What's The Big Deal About Sex?

Will Wilkinson, on the ethics of renting your body out for sex:

... absolutely every form of labor involves renting out your body. The language of “selling your body” is generally intended to elicit a “wisdom of repugnance² disgust response, but it just doesn¹t 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 people¹s 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 ... 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. Couldusing 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, Ross¹s claim is evidently ludicrous. Sweet charity cannot be transformed into self-inflicted violence by a twenty dollar bill.

Kerry Howley makes a similar point:

There are any number of activities that we classify, in different contexts, as both work and markers of intimacy. You can prepare a meal for your family in the morning as an act of love, and for customers in the afternoon as a source of income. You can take care of a sick spouse and expect nothing in return, and take care of sick strangers and demand a paycheck. Yes, yes, I know - sex is different. But I'm still waiting for a convincing explanation of how and why that doesn’t hinge on the stigmatization of sexually active women.

She’s right: Any distinction between renting out your body for sexual gratification and renting out your body to, say, hammer nails is only persuasive if you accept the contention that there is a significant distinction between sexual intercourse and other kinds of human activity. And she’s also right, I think, that any such distinction has implications for sexual morality in general, not just prostitution. If you think that sex, by virtue of being bound up not only culturally but biologically with emotional attachment on the one hand and reproduction on the other, is a unique kind of physical act, one that’s intimate by its very nature in a way that, say, preparing dinner isn’t, then it makes sense to assign a hierarchy of moral value (and moral stigma) to different kinds of sexual activity – most likely with monogamy at the top, serial monogamy somewhat lower, promiscuity lower still, and activities that treat sex as a commodity to be bought and sold somewhere near the bottom. I don’t think, however, that accepting this sort of hierarchy, and believing that some of the acts at the bottom deserves to be banned as well as stigmatized, requires you to shun any girl with multiple notches on her bedpost as a slut, any more than believing in a moral hierarchy that runs from true generosity to miserliness requires you to show the mildly stingy the same disdain you would bestow Ebenezer Scrooge or Mr. Potter. (Though I will admit that given the history of the sexual double standard, one can certainly see where feminists get the idea that any sexual standard at all is just a stalking horse for misogyny, and that they have to throw out moral distinctions entirely to get rid of the bathwater of patriarchy.)

I have a serious question, though, regarding the point of view that treats the handjob as just another form of manual labor, no different from laying bricks or mowing lawns. There’s been a lot of talk during this whole debate about the fact that many prostitutes were sexually abused as children, and from my point of view, of course, this correlation makes perfect sense: If you’re abused by others as a child, you’re more likely to seek out self-destructive behaviors as an adult. In the Wilkinson-Howley worldview, I presume, the correlation has more to do with our unjust war on sex than with anything inherent to the sex trade: If prostitution is outlawed and pushed to the margins of society, only marginal, damaged people end up becoming prostitutes. You’d have more well-adjusted call girls, presumably, if streetwalking were legalized.

Now this is fair enough so far as it goes, but it seems to beg an important question: 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?