. I’ve never seen a study done on this though. In any event, I guess the point would be that even if acting was harmful in this manner, it still shouldn’t attract stigma or censure. (This highlights the problems with Moen’s structuring of every argument in terms of harmfulness).
Another point to bear in mind here is that the very first argument that Moen dealt with in his article was about psychological harms. There, he freely conceded that prostitutes are psychologically harmed, but responded by saying that there was no clear evidence to suggest that this harm was caused by the selling of sex. Rather, he suggested that the harms could be caused by social taboos, and gave the example of homosexuality to illustrate his point. Well, if we were to return to that argument for a moment, and accept the evidence that prostitutes suffer from more psychological problems than those in other profession, might it not also be worth considering the hypothesis that this harm is caused by habitual faking? Again, I don’t know of any research on this, but it seems like it could be valuable. And if a plausible psychological mechanism was uncovered linking habitual faking to psychological harm, we might need to revisit the argument.
3. The “Selling One’s Soul” Argument
The preceding response to the habitual faking argument claims that there is nothing intrinsically bad about habitual faking. But maybe, once again, that misses the point. Maybe it is the exceptionally intimate nature of the sexual exchange, and the mental states that accompany that exchange, that is the problem? This is the message underlying the “selling one’s soul” argument.
The “soul” of course is a faintly mystical notion, but it can be cashed out in more plausible and concrete terms. Suppose we say that “soul” is the term used to refer to one’s deepest values, beliefs, desires and character traits. Then, we could argue that prostitution requires the handing over of one’s soul to another for a fee. And given the importance of the soul, so understood, to one’s sense of self and well-being, we could argue that this is a bad thing. The analogy can be drawn with friendship, which also involves an intimate exchange between two “souls”. Many would argue that this kind of intimate exchange cannot be bought and sold, and indeed that if it is bought and sold the unique value of the bond is undermined.
- (42) If an activity involves the commodified exchange of one’s deepest values, beliefs, desires and traits, then it is harmful.
- (43) Prostitution involves the commodified exchange of one’s deepest values, beliefs, desires, and traits.
- (44) Therefore, prostitution is harmful.
Moen has two problems with this argument. The first is that premise (43) assumes the strong significance view of sex (see part one LINK). In other words, it assumes that sex must be an emotionally enriched, romantically significant act, if it is to be morally acceptable. But if we accept the permissibility of casual, no-strings attached sex, then this is a bit of a non-starter.
Premise (42) is also dubious. As Nussbaum has pointed out, there are other professions that involve the commodification of one’s deepest values, beliefs, desires and traits, and they are not deemed harmful. She gives the example of a philosophy professor, who is paid money to write and think about his or her deepest values and beliefs. The professor will find that others encroach upon this set of values and beliefs in the course of her work. She will be challenged and critiqued by others; students will demand her to explain more about these values and beliefs to them, and maybe misunderstand or misconstrue what they are. Arguably, these values and beliefs are more fundamental than those relating to sex and sexuality, and yet we don’t have a problem with their commodification.
- (45) This assumes the strong significance view of sex, but if casual sex is permissible, the strong significance view is false.
- (46) There acceptable, even perhaps laudable, professions in which people commodify their deepest values, beliefs, desires and traits, e.g. Nussbaum’s Philosophy Professor example.
Okay, so that brings us to the end of Moen’s article. As we have seen, he doesn’t think much of the typical arguments profferred against prostitution. I have noted some weaknesses in his analysis as I went along, particularly in relation to his treatment of objectification, exploitation and male dominance. Still, I’m inclined to accept the basic position: there is nothing intrinsically objectionable about the commodification of sexual services.
Two final points to finish up on. First, as noted way back in part one, Moen doesn’t think that establishing the harmfulness of prostitution will settle questions in relation to its permissibility. Instead, he thinks that any harms (and he accepts that, as currently practiced in many parts on the world, there are harms) associated with prostitution would need to be weighed against its potential benefits. There are other professions that carry risks and yet we do not stigmatise those involved in them (he gives the interesting fact in New Zealand, where prostitution is legal, it is deemed less risky than being an ambulance nurse LINK).
Second, Moen is sensitive to the possibility that his arguments could be said to assume an overly utopian vision of sex work. In particular, that they assume that many of the negative features currently associated with prostitution could be easily removed by some alternative system of regulation. But he thinks this charge can be rebutted. He thinks his arguments do not assume perfect information or rationality, and they often rely on plausible historical analogies. A shift in attitudes akin to that undertaken in relation to slavery, racism, or homosexuality might be all that is required to improve the lot of sex workers. If such shifts have been possible in the past, why wouldn’t they be possible in the future?