This is the second part of an ongoing series about the ethics of prostitution. Currently, we are working through the arguments in Ole Martin Moen’s article “Is Prostitution Harmful?” which appeared in the Journal of Medical Ethics in 2012. Eventually, we’ll be looking at some criticisms of that article, but for the time being we are focusing solely on what Martin has to say for himself.
Part one looked at Moen’s argumentative strategy. As we saw, he is claiming that, despite what many people think, there is nothing about prostitution that warrants its moral censure or prohibition. In other words, there is nothing in the commodification of the sexual act that transforms it from something that would otherwise have been permissible and acceptable into something that it not. To defend this conclusion, Moen addresses nine objections to prostitution. We have already worked our way through the first three. We will now work our way through three more (I was going to do all six, but it ended up being too long).
Before we get underway, I need to clarify something that came up in the comments to part one. Moen couches all of the objections to prostitution in terms of harmfulness. He does so because he thinks that beliefs about the harmfulness of prostitution drive other debates about the correct social and legal attitude towards prostitution. In other words, it is because people think prostitution is harmful that they think it warrants social disapproval, moral censure, criminalisation and so on. But Moen doesn’t really engage with those other debates in his article. Why not? Because his whole argument is that prostitution doesn’t meet the threshold of harmfulness that would be needed to get into those debates. (There is a slight exception to this at the end of his article, we’ll talk about it the next day).
1. The Exploitation Argument
Stereotypical images of prostitution tend to encourage the belief that prostitutes are exploited. This provides the impetus for the following argument (numbering is continuing from part one):
- (17) If an activity involves (economic) exploitation, it is harmful.
- (18) Prostitution involves (economic) exploitation.
- (19) Therefore, prostitution is harmful.
I have put “economic” in brackets to clarify that what we are really talking about here is unjust enrichment at the expense of another. That is to say: a situation in which one (or more) actors unduly profit from the work of another. There may be other senses of “exploitation”, but we are not considering addressing them here.
So what are we to make of the argument? Moen grants premise (17). That leaves premise (18) as the remaining bone of contention. Is it true that prostitutes are alienated from the true “value” of their work? Again, that’s certainly part of the stereotypical image: the prostitute as an impoverished woman, abused by a pimp and receiving only a fraction of the pay she deserves. But this stereotype might be misleading.
First, under a classic Marxist analysis, most workers are exploited and harmed; there is nothing special about prostitutes in this regard. Assuming we don’t want to take that Marxist approach, the question is really whether prostitutes are more exploited that the average worker. And here the picture is rather more complex. Indeed, one could argue that prostitutes have a better deal than most workers.
One example of this is the existence of luxury escorts or high-end call girls, many of whom earn considerable sums of money from each client. A famous example of this would be Ashley Dupre, the call girl implicated in the Eliot Spitzer scandal. According to reports at the time, she received $4,300 for one “assignation” (though $1,000 of this was a deposit for future services), which is a considerable sum for one day/night’s work. Well above the average income.
- (20) There can be luxury prostitutes who earn above-average incomes.
Even if we move away from the elite world of luxury escorts, to the seedier underbelly of the profession, we find that the evidence does not support the exploitation hypothesis. Lena Edlund and Evelyn Korn, for example, start their analysis of prostitution with the puzzling observation that prostitutes have an average yearly income that is between two and six times that of other women in low skill, labour intensive jobs (which are viewed as the realistic alternative form of occupation). Similarly, freakonomicist Steven Levitt, and his co-author Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, found that on-street prostitutes in Chicago earn between $25-30 per hour. This was four times the minimum wage.
- (21) Low-end prostitutes still earn incomes that are multiples of workers in low skill, labour intensive industries.
What about the pimps? Isn’t it true that they take a significant portion of the prostitutes earnings? Again, the reality doesn’t seem to match the stereotype. Levitt and Venkatesh found that those working under a pimp earned more than those who didn’t, despite working fewer hours and performing fewer “tricks” (as they are known in the business). Edlund and Korn point to evidence (from the mid-1990s) suggesting that less than 6% of L.A. prostitutes share income with a pimp; and evidence from Malaysia showing that only 2% of income is shared with pimps. When you compare these figures to the disparity between a young associate lawyer’s billable hours and what he or she actually earns, you’d have to wonder who is really being exploited? (Admittedly, the analogy is inapt since lawyer’s can earn more later in their careers, have longer working lives, and receive benefits-in-kind not typically available to prostitutes, but there are other analogies that are closer.)
- (22) Prostitutes who work under pimps are exploited.
- (23) The evidence doesn’t seem to back this up: relatively few on-street prostitutes work under pimps, and those that do seem to earn more than those that don’t.
So the upshot here is that prostitutes do not seem to be economically exploited, at least no more so than workers in other professions. Two worries: first, the evidence might be limited to particular localised prostitution markets; conditions might vary considerably from place to place; and second, the wage premium earned by prostitutes may, in part, be a function of how risky and stigmatised the profession currently is. If prostitution stopped being taboo, would the wage premium be so significant?
2. The Male Dominance Argument
Some feminists claim that prostitution constitutes, expresses and perpetuates male dominance:
- (24) If an activity involves male dominance, it is harmful.
- (25) Prostitution involves male dominance.
- (26) Therefore, prostitution is harmful.
Granting premise (24), Moen looks at an argument from Carole Pateman in support of (25). Now, I’ll have to confess that even after reading Pateman’s article, the argument isn’t particularly lucid to me (LINK). But I think it’s something like this. The market for sexual services is an expression of a particular kind of masculinity, one that is induced in/imbibed by men at an early age. This brand of masculinity emphasises the separateness of the male from other opposing forms (especially that of the female). The Hegelian model of the master-slave suggests those who conceive of themselves in this manner constantly seek to re-emphasise their separateness through dominating others. Hence, the male demand for sexual services is part of the attempt to sustain separateness and domination.
There would seem to be many problems with this. First, it’s not true that all prostitution involves heterosexual male-female transactions, and to that extent one wonders whether prostitution always and everywhere reinforces male dominance. Still, one can leave this to one side since it is still probably true that the vast majority of prostitution is of the heterosexual male-female variety. Even then, however, one wonders about Pateman’s argument. Moen calls it a “gross overtheorisation” of why it is that men demand sex, and one that is only effective against those who are motivated by such a desire for domination.
I can’t even begin to map out the structure of Pateman’s argument (so I won’t try), but I suspect she might reply that the motivations do not need to be explicit; they can be entirely implicit, in which case it’s not that easy to dismiss it. Furthermore, I suspect that there are more lucid and compelling versions of the male dominance critique. For example, the speech act arguments I looked at previously in relation to pornography suggest various mechanisms whereby a culture of male dominance and female suppression can be reinforced. I don’t know that they are that plausible, but they are certainly much easier to follow than Pateman’s suggested psychoanalytic/Hegelian mechanism. It might be worth analysing those kinds of argument too.
To be fair, Moen also briefly comments on work by Debra Satz which argues that prostitution degrades women, but he rejects this on the grounds that it collectivises and essentialises women, and on the grounds that the reason why prostitution is degrading is still left opaque. Nevertheless, I think there is more that could be said in relation to the male dominance critique. Indeed, Satz herself has expanded on it in her recent book Why Some things Should not be for Sale?, which I might cover on another occasion.
3. The Economic Dominance Argument
Rather than being an expression or perpetuation of male dominance over women, it could be that prostitution contributes to various forms of economic dominance:
- (27) If an activity involves economic dominance, then it is harmful.
- (28) Prostitution involves economic dominance.
- (29) Therefore, prostitution is harmful.
The key to this argument is understanding what is meant by economic dominance. Moen identifies three different ways in which to cash out the concept, which results in three different forms that the economic dominance argument could take.
The first is to argue that dominance is inherent to the roles of buyer and seller. One could say that the seller must always give something up in order to gain from the buyer; and so the buyer is in the dominant position because it is his willingness to pay that determines whether or not a valuable transaction will take place. But this first version of the argument is far too broad, and not worth considering in any real depth. After all, if this were true, every economic transaction would be objectionable. This seems to stretch the bounds of credulity. Furthermore, it is counter-intuitive: to claim that it is always the buyer that has the upper-hand. It makes concerns about consumer welfare and consumer interests seem bizarre, when in reality they are not.
The second form that the argument could take is slightly more plausible. It is to claim than any transaction involving a (relatively speaking) rich buyer and a poor seller (or vice versa) involves economic dominance, and is harmful for that reason. That gives us the following:
- (27*) If an economic transaction involves an asymmetry between the wealth of the buyer and the seller, it is harmful.
- (28*) Prostitution involves richer buyers and poorer sellers.
- (29) Therefore, prostitution is harmful.
Of course, spelling out the argument in this manner reveals some problems. For starters, premise (27*) looks somewhat implausible. If it really were true, then a vast array of economic transactions would be deemed harmful. Are we going to say that every time the wealthy businessman buys a newspaper from his local cornershop, the owner of the cornershop is harmed? Or that every time I buy a laptop from Apple computers, I am harmed? Surely not. Indeed, the classic economic analysis is that these are mutually valuable exchanges.
Premise (28*) is somewhat implausible too. As we saw earlier, even low-end prostitutes earn more than other low-skill, labour intensive workers. And yet presumably their clients might occasionally come from this pool of workers. Are we going to flip things round and say that the prostitutes harm their clients in these cases? Again, surely not.
- (30) The claim that every asymmetrical economic transaction is harmful is implausible: counterexamples suggest that a richer buyer does not necessarily harm a poorer seller; nor that a poorer buyer is necessarily harmed by a richer seller.
- (31) Prostitutes are not necessarily poorer than their clients: evidence suggests that they earn more than comparable workers in other industries. Their clients may be drawn from the pool of workers in these industries.
That brings us to the final version of the dominance argument. This one doesn’t focus on the relative buying power of the participants to the transaction, but rather on their absolute buying power, particularly that of the prostitute. If someone is poor, in absolute terms, then they will often have to act of economic desperation, doing anything they can to secure the goods and services they need to survive. So if prostitutes are poor, in absolute terms, then one could argue that they are harmed.
- (27**) If an economic transaction involves a seller who is poor in absolute terms, then it is harmful.
- (28**) Prostitution involves a seller (the prostitute) who is poor in absolute terms.
- (29) Therefore, prostitution is harmful.
We already have the response to this, of course. Prostitutes are not necessarily going to be poor in absolute terms. Furthermore, this argument is not really about prostitution in particular but about poverty in general. Certainly, we can agree that poverty is a bad thing, whenever and wherever it arises, but it is dissociable from prostitution.
- (32) Prostitutes are not necessarily poor in absolute terms: there can be high-end prostitutes with above average incomes, and even low-end prostitutes earn more than the minimum wage.
So once again, we have an objection to prostitution that is somewhat lacking. That brings us to the end of this particular post. In the next post, we’ll pick up the thread again by looking at the three other objections to prostitution with which Moen deals.
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