The concept of prostitution is one that causes a visceral revulsion in conventional Western morality – a symptom of which is how the many colloquial terms for a prostitute, such as ‘whore’, or ‘harlot’, are commonly used as denigratory pejoratives towards women. Although a persistent phenomenon throughout human history , it remains difficult to view prostitution in an objective light – various cultures have alternately tried to ban it on religious or moralistic grounds, or stigmatise it under a “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” sort of veneer which was a barely-tolerated but necessary evil of society. It is interesting to note that despite an increasingly secularised attitude towards sexual relationships, as seen in society’s increasing tolerance of homosexuality or pre-marital sex, prostitution retains much of its social stigma. Faced with the strong reactions which the concept of prostitution tends to elicit in common moral viewpoints, any discussion of the topic must be prepared to look beneath these reflexive attitudes, examine the motivations and justifications for such attitudes, and, hopefully, come to a more informed judgment on the morality of prostitution, or lack thereof that is not founded in mere blind adherence to dogmatic social norms.
For the purposes of this essay, I have defined prostitution in the strictest sense of the word, that is, the sale of sexual intercourse for the purposes of pleasure(this obviously omits surrogate mothers). While potentially ambiguous examples of the above exist both in reality(for instance, sexual surrogates as a form of impotence therapy) and possibility(such as what Adeney and Weckert term “symmetrical virtual sex” ), to simplify discussion I will confine this essay to a discussion of the morality of prostitution as it is understood – old-fashioned, physical sexual intercourse sold purely for pleasure. I will also omit discussions into the morality of third-party soliciting, such as pimps or madams, for brevity’s sake.
Moral vs. Legal justification.
When considering the issue of prostitution’s morality, I would like to begin with a distinction between morality and legality. There are many instances in which the two concepts have existed independently of the other – and whether the law should apply itself to moral issues is a subject beyond the scope of this essay. However, with regards to prostitution, it may very well turn out that prostitution could be immoral and yet legally tolerated, if not sanctioned. The contemporary liberal view, in the Millian tradition, is that such acts are essentially private contracts between consenting adults which is beyond the purview of legal enforcement because they(according to some) do no harm to other parties.
However, the issue at stake here is not so much whether the law should come down in favour or against prostitution, but whether prostitution itself is inherently morally objectionable. In a that vein, I will also therefore avoid arguments about the enforceability of any proscription against prostitution – whether prostitution can be stamped out or not is irrelevant to whether it is morally objectionable or not.
There is also, of course, the age-old ethical question raised about definitions of morality, and by what moral benchmark one uses to judge an issue such as prostitution. To this end, I would like to approach the issue from several disparate perspectives: traditional Christian morality, the utilitarian perspective, the radical feminist perspective, and the secularly romantic perspective
Traditional Christian morality
Primoratz sums up the traditional Christian argument succinctly:
“[it] views sex as something inferior, sinful and shameful, and accepts it only when, and in so far as, it serves an important extrinsic purpose which cannot be attained by any other means: procreation. Moreover the only proper framework is permissible only within marriage. These two statements make up the core of the traditional Christian understanding of sex…”
Now, Primoratz goes on to argue that while prostitution which is “both non-marital and disconnected from procreation” would appear to go against such a moral ethos on the surface, he also further notes that many eminent Catholic theologians such as Aquinas and Augustine are willing to go beyond this scriptural concession to fallen human nature, which permits the satiety of physical lust within the confines of the institution of marriage. They are willing to tolerate prostitution particularly if it serves a purpose as an outlet for rampant male sexuality, which, if overly repressed, might actually harm the institution of marriage.
While I may agree with Primoratz’s argument on utilitarian grounds, with regards to the Christian ethos, it would be seem a surrender of morality to argue that the institution of marriage can only be maintained under such a context. Christianity is not a utilitarian ethical framework. The whole idea of the sanctity of marriage is that it is the sole acceptable outlet of male lust in addition to serving as an instrument of procreation – and a necessary institution that exists as a moral alternative to rampant adultery. Good Christians are supposed to master their passions within the concession of marriage allowed them – not use the necessity for a stable marriage to justify further extra-marital sex. Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, defines certain acts(citing the Second Vatican Council’s list of examples, prostitution among them) as “intrinsically evil” which can never be “subjectively good or defensible as a choice”, even if the intention behind it serves to “diminish their evil”. Despite not being necessarily logically true, it is a good indication of how most people who adhere to common perceptions of Christianity would view prostitution – and hence in that context the common Christian would find prostitution morally objectionable – it clearly goes beyond the sexual boundaries permissible only within a heterosexual, married couple.
This perception, of course, is valid only for people who would adhere to the most commonly accepted Christian moral viewpoint; indeed, some revisionist theologians have made arguments that prostitution is not explicitly forbidden in Scripture(alluding often to Jesus’ tolerance of such women as well as numerous references to concubinage and harlots in neutral terms within Old Testament verses).
The utilitarian perspective
This is the perspective that, perhaps, commands the most debate when contemplating the issue of prostitution. Most people in these secular times would prefer to argue that prostitution is not so much morally objectionable because of any commandment from on high proscribing sex for sale, but because it has a variety of adverse effects, both on society as a whole and on the women who ply that trade.
Firstly, it is obvious that two of the most obvious reasons for the stigma against prostitution(and rampant fornication, for that matter), ie, unwanted childbirths and venereal diseases are now largely controllable by science. True, we still do not have a cure for AIDS, but we have scientific recourse to minimise the risk of contracting it. Indeed, many writers have noted that if unwanted childbirths or venereal diseases occur, they are largely because the stigma surrounding the act that drives it underground exposes prostitutes to a variety of dangers that would not otherwise exist, such as ill-treatment at the hand of organized crime syndicates filling in the niche market or a lack of access to medical aid both due to fear of prosecution and fear of social stigma. Some of these proponents argue that the common perception of prostitution causes the poor conditions which opponents rail against as a reason to ban it.
Furthermore, some liberal-minded people would go so far as to argue that even if these adverse conditions did exist, it is clear that these hazards are voluntarily undertaken by the woman who chooses to be a prostitute – and that we have no right to morally judge them, in the same way how we would not morally object to trapeze artists or firefighters for knowingly taking on such hazardous occupational risks. However, this argument is valid only if you believe anyone who takes up prostitution does so voluntarily with full awareness of the consequences of his/her decision(it goes to say, of course, that children and the mentally incompetent are necessarily excluded from this profession). Jaggar notes that “the sorts of economic considerations that impel some persons into prostitution do indeed constitute a sort of coercion”, and cites the Marxist approach towards prostitution, which views all acts that are based on capital, property ownership and their attendant economic transactions as a form of coercion akin to prostitution in its own right. This argument, however, glosses over the fact that many occupations are filled by people out of economic compulsion, not out of desire. Not everyone wants to be a garbage collector or a janitor, but they might have to fill it in simply because there exist no alternative means of occupation. That does not make the act of garbage collecting morally objectionable – it is merely a statement of economic circumstance.
Radical feminst approach to prostitution
A wider argument, often used by radical feminists, is that prostitution is symptomatic of a social perception of females as sexual objects to be used by males in exchange for economic largesse, in addition to reinforcing such attitudes. For the radical feminist, the dynamics of contemporary male-female social relationships, such as courtship and even marriage, are represented by the archetype of prostitution – which is seen as the ultimate embodiment of male domination over female through economic coercion. They argue that the abolition of prostitution is tied to attaining the full equality of women – that prostitution’s existence serves partly as a goad to convince women that they are better off in a traditional relationship(which the feminist views as subservient), as well as being symbolic of the current power relationship between males and females.
This view is hardly conclusive, however – while it is obvious that economic disparity exists between the male and female gender, might it not be equally possible to view prostitution as a possible means of self-liberation for the female from economic dependency - after all, a prostitute will be, for the most part, financially self-supporting. Prostitution could serve as a means of economic liberation for an independent woman rather than economic enslavement as a housewife in a marriage. To say that a prostitute is economically enslaved simply because she provides sex for money would mean that everyone is in some sense economically enslaved as long as they perform a some service for pay. Of course, the argument then boils down to one’s perception of the intrinsic value of sex; is it a value-neutral service that can be commodified, as the liberals would have it, or is it something inextricably bound up with issues of self-identity, and hence sacrosanct to the point where to offer it for money under any context, however indirect, is morally objectionable?
The final perspective I wish to take with regards to prostitution is the one that says that sex is a something that should not be performed unless as an expression of romantic love. A proponent of this view would is that prostitution is immoral because
it is the ultimate expression of such sex without love.
Such people therefore take the notion that a woman who voluntarily becomes a prostitute is degraded in some way. They feel that this degradation relates to the notion of a prostitute being seen as an object, rather than as a person, and seen as a means towards a sexual end, and bought and paid for to that end. Sex, they feel, should not be bought under any circumstances, mainly because it cannot be divorced from the requisite accompanying level of emotional intimacy.
People who take this tack are, however, often at a loss to explain why this should be so. Culturally, the idea that love should accompany sex is a prevalent one – although it would be hard to quantify, many people insist that sex accompanied by love is superior to mere sex without love. However, to my mind, that remains a subjective moral judgment; whose validity exists, as Primorantz notes, “only as a personal ideal, not a universally binding moral standard ”. Primorantz goes so far as to state that sex without love may actually be positively good - even if it is not to the extent of sex with love – and hence the sexless love implied by prostitution is not morally objectionable. Examples in defense of sex without love can be conceived of quite easily: Primorantz cites the example of the nurse taking care of a disabled patient’s sexual needs.
A final note on this from an observation of a popular US televion series in which the protagonist, a misanthropic, ugly man, is caught with a prostitute. When defending himself in a court of law, he argues that he found it more “inherently honest” to pay for a transaction without any strings attached compared to going through the hypocrisy of picking up a woman in a bar or courting a woman under false pretenses. While it could be said that all three acts are equally morally objectionable, it seems to me that, in some sense, an honestly open transaction exchanging sex for money may be more moral because it is stripped of the illusions that often surround contemporary male-female relationships such as courtship or even marriage.
I have provided, by no means, an exhaustive view of the moral arguments surrounding prostitution. What seems clear to me is that contemplation of prostitution, whether one condones it or not, often requires one to adopt a fundamental moral stance; not just in one but a number of moral arenas. Clearly, we can see that the difficulties when contemplating prostitution rest not merely with prostitution as a self-contained moral act, but the diverging opinions one holds on such issues as freedom of will, sexuality, self-identity, gender, and society – all of which are in some way on trial when considering prostitution. I think the last word should rest with Jaggar , when she notes that
“the divergence in the competing definitions of prostitution does not result from failing to consult the dictionary or from paying insufficient attention to ordinary usage. It results from normative disagreements on what constitutes freedom, on the moral status of certain activities, and, ultimately, on a certain view of what it means to be human.”
· Adeney, D. and Weckert, J. “Virtual Sex”, from “Res Publica”, Vol. 4. no. 2, 1995
· Graham, G., “Contemporary Social Philosophy”, Blackwell, 1988
· Jaggar, Alison M., “Prostitution”, from A. Sable(ed.), “The Philosophy of Sex”, Littlefield Adams & Co., 1980
· Mill, J.S., “On Liberty”
· Pope John Paul II, “Veritatis Splendor” (Australian ed.), St Pauls, 1993
· Primoratz, I., “Ethics and Sex”, Routledge, 1999
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