The Ethics of Paying for Sex, Revisited

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An ex-prostitute reviews a john's memoir for The New York Times

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The conservative critic Roger Kimball's opinion of assigning a former prostitute, the artist Annie Sprinkle, to review a graphic book by an avowed client of the profession is understandably acerbic (link courtesy of Instapundit):

She's at it again here in her review of  Paying for It, praising the author for his "honesty, integrity, and pride," not to mention his "relatively nonjudgmental" attitude. The book has, Sprinkle promises, a "transgressive surprise ending" that she coyly refrains from spoiling. This, she concludes, is "a welcome book to prostitutes every­where, especially those who have been raped, robbed or busted in places where laws and stigmas against the business make such experiences all the more traumatizing. It is also a valuable resource for academics."  Who would doubt it?

Whether or not you share Ms. Sprinkle's judgment -- I haven't read the book and can't say -- she makes a significant factual error that Mr. Kimball also overlooks:

There are millions of johns, but for one to come out voluntarily -- with honesty, integrity and pride -- is indeed rare. In my nearly 40 years in the world of sex workers, I've known only one: Fred Cherry. In the 1980s in New York, Cherry sued Mayor Ed Koch for the legal right to pay for sex with prostitutes (a case Cherry ultimately lost). To ascertain if any other such brave johns had slipped my mind, I surveyed a few of my older prostitute friends. "No, just Fred Cherry," they confirmed.

In fact, for years, the outstanding avowed client has been not Mr. Cherry, but Hugh Loebner, familiar to Atlantic readers as sponsor of the best-known Turing Test prize for artificial intelligence. As a campaigner for prostitutes' rights, he has been tireless and candid, as in this otherwise largely unflattering 2003 Salon article referenced on his Wikipedia entry:

I respected his being an "out and proud" john, that is, someone who pays for sex with prostitutes.

Where have Ms. Sprinkle's former colleagues been all these years? Mr. Loebner's home page proudly displays two awards by two sex workers' organizations, including COYOTE LA
-- that stands for Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics.

And speaking of old ethics, what should be reviewed on the verso of Paying for It in the Times Book Review but a new translation of one of the most ancient treatises on that very branch of philosophy, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. The reviewer, the distinguished Lincoln scholar Harry V. Jaffa, reflects:

The debunking both of Socratic skepticism ("the unexamined life is not worth living") and of biblical faith ("Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom") has led to the crisis of the West, a chaos of moral relativism and philosophic nihilism in which every lifestyle, no matter how corrupt or degenerate, can be said to be as good as any other.

Mr. Kimball couldn't have said it better himself.


Image Credit: Dan Riedlhuber / Reuters

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

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