I Weigh in on the Question, “Is It Morally Wrong To Pay For Sex?”

Author’s Note: This entire post is going to be discussing prostitution as a legal, well-regulated institution. I will not be addressing human trafficking, forced prostitution, and child prostitution because, frankly, those aren’t the issue at hand, and to drag them into a debate on the morality of prostitution is cheap and baseless. I’ll also be focusing on female prostitutes simply because there are more of them, and I don’t want to have to constantly struggle to keep pronouns and such gender neutral. That shit’s just a hassle.

Escort, hooker, prostitute, whore: I don’t mind what you call me- that’s just semantics. ~Belle on Secret Diary of a Call Girl

Prostitution is often called the world’s oldest profession. Whether or not you agree with the validity of the adage is a moot point- the fact remains that sex has always been around and has always, in some manner, been bargained for.

The question is: Is such trade moral?

This is a heated issue, with strong proponents and opponents dishing their opinions whenever they get the chance. And in a world where improperly regulated prostitution runs rampant, in all its dangerous, despicable glory, it’s about time we got a handle on the “morality” of this issue. Because once we realize that selling sex for money is not inherently immoral, we can take steps toward legalization of the practice, which will enable us to put into effect measures that make prostitution a safe and healthy profession.

Yes, you heard me- prostitution is not immoral.

And here’s why.

The first and biggest hurdle we face on the road to disproving the immorality of prostitution lies in the idea of sexual idealism. As philosopher Raymond Tallis said on the UK Intelligence Squared debate on this topic (yes, in preparation for this I actually scoured both the US and UK versions of this debate, among many, many other sources), prostitution “brings something deeply impersonal into the ultimate physical expression of intimacy.” His words evoke the reactions of many opponents to prostitution across the board.

Of course, they are only valid if we agree that sex is a sacred act. Which I do not agree with in the slightest. And I’m not alone in the idea that coitus does not produce a mystical convergence of souls. As Germaine Greer says, “Just because he puts his little finger up your nose doesn’t mean you’re spiritually united.” There are plenty of people who don’t view sex as the ultimate expression of intimacy. To some, kissing can be more intimate than the act of intercourse (I’m reminded of a Jayne Cobb quote, in regards to his practices with prostitutes, “I never kiss them on the mouth.”).

Here’s what sex is: Sex is a reproductive process. It’s a highly pleasurable reproductive process, but at its core, that’s all it is. It’s not inherently a bond of intimacy. Intimacy is derived from something else, from knowing your partner and establishing an emotional bond with them. The perceived “intimacy” in the sex act is actually an extension of an emotional bond between two individuals who care for one another and thus work to make their partner happy and fulfilled during sex. It’s not the sex that’s sacred- it’s the deep emotional bond.

This is why people can easily have one-night stands and other forms of casual sex- they understand the disparity between sex and emotion. Those that cannot separate the two are merely conditioned to intertwine them by society.

Speaking of societal conditioning, we’ll now slide into the idea of objectification. Feminists criticize selling sex because it makes you and your body an object available for purchase. And they see this as wrong.

Interestingly enough, I don’t hear a lot about modeling being immoral. And all modeling is is selling your body. Someone is paying you to dress up (or get naked) and take photos of you, photos that will be plastered all over magazines and billboards. You are selling your body for public display. Pure and simple. If selling your body for sex makes you an object, so does modeling… yet we don’t have these kinds of moral debates raging over modeling.

Here’s the kicker: We all sell our bodies and minds. All the time. That’s why we pursue education, get internships, receive specialized training- we’re constantly honing our skill sets. Dancers go to the gym and spend hours and hours a day practicing. This is how we get by in the world. This is how we land jobs- we parade our assets in front of employers. Our mental acuity. Our rigorously-trained voices. Our bodies that are fit for physical labor.

We are all selling ourselves. Every day. As Secret Diary put it, “Aren’t we all going through the motions for money? Aren’t we all whoring ourselves for The Man?”

Beyond that, we sell parts of our bodies all the time. We sell eggs and sperm. Women can be paid to serve as surrogate mothers, effectively renting out their uteri for nine months. It seems so silly to argue about an adult actively making the decision to sell their body. After all, doesn’t it belong to them?

So, our bodies are objects we’re constantly using for gain, whether it’s your brain or your brawn. But feminists will argue that prostitution furthers the objectification of women far more than any of these other jobs, making them no more than masturbatory aids (which is a view I loathe). But prostitution is a far lesser evil in that idea of “objectifying women” than Hollywood and modeling agencies are. These are the women we see every day, in our media, and these are the women who further the idea of women being mere objects. Poorly written female characters, summer blockbusters without female leads (a female sidekick doesn’t fucking count)… And, as far as “masturbatory aids” go, I’m sure the women on the pages of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue have never been masturbated to.

By villifying prostitution as objectification, we are actually making it objectification. There’s no reason it has to be so. If legalized and treated with the same dignity and class as any other job, it’s just that- another job. Will some find it unsavory and degrading? Sure. Some people also find sewage work unsavory. I, personally, find burger flipping degrading. That’s a personal thing. Some women find it empowering to use her body (her physical assets) to arouse and enchant men. Some of these women make money off it by stripping or becoming prostitutes. Others just wear mini skirts and stilettos at the bar. Just because you think a job like prostitution is unsavory doesn’t mean everyone does. Remember, you don’t have to go into the profession if you don’t want to.

Which segues nicely into the next point. While listening to the IQ Squared US debate, they went off at one point on the fact that no prostitute has a choice about becoming one.

There’s no nice way to put this, so… that’s utter horseshit.

Prostitutes are not forced into the job. They choose it. I have heard the argument that poverty forces many women into the life of a sex worker. And I think that’s a poorly-constructed argument. There are plenty of people out there who get by who are not prostitutes. They work minimum wage jobs at supermarkets and fast food restaurants. They wait tables. They clean hotel rooms. And if they can’t make enough money with one job, they work two. Or more.

Women choose prostitution because it is the most attractive of their options. And they do have options. They like the hours or (gasp) they like the work itself or they decide they’ll make more money this way (working a hell of a lot less than someone working two or three jobs). But, no matter what, they don’t have to become a prostitute. There are other jobs out there. To say they have no choice is a bold-faced lie.

As for the allegation that prostitutes don’t have a choice about who they have to sleep with (which, supposedly, also makes prostitution wrong)… well, this is both true and false. It’s false in that, if a client makes a sex worker uncomfortable in any way, she can refuse to service him. And, technically, she could always refuse to service men she didn’t find attractive enough or tall enough or whatever. However, this will have consequences. And here’s where the above allegation has some truth in it. Because if a prostitute becomes too picky (namely, if she only takes clients she’d sleep with outside of work), she will never make any money. Her manager would probably also boot her, because she wouldn’t be bringing in any revenue.

So, in that sense, yes, she has less of an option as to choice in clients. But imagine you were a restaurant owner. Technically, you could refuse service to anyone you wouldn’t cook dinner for outside of work (based on personality or racial lines or size of family or whatever). Eventually, though, you’d cease making a profit, because you would be turning away too many customers and you’d develop a reputation. So, you have to serve all sorts of people, whether you like them or not. Same is true of prostitution.

That’s customer service, honey. If you don’t like it, get out of the business.

Get out of the business. It’s a mantra I want you to keep repeating as we move onto the next bit- the physical and mental toll prostitution takes on a person. Prostitutes suffer from depression, stress, and anxiety. Most of these cases are among women forced into prostitution, but these problems can crop up in women who choose the job as well.

You know, there’s a simple solution for that: Get out of the business.

Look at the CEO that, after years and years of climbing the corporate ladder, after finally landing his dream job, at the height of his career… decides to quit and open a bakery or become an antiques dealer. He decides he’d rather do something quieter, something he enjoys more, than continue in his high-stress job (no matter how financially and socially successful he was). Not all people can handle the mental and physical strains of every job. Many people could never spend the long hours in the heat and sun that highway workers do on a daily basis. And that’s fine. But if you aren’t cut out for the job, get out. Same goes for prostitution. Some women can handle the job. Some can’t. The ones who can’t need to find a new job. Period.

And as far as things like STDs and battery go, in a well-regulated system of prostitution, this is not the issue it is among seedy, illegal brothels around the world.

***

An amusing (and truthful) thing that was brought up during the IQ Squared US debate was that paying for sex is about more than prostitution and is, in fact, much more common than most people believe. As Ron Liddle has said, “The relationship between the sexes is transactional and always has been.”

Don’t believe me?

What about men who go to the bar and buy a woman a drink? They are buying her the drink because they eventually hope to get into her pants. In fact, there is often no desire for a relationship there- just for a hook-up. As Irish playwright Brendan Behan once said, “The big difference between sex for money and sex for free is that sex for money usually costs a lot less.”

Those men are still paying for sex. Still bartering for a chance to get some action.

And what about folks in relationships? Men who buy their women gifts and engagement rings… what are they really doing there? They are offering goods in exchange for future sex. But not just sex- they also want things like emotional commitment. And isn’t it much more terrifying that we’re okay with using money and objects to buy affection and emotional bonds, but not to buy sex, the purely physical aspect of relationships?

Besides, come on, women have been using sex as a bartering chip forever. They withhold it when you’ve done something wrong, and they gift it to you when you do something right. Sex is already used as a form of currency, so it’s interesting that prostitution is seen as so far outside the realm of morality…

***

So, we’ve looked at a lot of the main arguments against prostitution, and I’ve given you my thoughts on the matter. But, as is often the case when this topic gets discussed, we’re getting off topic.

Because the question still remains: Is it morally wrong to pay for sex?

Currently, there is no consensus on whether it is immoral to buy or sell sex. What there is is a belief that prostitution is immoral. But believing something doesn’t make it true, now does it? After all, people once believed in a geocentric universe. And yet we now know that the Earth is not, in fact, the center of the universe at all. Belief does not make something true.

Legality also doesn’t equate to morality. It was once legal to own slaves, but that is an immoral action. So, we can’t rely on belief or legality to determine morality.

Well then, I guess it’s time for a crash course in moral theory.

First, let’s look at subjective (family-value, religious, cultural) moral theories. Subjective theories state that actions are right when you (family, religion, culture) approve of them. Here, morality becomes “a matter of power, where right reduces to might.” James Rachels touched on this, saying that “if attitudes about right and wrong differ or change, that is all there is to it, even when they concern your life, liberty, or happiness. If some person, family, or group has the power to impose their will upon you, these theories afford no grounds for you to object.”

Which sucks.

Beyond that, with subjective theories, because they are subjective by nature, all families/religions/cultures are of equal value and thus their morality is equally valid. Which leads to a whole slew of problems.

Which is why philosophers keep trying to establish a more objective framework of morality. This has led to two types of theories: consequentialist and non-consequentialist theories.

Consequentialist theories state that an action is right when it produces as much good (usually taken to be happiness) as any available alternative. Schools include Ethical Egoism, Limited Utilitarianism, and Classic Utilitarianism. All schools are a variation on that basic consequentialist statement. And yet… the problem of deciding for whom that happiness ought to be produced remains. Because consequentialist theories can be used to qualify manifestly immoral behavior (such the actions of Ted Bundy and the Third Reich) as “moral,” simply by shifting the person/group for whom that “good” or “happiness” is produced.

So… consequentialist theories are also extremely flawed. Great. Let’s look at non-consequentialist views, then.

Deontological Moral Theory is a school of the non-consequentialist variety. It states that actions are moral when they involve treating other persons with respect.

Wait…

That actually works. And makes sense.

Finally.

Deontological Moral Theory continues on to say that other persons should always be treated as intrinsically valuable (as ends) and never merely as instruments (as means). However, a person can be treated as a means so long as there is mutual respect. A good example of this is the employer/employee relationship. Employers do use their employees as a means to conduct business, while employees use their jobs as a means to earn a living. So long as there is a mutual respect, however, this situation is moral.

This makes so much sense it’s scary, right? Respect is moral. Respectful actions performed by two individuals who mutually respect one another are moral. This gives us a great way to define and categorize moral behaviors.

So, in regards to prostitution… according to Deontological Moral Theory (the only one that works), there’s no inherent reason why prostitution should not qualify as moral behavior, so long as sex workers and clients treat one another with respect. It can only become immoral when prostitutes do things like not provide agreed upon services, steal the client’s money, or subject them to venereal disease, or when clients do things like refuse to pay the prostitutes, abuse them, or subject them to disease. These are not respectful actions, thus making their behavior immoral.

So long as there is mutual respect (which can be achieved in well-regulated systems), prostitution is moral.

Therefore, the question of whether it’s morally wrong to pay for sex can be answered with: So long as there is mutual respect in the actions of those involved, it is moral to pay for sex.

***

Ben, this was all your fault. I hope you are happy.

One response to “I Weigh in on the Question, “Is It Morally Wrong To Pay For Sex?”

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