Saturday, November 19, 2005

Advancing the Discussion on Prostitution: Another Comment Promotion

M.J. Watson offered something particularly interesting to our conversation about prostitution. So here it is:

At the root of the view that prostitution is harmful to women, and men, is (the idea) that there is something intrinsically valuable about our sexuality that should not be commodified. To engage in prostitution is to treat oneself as a means rather than an end. Connie's view seems to rely only on the criterion of consent. Whatever one consents to is legitimate.

My view is that one can consent to an activity that nonetheless is demeaning and immoral. I don't know that there is a prior principle to appeal to that would prove either of us right or wrong, but let me give two illustrations of why sex is intrinsic to us in a special way, even at the risk of making this too long of a comment.

1. Imagine Fred says to Steve, "Hey Steve, Betty and I are playing tennis on Thursday night. But I can't make it, would you be willing to fill in?"

Now imagine Fred says, "Hey Steve, Betty and I are having sex on Thursday night, but something has come up and I can't make it. Would you be willing to fill in?"

We may laugh at this, but our laughter reveals that we know there is something not quite right about this scenario. Sex is not just another activity.

2. On a more serious note, consider why we think rape is wrong. Leon Kass has an amazing article about the rape of Dinah in Genesis. He notes that today rape is seen as wrong merely because it violates a women's consent and because of the physical harm. But on the older view rape is also considered wrong because it also violates her "womanliness", or, to really use antiquated language, her virtue (her specifically sexual virtue).

But on the consent-only view it's hard to understand what makes rape the specifically awful crime that it is. It is a violation unlike any other because of the special nature of our sexuality, and thus the act of rape is intrinsically different from a punch in the nose or another violent assault.

I grant these examples don't prove that the consent-only view is wrong. As I said, I'm not sure what would do that. But I hope they illustrate why we have good reason to think there is something intrinsically valuable about our sexuality and that it thus should not be treated like a widget to be commodified.

16 comments:

Amy & Jordan said...

I'm convinced that if prostitution should be made legal, it's not because of any libertarian ultimate and absolute "right to my body," but rather for prudential concerns such as Thomas outlines. It may well be that in some cases the legalization of prostitution functions as a sort of preservative order, a social safety net, preventing even worse evil and depravity from taking place...but I doubt I'd like to live in that place.

Kathy Hutchins said...

Alisdair MacIntyre was mentioned in the original thread where prostitution came up -- also, I think, germane to the wrongness of prostitution is the argument Roger Scruton advances in Sexual Desire, where he addresses the today very common claim that pornography is less bad than graphic depictions of violence, and might even in some cases be considered useful or at least benign. Scruton provides a moral framework that embraces sex as a great good, and that decries the demeaning of that good through voyerism or commodification as a far greater harm than the promiscuous depiction of violence, which has no similar inherent goodness at its root. It is like the difference between smashing a fencepost and smashing a harp -- if you look at the thing materially, after all, they're both made of wood.

His argument is both more subtle and more comprehensive than I have managed to express here, and at any rate Scruton deserves far more recognition so I highly recommend the book.

connie deady said...

Well, I do think that people have a right to do with their body what they want and see no point in legislating it.

We sell our body in all sorts of ways, aside from sex. One can even argue that sex is sold in ways other than direct cash payment.

I don't particular like the devaluation of sexual to anything goes, but I think it largely comes from our obsession with condemning sex outside of marriage and making it dirty.

There is a lot of perversion in terms of rape, pedophelia, child pornography that is sick, violent and just plain wrong.

I don't think that we culturally have a very good grasp on what our attitudes towards sex should be. I certainly don't think that wat one consents to is necessarily or moral or that it should be our standard. I don't think right now we have any kind of consensus on what our standard should be so we default to "consent" - at least I probably do, because I have a hard time condemning homosexuality. That doesn't mean I think promiscuity or adultery is okay if consensual either

Jay D. Homnick said...

M.J. makes a wonderful point - with a fabulous presentation.

The first mention of prostitution in the Bible is in the context of a place that takes pride in having eliminated that from their society.

When Judah's friend asks (Genesis 38:21) the townspeople what happened to the prostitute who was at the fork in the road, they respond, "There was no prostitute HERE."

connie deady said...

This may come as a shock I'm sure, but some of us could care less what the bible says as an authorative point of view regarding the place of women in society.

Get back to me when a more modern point of view towards women is expressed.

mjwatson said...

As Lewis would say, ideas do not grow moldy with time. The Pythagorean theorem is not less true for being old. If there is fault to be found with the Biblical disapproval of prostitution, it is not in mere chronology. Else whatever "modern" view that would move one will be out-of-date tomorrow.

(I mention Lewis not b/c authority is also dispositive, but for purposes of attribution. I should also mention in that vein that the tennis example in the original comment is from Hadley Arkes).

connie deady said...

Well, my concern for the view of women is not time, it is with the view itself. That's not to say that I defend prostitution, just that there are grounds to oppose it that are more equitable towards women.

J-Deal said...

Sometimes I think we can get to smart for our own good on subjects like these.

While I don’t really want the Feds to get involved in regulating prostitution, I also would never want to live in a city where it is legal. My simple reason is, places where it is legal, are pretty disgusting. Vegas and Amsterdam are fun for a couple days, but would you really want to live there?

I have no clue what it is about sex, I don’t know what makes it different from other types of massage. But it is different. I think in sex, there is a bond created that we will probably never be able to explain.

James Elliott said...

The Pythagorean theorem is not less true for being old.

Did you just conflate religion with mathematics? You might as well say that there's no difference between the objective and the subjective.

mjwatson said...

No. Religion has nothing to do with it. I said that the validity of an idea has nothing to do with its "age".

I was responding to Connie's view that she wanted a more "modern" answer, with modern usually meant to relay a connection with a time period(though I'm confused b/c now she doesn't seem to be interested in when the idea came about, but with the idea itself, so presumably the "modern" aspect of it is no longer important).

That said, I don't think morality is subjective. Relgious claims need not be either. But that's another subject entirely (and still subject to the MacIntyre princple mentioned previously).

Tom Van Dyke said...

An apt citation of Roger Scruton, Kathy. (I've seen him pop up here and there, and he seems quite a hard-headed yet soft-hearted [compassionate] thinker, my ideal.)

From the link you kindly provided:

[Scruton writes] "Sexual desire is not impeded by morality, but created by it," and in fact, "safeguards the integrity of our embodiment," that is, one of the central things that makes us human. Anything less than a personalist ethics of sex is contrary to the human dignity of its participants.

The entire review of Scruton's book, by one Kalynne Pudner, is worth a look before opinions get tossed to, fro, and past each other. Discussions should have form.


Sex may be a function of property rights, which at current market rates would make rape substantially less serious than Grand Theft Auto.

Or sex may be a component of human dignity, which we hold as priceless.

To buy the priceless in return for pennies must surely be immoral, even in a free market, and even with a willing seller.

Jay D. Homnick said...

Incidentally, according to the Talmudic tradition, King Ahab was a bit undersexed, so Queen Jezebel commissioned artists to paint erotic portraits on the inside of his royal carriage.

JC said...

I think I will respectfully address Connie's entire post....

Well, I do think that people have a right to do with their body what they want and see no point in legislating it.
We legislate all kinds of things that people do with their bodies. Drug laws may be controversial, but what about wearing your seatbelt? At least in my state, we "Buckle Up: It's the Law", and we don't have many "it's my body" rallies against seatbelt laws.

We sell our body in all sorts of ways, aside from sex. One can even argue that sex is sold in ways other than direct cash payment.
But selling sex for financial gain is a very direct, egregious, and therefore justiciable act.

[In the interest of saving space, I won't copy the rest, but consider this a response to the remainder of the post]
I don't think that we culturally have a very good grasp on what our attitudes towards sex should be.
Your post highlights the problem. Intuitively, you understand that some sexual acts are wrong and otheres are OK, but you have a hard time drawing the line. You even recognize that consent is not an acceptable line either morally or in terms of legislation (there are too many counterexamples that show it is too "liberal"), though you cling to it in absence of any other solution that would appeal to you.

[More generally, not necessarily responding to Connie's post]
The "whatever people do in a bedroom is their own thing" argument is widely used as an emotional appeal in moral and legal discussions, but few (if any) people really believe it---we can usually find some kind of private activity that is unacceptable to even those who use this argument. "We shouldn't legislate morality. The majority should not force their views on the minority." Why not? We legislate common sense, as I observed before. We're not forcing views, per se; you are welcome to believe that seatbelts are harmful and write blogs or editorials on the subject, but you still have to wear one or pay the fine. Even people that use this argument usually agree with some piece "morality" legislation. The majority can be wrong, but our entire system of government rests on the idea that the burden of proof rests on the minority.

I think the truth is that writing laws involving sexual morality is a difficult task. Sorry folks. No easy solution, and no dismissing the whole thing with vague privacy or church-and-state arguments. Most people believe prostitution is bad for society, and it is up to the minority to show how legalizing prostitution would help us. Maybe there are "prudential concerns such as Thomas outlines," but as Amy & Jordan said, we're not going to get there from some "libertarian ultimate and absolute 'right to my body.'"

connie deady said...

Thanks for your response JC. FWIW I don't approve of seatbelt laws (except for children) or drug laws. And as I've commented elsewhere I don't really believe in smoking bans.

I think you are exactly right in terms of knowing where to draw the line. My gut level tells me that any line drawn that is legislative is probably the wrong one. I tend to believe that such issues of morality belong more to faith and cultural shunning (though I obviously wouldn't go so far as to require women to wear a scarlet letter "A").

I guess I wonder how much of our "difficulty", for lack of a better word, with sex comes from biblical morality. The Catholic church proscribes sex outside of marriage, but also does not recognize divorce. As a social issue, it certainly made a lot of sex to keep women from having sex when there wasn't birth control or ability to check paternity.

Do our morals come from this sort societal convenience issue? Do they come from an innate sense of the preciousness and inviolate nature of our own bodies? Do they come from supercillious, puritanical males who wanted to make sure that their women were inviolate?

I'd certainly defer to the people on this board who are far more scholarly in the roots of these issues.

Depending upon the answers, we may well need a redefinition of the role of sex. I wouldn't necessarily condone anything that is done consensually, because I think a lot of what "turns people on" comes from a perversion of sex. But I don't know that I want to criminalize consensual acts. Somewhere in the back of my mind is the belief that the sex is treated as "bad" rather than wonderful and natural and special leads to a lot of misuse and perversion of sex.

IOW, I sure don't have any answers, but I welcome the discussion.

Hunter Baker said...

I've been thinking about this issue and something occurred to me. By striking down various sexual regulations, the court robs us of valuable middle ground. These laws have typically been unenforced, but having them on the books preserved the moral sense of the law. We could deny public approval, but permit the practice. That's being eaten away.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Exactly, HB, and what I thought you meant in your citation of Michael McConnell's thought on the "space" between society and the law.

When the law becomes the only reality, everything else ceases to exist, including wisdom and mercy.