First Principles

Kerry Howley has a brief, provocative piece inspired by Elliot Spitzer that basically makes the case for legalized prostitution from first principles:

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.

I find the pristine logic of these sentiments to be more than a little challenged by every account I've heard of prostitution-in-practice under a variety of legal regimes. Still, I do think it's a fairly powerful challenge. It's hard to think of many other widely engaged in activities where the activity itself (sex) is legal, but charging money for it is illegal. Certainly the principle "a woman may have sex with whomever she wants for any reason she wants, unless that reason is explicit financial compensation" doesn't seem to have a ton of logic behind it. But in many ways, this seems to me like a "so much the worse for logic" kind of situation, where I'd like to see us move toward liberalization but think we should do so pretty cautiously (gestures in the direction of Burke, tradition, etc.).