This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: “Should Prostitution Be Legal?” with guest Peter De Marneffe. Click here to listen to the episode.
When my wife and I got married, we signed a Ketubah, a Jewish wedding contract. It is a beautiful piece of art and we proudly display it framed in our living room. It has the same text in both English and Hebrew, and it is signed by two witnesses. The Ketubah is obviously very meaningful to us.
Yet, at the same time, it feels odd to me to describe a marriage in terms of a contract. A wedding is not a quid pro quo; we are not agreeing to exchange goods and services. Yes, of course, this was once the case; marriage is built on a long tradition of consolidating power and wealth. And even now, there are significant economic consequences to getting married. My wife and I hold joint property. There is a specific order of inheritance. We share debt. But these have become secondary reasons for getting married. The primary ones are that we love and are devoted to each other, that we are want to build a life together and create a family, we are committed to raising a child and adding to a community that is larger than us.
I say all this to distinguish a marriage from the purely economic social relationships that govern our lives: employer and employee, salesperson and customer, and even teacher and student, to name just a few. These are purely economic because mixing them with the affection, loyalties, and sexuality present in a healthy marriage complicates them immensely, and often makes them immoral and illegal. So we have come to say that certain human activities are simply not economic at all. Affection and sex are supposed to be independent of money. When they are not, and when we are circumspect about people’s economic motives, we discreetly refer to one of the spouses as a gold-digger or a trophy wife. But when we are explicit about economic motivations, we no longer talk about intimate relationships at all, we talk about pornography and prostitution. In recent years we have even coined the term “sex-worker,” as an attempt by many to remove the moral stigma of exchanging affection and sex for money.
Sex work is nothing new, but what qualifies as it is vague. The taxi-dancers of the first half of the twentieth century engaged in purely economic relationships, and so do their modern contemporaries, lap dancers. Both are ostensibly sex-free, but surely the close dancing of taxi-dancers, the rubbing of two bodies together while standing, was just as sexual for the soldiers who paid their ten cents as the less-subtle grinding is to those who slip a few bills in strippers’ g-stings. We have decided that sex necessarily involves skin to skin contact and orgasm, but, then again not always, since many couples fight about whether online flirts, webcams, or phone sex qualify as cheating.
On today’s episode, we are going to ask about the legality and morality or prostitution. We are going to look at the philosophical foundations of why some countries allow for legal sex work and some do not. We will discuss whether it is inherently moral to sell one’s body, whether the government ought to play the role of parent, and whether legal sex-work’s proximity to the indefensible practice of sex trafficking makes it inherently corrupt. We will ask whether dire poverty means someone’s consent to prostitute him or herself is illegitimate, and whether one’s individual rights means they should be entitled to engage in self-destructive professions.
But before we do this, we ought to be reflective about the lines we have already drawn. We ought to think again about what should be called sex, whether we can wall away any human activity from commercial exchange, and what American puritanism and general uncomfortableness about discussing sex means for any philosophically analysis of prostitution.
Many sex workers will claim that they talk to their customers much more than they have sex with them. They claim that sex work is more about being lonely than it is about needing sexual gratification. We even identify “emotional affairs,” to describe spouses who have not engaged in sexual activity with others, but whose actions affect the intimacy and emotional balance of a marriage. Sex has much more permeable boundaries than most people would like to admit. It need not be touching. It can be a word, a glance, or even a thought. Maybe this is what Jesus was getting at when he claimed that looking at a woman with a lustful eye is already committing adultery in one’s heart. But Jesus wasn’t a capitalist. So, how would the Sermon on the Mount change if that lustful eye were part of a contract? Is it no longer immoral if the heart’s adultery comes for a price?