“How could it be illegal to sell something that it’s perfectly legal to give away?”
– George Carlin
The recent extra-curricular exploits of American Secret Service agents in Columbia have once again brought the World’s Oldest Profession into the news. And once again, both opponents and proponents of legalized prostitution are making their respective cases in a variety of public fora.
The “con” arguments on legalized prostitution are many, but essentially break down into two types. 1) Moral: Selling the body for sex is an inherently debased and debasing activity that governments should restrict in order to protect the character of society, and 2) Practical: Prostitution breeds a variety of pathologies — disease, violence, etc. — that it is the duty of the state to guard against.
Unfortunately, as with laws against narcotics, prostitution prohibition laws often have the opposite effect than intended. In practice, anti-hooking laws end up hurting the very people they are designed to protect, while compromising the moral integrity of the government by entangling it in a hopeless morass of inconsistent logic, ensuring inconsistent enforcement and therefore unjust governance.
Let us start with a simple fact. A lamentable one, perhaps, but a fact nonetheless: There is always a market for sex. And by market I mean a literal, economic market. In fact, it is the one market you can be sure will always exist — prostitution in one form or another is found in virtually all known human societies, past and present. This has to do, ultimately, with the nature of the male sex drive, which has been underwritten by millions of years of evolution and cannot be legislated out of existence, and the relative reticence with which human females choose their mating partners.
In other words, the demand for free sex far exceeds the available supply. And the solution has been identical to every other similar conundrum in human history — an exchange of goods or services for payment of some kind. Some women early on decided that they valued money more than their chastity, and there have always been men willing to help them make that bargain.
When viewed in this light, as a pure economic transaction between consenting adults, it seems like a no-brainer. But of course, many people feel that the selling of the body for someone else’s pleasure is different somehow than other economic transactions. To quote (once again) the Sage of Dagobah: “No! No different! Only different in your mind.”
In fact, people sell their bodies for the pleasure of others all the time. Consider: A man can brutalize other men, and be brutalized in return, in a football stadium or boxing ring, sacrificing his bodily health and well-being while millions of people watch and cheer. Some of these men make vast fortunes selling their bodies in this manner, and become role models and media darlings in the process.
But if a woman takes money in exchange for an orgasm, she is a criminal. Where is the logic in that? It is the same logic which allows for movies and television to portray the most horrific violence to children on a regular basis, while the tamest of nude or sexual scenes earns a show a dreaded ”restricted” rating. Dozens of men can slam each other into the ground repeatedly on Super Bowl Sunday while millions salivate and wager on the outcome, but if Janet Jackson’s nipple makes an appearance, gasp! there’s hell to pay.
Our society loves violence. Glorifies in it. And since violence is considered a male domain, men can reap vast rewards by trading in brutality. But sensuality is verboten, and since females are still considered the bearers of such lasciviousness, they must be stopped from poisoning society with their temptations. It would be funny if it wasn’t so terribly twisted.
And women ultimately and ironically pay for this vestigial Victorianism. Anti-prostitution laws close off a viable route to economic advancement to women. It forces women who choose that life anyway (after all, laws can outlaw the practice but they cannot outlaw the demand) underground, under the control of criminals and thugs, therefore increasing the likelihood they will be brutalized: a prostitute who is raped or beaten by her pimp will not go to the police for fear that she will face sanctions.
All true, you may say, but prostitution spreads disease, and is therefore an existential threat to society. It is true that some diseases are transmitted via sexual activity. But if that were truly the rationale for outlawing sex work, then we would be outlawing promiscuity of any kind, not just prostitution. Yet no one (outside the Taliban perhaps) is clamoring for multiple sex partners to be a crime, even if no money changes hands.
Which brings us to George Carlin who, as was often the case, got to the heart of the matter more succinctly and with more elegance than a thousand policy wonks or public officials. “How could it be illegal to sell something that it’s perfectly legal to give away?” Carlin asked in one of his outstanding stand-up specials.
Read part 1 of “Land of the Free?” here.