Protect them from themselves--and everyone else

Kerry Howley has a really good post on the moralism inherent in the question of legalizing sex work, even from people who are trying to fight against that moralism:

Everyone seems to assume that legalizing sex work will reinforce all sorts of ugly cultural phenomena women struggle against all the time. Writes one commenter at Feministing, “I’m politically liberal, openly feminist, and opposed to sex work precisely” because of “patriarchy” and “heterosexuality issues.”

I find this incoherent precisely because I share all the poster’s intuitions about problematic cultural norms. Of course sexism restricts autonomy in all sorts of ways that deserve consideration when discussing the prevalence of prostitution or the choice to enter sex work. Of course it’s deplorable that sexually adventurous young women are constantly told they are “degrading themselves” by seeking out various experiences, that every bit of enjoyment eats away at some secret store of purity. This whole tradition–the idea that women need be preserved in glass so as not to “ruin” themselves, lest they diminish their sexual value by “giving it away”–restricts the lived autonomy of women in ways I can’t even begin to articulate. None of the slut-shaming makes sense unless you assume women live to give themselves to men in their purest possible form.

If you find all of these cultural pathologies unfortunate, what is the public policy you should prefer? It seems to me that it is not the policy that deems it a crime against the American people to open your legs. Anti-prostitution laws add a layer of legal sanction to all of our worst intuitions about the treatment of sexually independent women; they strengthen and validate the idea that women who bed men with any frequency are sick, marginal, pariahs. Even decriminalization, which treats Johns as outlaws and sex workers as victims, assumes that all sex workers are damaged, that no woman would ever love sex enough to make a career out of it.

Revulsion against sex work isn't unique to female prostitutes. We're also repulsed by men who sell themselves to women, even though there's a general cultural assumption that a healthy man wants to have sex with nearly every female he sees. Something about sex work violates a deep belief--whether cultural or hard wired I don't know--that sex should only be traded for affection.

But if the only prostitutes were men selling themselves to women, no one would want to make it illegal. Supporting yourself that way might bring social opprobrium, like becoming a Morris dancer or eating live chickens--can't you find something better to do? But we wouldn't criminalize it in the name of protecting them from violence, criminals, or the untold horrors of multiple anonymous sexual encounters. A bizarre "We must destroy the village in order to save it" mentality permeates the discussions about legalization on both left and right.

I am unmoved by arguments that legal prostitution in Amsterdam is plagued by associated criminal behavior. Some of that seems to stem from the fact that the Netherlands is a small country surrounded by other countries where prostitution is illegal. It is possible to keep the crime associated with "vice industries" to a minimum--compare Las Vegas to a crooked numbers game. We have also found ways to protect professionals who consult alone with potentially violent clients. Moreover, I am sort of a simpleton about these kinds of complex legal questions. As a general rule, I think that if you are worried about criminality, you should probably go after the criminals, rather than creating a brand new crime so that you can throw someone else in jail.