Justifying the Prohibition of Markets in Sexual Services

I liked Ross Douthat’s first post on prostitution. He identifies the real question at issue, which is the truth or falsity of this claim:

[R]enting out your body to satisfy another person’s sexual needs is a form of self-inflicted violence serious enough to merit legal sanction …

The whole case for banning trade in sexual services stands or falls on the defense of this claim and the assumption behind it. Even granting the assumption that paternalistic efforts to protect adults from the consequences of their own choices are justified, which I certainly don’t, the claim that prostitution is, by its nature, a kind of self-harm is pretty clearly false.

Again, it bears emphasizing that absolutely every form of labor involves renting out your body. The language of “selling your body” is generally intended to elicit a “wisdom of repugnance” disgust response, but it just doesn’t when you consider that folks like Ross and me get paid for things we do with our bodies — thinking, typing. Surgeons rent out their brains, and steady hands, to meet people’s health needs. Construction workers rent out their arms, legs, backs, brains. Etc. I sell my body for a living. So do you.

I think the real claim is not about bodies, but about vaginas and penises in particular. These should not be rentable. (Do note, however, that it is legal to rent a uterus and vagina for the purposes of surrogate gestation and childbirth, but no one really enjoys that and a lot of conservatives don’t like it anyway. And there is always porn, which is nothing without genital rental.) But bracket your intuitions about the commercial use of genitalia for a moment and consider that a good volume of trade in sexual services involves renting an expert hand. Could using your hand to give another person an orgasm possibly be a form of self-inflicted violence? Delivering manual relief is a great kindness, a sweet thing to do … unless you do it for money! At this level, Ross’s claim is evidently ludicrous. Sweet charity cannot be transformed into self-inflicted violence by a twenty dollar bill.

Does Ross think that loaning out your body, for free, to satisfy another person’s sexual needs is a form of self-inflicted violence? Should all sex outside of marriage, or outside a serious relationship, be subject to legal sanctions? If not, then using your body to satisfy another person sexually is not the problem. It is renting it. Again, bringing sex inside the cash nexus is thought to work some kind of profound psychological alchemy, which is plain nonsense.

There is a huge amount of question-begging going on in this debate. The degree to which sex work may be reasonably seen as self-inflicted violence is mainly due to the immense legal and social stigma attached to it. An honest inquirer cannot take the humiliation and loss of esteem connected to the status quo legal and social sanctions as evidence of the necessity of those sanctions. That is the purest logical shenanigans.

Moreover, the effects of this paternalism, enacted specifically to protect women from making the “wrong” choices about how they will use their bodies, inevitably bleed into broader cultural attitudes toward women and women’s sexuality. I can’t possible do better than Kerry when she says:

Just as the drug war contributes to the broadly held assumption that young black men are inherently violent and must be restrained, the criminalization of sex work reinforces the idea that sexually active women are damaged and deranged. In both cases, the activities themselves are surrounded by all manner of tragedy, abuse, and violence. In neither case is the liberal humanitarian policy response: Ban it harder, further reinforcing our worst assumptions about entire classes of people.

Get Your Laws Off My Body!