Prostitution and Promiscuity

Kerry Howley, criticizing feminists who oppose legalizing prostitution:

… 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. And why not? Well, because every woman knows that she is her sexual purity rating. No sane woman would ever choose to mess that up.

In sum: If we are ever going to introduce a conceptual distinction between the moral character of individual women and the integrity of their hymens, it seems extremely important not to criminalize aberrant sexual behaviors.

Hmm. The suggestion that there exists no middle ground between the virgin/whore dynamic on the one hand and a wholesale acceptance of every single kind of sexual practice on the other strikes me as moderately fanciful. The notion that the "women need be preserved in glass so as not to 'ruin' themselves" tradition is in any way dominant in American life today strikes me as fantastic in the extreme. But then again, I'm speaking as someone who thinks that there might be a few reasons besides an irrational attachment to the patriarchy to think that a little “shaming” here and there isn’t the worst response to sexual promiscuity - male and female alike. So I'm not really the target audience for this kind of argument.

I do wish, though, that we heard this sort of line from sexual liberationists more often. A debate in which Kerry Howley's side is committed to the position that true sexual liberation requires removing any distinction between having sex for love or pleasure and having sex for money is a debate that social conservatives can win. I think.