A typical response that I get when I tell people that I’m for the legalization of prostitution is the following question (which I suppose is intended to be rhetorical):
‘How would you like it if your daughter chose prostitution as a career?’
To which I reply,
‘I probably wouldn’t like it, but I probably wouldn’t like it if my daughter chose to work at a fast food restaurant either.’
The point being, I would want my child to choose a career that would be likely to make them feel happy and fulfilled. As a civil libertarian, I believe most career paths and life choices should be on the table for everyone, whatever my personal opinion of those different occupations may be. As a pragmatist, I can’t help but think the illegality of prostitution (and many other taboo things) only pushes them underground, where seedy environments and unethical people only serve to worsen matters. I believe that our country’s neurotic history with sex is unhealthy.
Much as certain puritanical attitudes have unnecessarily submerged other elements of our carnal nature beneath the deep waters of repression, they have really tried to bury our sexual nature in a place that only angler fish and dead mobsters will ever have a chance to see it. But as is the rule whenever we decide to ignore a part of our true selves, it will manifest itself later in a way that is often ugly and violent. Our darker aspects* become angry when they are ignored, and can manifest themselves in our lives, our communities, and our public policies, in strange and unsettling ways. If there was any one recognizable theme of our previous century, it was this: The truth will make us face it. What is hid in the dark will be brought to the light.
A section of Marie Stopes’s ‘Married Life’ can be used as anecdotal evidence for this unhealthy attitude. The portion of the book where she is discussing the way a married man might compare his wife to a woman whom he ‘bought love from’ previously is telling on a variety of levels. On the most superficial level, She quotes sources who refer to prostitutes as ‘automotons’, seeming to agree with the verdict, and later in the book seems to endorse the ending of the ‘social disease’ of prostitution, although she thinks the movement would be better served if it possessed a deeper understanding of some of the less obvious perks to hiring a prostitute (companionship, gaiety, sympathy, etc).
I don’t want to judge the goodness or badness of sex work. What I am judging (negatively) is our collective response to prostitution, and our handling of the issue. There is such deep and complex neurosis associated with the issue, that it’s hard to imagine that we all don’t internalize the stereotypes and clichés and negative public attitudes that relate to the field. I imagine that just as it is possible to hold an enlightened view of working in fast food, or in a bank, or as a dancer, or as a wrestler, it is also possible to hold an enlightened view of working in the sex business. Marie Stopes is write to note society’s attitude towards women & sex as unhealthy. For so long (and still today) many view a woman who has engaged in sex as somehow soiled, and woman-as-a-tool-for-man has also been standard operating procedure for too long.
Maybe our cultural attitude towards sex, and towards the role of woman isn’t in an ideal enough spot to give a full throated endorsement to the legalization of prostitution, but I would say that leaving the business in the shadows is worse. It reinforces notions of shame, ugliness, and woman-as-commodity, and leaves the defining of the practice to far less sophisticated minds. Those who philosophize in the shadows are more likely to form and advocate worldviews that will expand the darkness, rather than eradicate it.
So what can we do to prepare our society for the inevitable legalization of the sex trade? Well, conversation always helps. Transparency is a big plus. If we were to fully embrace the idea of the welfare state, we could move away from the sad fact quoted in the popular women's health book Our Bodies Ourselves that ‘…poverty is the major force that drives people, especially women of color and runaway teenagers, into prostitution.’
We are still a Capitalist Nation; even if we are so only in a mixed-model sense**. The deepening of our commitment to the welfare state, where leisure is respected, incomes are equalized, and a strong and well funded safety net is set firmly in place, will not eliminate prostitution, but it will go a-ways to eliminating the base kind of prostitution that is referred to in the OBO quote. A re-commitment to the Welfare state, and an emerging cultural understanding of both human sexuality and religion (both are evolving) will go ways to eliminating what is bad about the current state of the sex business, and (perhaps) ennoble what is good about it.
*Darker, because we keep them in shadows, not because they are ‘evil’ or ‘sinful’
** Show me a 'pure' system, and I will show you a stone slab trying to pass as a boat.
cross posted at The Daily Kos