How to Be Grotesquely Reductionist and Utilitarian about Human Love and Life

This post by one “Deep Thought” is a brilliant example:

This isn’t rocket science; men with easy access to prostitution or to promiscuous women have little incentive to marry. Suddenly there is nothing to offset their legal and financial obligations as a husband – so why take on the obligation? Women who are promiscuous face disease, pregnancy, and emotional trauma – all of them reduce their ability to be a valuable wife.

This probably helps explain what’s going on with prostitution bans, but is it supposed to be a moral reason to endorse them? Dramatic reconstruction:

Sweetheart… Since I have no easy access to women who sell sex, will you share my life so I can use you for sex? I mean, even if there were a few more easy women around here, I’d have no use for you. Definitely no reason to make a commitment to you. But there aren’t. Oh well. So… I love you? And Oh! Here’s a diamond.

Maybe this tells us something about the great romance of being the mother of Deep Thought’s four children, but for my part, I share my life with Kerry because she is brilliant and exciting and we mesh in so many ways and I love her. As far as I can tell, the existence of Craiglist’s Casual Encounters has no bearing on this, my greatest source of happiness.

It gets even more obsessively biological. This is, sensibly enough I suppose, written by a Catholic guy with a theology degree who attends Latin mass and thinks “the Patriarchy, when controlled by Judeo-Christian morality, is a protector of and advocate for women.” [!!!]:

the future belongs to those who show up. If you don’t have kids, you have no stake in the future. If you have kids, you not only have a stake in the future, you can influence it in ways almost impossible to duplicate without kids.


bans on prostitution exist not just to avoid the exploitation of sex workers; they are in place not just because the majority of world religions declare them immoral; they were passed not solely to fight the spread of disease; they were written with more than the goal of reducing the numbers of poor, fatherless children. No, they are there to protect the future.

Again, I can see the explanatory power here. But to think that this has justificatory power is simply grotesque. This is to reduce individual human beings to tokens of a biological type, to reduce the purpose of an individual human life to a link in a biological chain there is no moral value in forging. Yes, the future belongs to those who show up. But the present belongs to each individual human being. We have lives because a lineage has been perpetuated. But our lives are not for perpetuating lineages. Our lives are for our living. Our duty is to treat one another as free and equal persons, as ends in themselves, which means we are duty-bound not to use people and their lives for purposes not their own. We treat people with the respect they deserve. Whoever shows up, shows up. If you’re interested in that, then breed away. But do leave the rest of us alone.

How Sex Is (and Isn't) Different, Part II

Everything is what it is. Sex work is different from carpentry and it is different from surgery. It is like carpentry and surgery in that it is a way of renting one’s body. It is like surgery in requiring some hardening and compartmentalization. It is not like surgery in that it involves a different set of skills and different emotional preparation. A distinctive thing about sex is that it involves taking pleasure in ourselves and others as physical things, as objects. Very often we enjoy being objectified. We like to feel sexy, to arouse others, to be wanted qua object. But the danger of objectification is de-subjectification: losing track of the fact that the other person is not only an object, to be used as a means to one’s sexual ends, but is a person — an end in themselves. Sex workers, like models, are paid to be de-subjectified to some degree, to be used as means, and this can come as a blow to dignity unless one has braced oneself against it.

I find it a bit insulting to feel pushed to have to say that children are not prepared to brace themselves in this way. Or to feel pushed to say that parents have deep, special obligations to attend to and protect their childrens’ subjectivity, to cultivate and protect their personhood as it develops, to cultivate and protect their burgeoning sense of dignity. For a parent, of all people, to de-subjectify a child, and to use him or her as an object — as a means for sexual gratification — is a special kind of betrayal and violence. I’m sure we can all agree to that. And from here on out, I’m sure we can all agree that we are not talking about children, but the activities of consenting adults. We are talking about whether paternalistic prohibition of these activities may be justified.

A large part of my point is that adults are not children. Laws that insist on treating women (in particular) as children do not benefit them. Again, it is important to point out the circularity in this perennial form of conservative reasoning. We cannot infantilize a class of people by denying them their full autonomy and then turn around and appeal to the fact that we have done so as justification for paternalism. (Read mid-19th century debates against the abolition of slavery to see the most egregious examples of this form.) We’ve come a long way (baby!) from when women were treated by the law like large children for almost all purposes, but we still have some way to go.

There is nothing unique about work that requires those who do it to cultivate distinctive emotional strategies that make it possible to do things that might otherwise be off-putting while leading a completely healthy, normal, happy life. Some people find cultivating certain attitudes easy, and others don’t, which is why not everybody is cut out for every kind of work. Personally, I think I would probably find it easier psychologically to sell sexual services (in a world in which this was legal and not despised) than to sell cars, since I find the kind of subtle manipulation one must practice in order to be a successful salesman completely intolerable, but I don’t particularly mind being treated as a piece of meat. I’m sure there are a lot of sex workers who aren’t particularly well cut out for it, and who find it really taxing, but who do it anyway because they don’t have better options. I feel terrible for those people, but I certainly don’t think we would be hurting them by making their profession legal and less despised.

How Sex Is Different, Part I

I’ve got time to kill while waiting in LAX, so I might as well try to clarify my position on prostitution by saying how I think sex is different from other kinds of human activity. Obviously, sex is central to reproduction, and reproduction is central to natural selection, and natural selection is central to why we have the kind of minds and the kinds of sentiments we have. In particular, it looks like sex has an important attachment function for humans, helping to cement pair-bond relationships. Partly because of this function, sex turns out to be a lot of fun for humans, and we do it recreationally in a way that most primates don’t.

People fixated on discreditably vulgar versions of evolutionary psychology (in addition to making the naturalistic fallacy as if making the naturalistic fallacy is a path to riches) tend to miss the cultural variety in sexual norms within the uniformity of evolutionary logic. You don’t need Margaret Mead blank slate-ism to show that there is a fair amount of play in human sexual norms and sexual psychology. Even incest taboos are more variable than most are inclined to think. That said, it is true that there are regularities in male and female sexual psychology. Men will generally tend to be more indiscriminate in partner choice and women will tend be more concerned with screening. And it is also true that lack of paternity confidence will tend to make men extremely jealous and disposed to coordinate to control the sexual behavior of women. Concerted slut-shaming is a classic male strategy to raise the cost of female extra-pair coupling. Shaming norms and even articulate ideologies that reinforce the shared belief that women’s sexual liberty is hugely dangerous to the social order, and to women themselves, are very common and I think are largely explained by a mix of paternity confidence issues and male dominance of social and cultural institutions, which may also have a partly biological explanation.

To reify or essentialize this pattern, and to unthinkingly endorse it, is to compound mistake upon mistake. These kinds of patriarchal sexual mores have relaxed immensely in the West in the last half century and the result is that people–especially women–are doing much better, not worse, in the places where sexual liberalization has occurred. The specialness of sexual psychology mostly helps us to understand the panic about and strenuous resistance to liberalizing norms of female sexual autonomy. And the history of moral panic contrasted with the good results of actual recent sexual liberalization  gives us reason to be especially skeptical about the special damage that will come of deregulating women’s sexual behavior.

I want to say something more about what’s special about sexual experience itself, but I have to catch a plane.  

Selling Sex Is OK and Child Abuse Isn't

I wanted to reply to Ross’s post on the so-called Wilkinson-Howley worldview, but I had to go to L.A. for a little political theory conference at UCLA, where I am now. Let’s see if I can clarify a few things. Ross writes:

Given the premises of the pro-prostitution worldview, what’s so abusive and damaging about incest and molestation in the first place? If there’s no moral distinction between giving a handjob in exchange for twenty dollars and getting paid twenty bucks to wash dishes or mow lawns, then why is there a moral distinction between a father who teaches his daughter how to pound nails and one who teaches his daughter to do something more intimate and (to go all wisdom-of-repugnance on you) disgusting? I understand that the kids involved aren’t “consenting adults,” but if selling sex is just like selling labor, and adults force kids to perform all kinds of menial tasks as part of their education, why can’t adults force kids to have intercourse too – especially if they’re safe about it? If selling sex is no big deal because sex itself is no big deal, what’s the big deal about incest?

I found this comment … vexing, to say the least. I think Andrew’s reply to Ross’s previous post suggests the obvious response Simply reformulate Ross’s question to see how immensely tendentious and confused it is:

If there’s no moral distinction between one man giving a handjob to another man and a woman giving a handjob to a man, then why is there a moral distinction between a man giving a handjob to small boy?

I think we can all grasp that it possible to reject some moral distinctions and accept others. In this case, it would seem that Ross understands the answer perfectly well. Children are not consenting adults. So there you have it.

Since he had the answer, I do wonder why he asked the question. Ross’s subsequent chain of reasoning is a disaster that does very little to help him out. I think it is fair to reconstruct the argument like this.

(1) Selling sex is a form of work. (By stipulation)
(2) It is permissible for parents to make their children labor as part of their education. (By convention)

Therefore, (3) It is permissible for parents to make their children do sex work as part of there education. (By fallacious inference)

But (4) Obviously (3) is repulsively absurd.

So, (5) What?… Selling sex is not a form of work? (Reductio!)

Forgive me if I do not understand this argument. In order to derive (3), Ross would need (2) to say that parents may make their kids do any kind of work as part of their education, which is obviously false. We all know that there are many things it is not OK for kids to do, or for adults to do to kids, that it is OK for adults to do, and to do to each other. Sex is one of those things. This needn’t be difficult. And, since no one was previously talking about children, again I have to wonder why Ross brought it up. I mean, I don’t think he’d stoop so low as to insinuate that people who think adults are capable of making rational decisions about their own welfare, and should not be subject to paternalistic interference, cannot see what’s wrong with fucking their own children. So what was that about?

Sex work is work. It is not always pleasant work. It is very emotionally complicated and requires some degree of emotional compartmentalization and the selective hardening of certain natural human sentimental dispositions. Surgeons, hospice workers, police officers, lots of people, must learn how to cabin off certain sentiments and to develop a bit of a callous in order to do their jobs. This takes some degree of emotional maturity, which is one reason why we encourage kids to sell lemonade, but not to perform surgery on people gushing blood from a gunshot wound, or practice their sexual technique with Uncle Ralph.

Justifying the Prohibition of Markets in Sexual Services

I liked Ross Douthat’s first post on prostitution. He identifies the real question at issue, which is the truth or falsity of this claim:

[R]enting out your body to satisfy another person’s sexual needs is a form of self-inflicted violence serious enough to merit legal sanction …

The whole case for banning trade in sexual services stands or falls on the defense of this claim and the assumption behind it. Even granting the assumption that paternalistic efforts to protect adults from the consequences of their own choices are justified, which I certainly don’t, the claim that prostitution is, by its nature, a kind of self-harm is pretty clearly false.

Again, it bears emphasizing that absolutely every form of labor involves renting out your body. The language of “selling your body” is generally intended to elicit a “wisdom of repugnance” disgust response, but it just doesn’t when you consider that folks like Ross and me get paid for things we do with our bodies — thinking, typing. Surgeons rent out their brains, and steady hands, to meet people’s health needs. Construction workers rent out their arms, legs, backs, brains. Etc. I sell my body for a living. So do you.

I think the real claim is not about bodies, but about vaginas and penises in particular. These should not be rentable. (Do note, however, that it is legal to rent a uterus and vagina for the purposes of surrogate gestation and childbirth, but no one really enjoys that and a lot of conservatives don’t like it anyway. And there is always porn, which is nothing without genital rental.) But bracket your intuitions about the commercial use of genitalia for a moment and consider that a good volume of trade in sexual services involves renting an expert hand. Could using your hand to give another person an orgasm possibly be a form of self-inflicted violence? Delivering manual relief is a great kindness, a sweet thing to do … unless you do it for money! At this level, Ross’s claim is evidently ludicrous. Sweet charity cannot be transformed into self-inflicted violence by a twenty dollar bill.

Does Ross think that loaning out your body, for free, to satisfy another person’s sexual needs is a form of self-inflicted violence? Should all sex outside of marriage, or outside a serious relationship, be subject to legal sanctions? If not, then using your body to satisfy another person sexually is not the problem. It is renting it. Again, bringing sex inside the cash nexus is thought to work some kind of profound psychological alchemy, which is plain nonsense.

There is a huge amount of question-begging going on in this debate. The degree to which sex work may be reasonably seen as self-inflicted violence is mainly due to the immense legal and social stigma attached to it. An honest inquirer cannot take the humiliation and loss of esteem connected to the status quo legal and social sanctions as evidence of the necessity of those sanctions. That is the purest logical shenanigans.

Moreover, the effects of this paternalism, enacted specifically to protect women from making the “wrong” choices about how they will use their bodies, inevitably bleed into broader cultural attitudes toward women and women’s sexuality. I can’t possible do better than Kerry when she says:

Just as the drug war contributes to the broadly held assumption that young black men are inherently violent and must be restrained, the criminalization of sex work reinforces the idea that sexually active women are damaged and deranged. In both cases, the activities themselves are surrounded by all manner of tragedy, abuse, and violence. In neither case is the liberal humanitarian policy response: Ban it harder, further reinforcing our worst assumptions about entire classes of people.

Get Your Laws Off My Body!