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April 22, 2008

against legalizing prostitution

The Eliot Spitzer fiasco generated some blog posts (which I neglected to bookmark) arguing that prostitution should be legal. The bloggers I read acknowledged that Governor Spitzer should be liable for breaking the law, but they argued that the law was wrong. Their premise was libertarian: private voluntary behavior should not be banned by the state. One can rebut that position without rejecting its libertarian premise, by noting that many or most prostitutes are actually coerced. In the real world, incest, rape, violence, and human trafficking seem to be inextricably linked to prostitution. But that fact will only convince libertarians if the link really is "inextricable." If some prostitution is voluntary, then it should be legal, according to libertarian reasoning.

Which I reject. Libertarians are right to prize human freedom and to protect a private realm against the state; but issues like prostitution show the limits of libertarian reasoning. We are deeply affected by the prevailing and official answers to these questions: What is appropriate sexual behavior? What can (and cannot) be bought and sold? Our own private, voluntary behavior takes on very different meanings and significance depending on how these questions are answered. Answers vary dramatically among cultures and over time. Deciding how to answer them is a core purpose of democracy.

This position can make liberals uncomfortable because of its implications for other issues, such as gay marriage. One of the leading arguments in favor is that adults should be allowed to do what they like, and the fact that two men or two women decide to marry doesn't affect heterosexuals. Actually, I think gay marriage does affect heterosexual marriage by subtly altering its social definition and purpose. I happen to think that the change is positive. It underlines the principle that marriage is a voluntary, permanent commitment (which is clearly appropriate for gays as well as for straight people). Other moral principles also favor gay marriage, including equal respect and, indeed, personal freedom. But for me, personal freedom does not trump all other considerations.

By the way, because prostitution seems to be so closely linked to incest, rape, and violent coercion, I think the best policy would be very strict penalties against soliciting. It is buying, rather than selling, sex that seems most morally odious.

April 22, 2008 12:41 PM | category: philosophy | Comments


By email from Literal Mayhem

Great post on prostitution... especially the last bit about "buying nor selling" is the odious part. A really interesting twist on commercial culture.... because (culturally speaking) we don't really think of buying as a coercive experience. We perceive it as voluntary or even coerced from us... through advertising and marketing. We do think of "the power of the purse" but usually as a means of redressing the excesses of a seller.

But you are right. Money is a form of coercion when it comes to intimacy. Holding out a $20 to someone with no money and saying "I'll give it to you if...." is a pretty powerful way of getting people to override any internal resistance they may have. And while the seller of intimacy may claim to be empowered, she, or he, really has none.

April 24, 2008 8:57 PM | Comments (1) | posted by Peter Levine

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