Extremism in the Service of Vice Is No Virtue
Is our society so corrupt that we must remake the argument against prostitution? The seediness, peril, and potential for corruption ought to be clear enough, but they are ultimately reasons for taxation and regulation. Have we been so seduced by an anything-your-heart-desires notion of freedom that we must hesitate over a state-level ban?
Lovers of freedom will certainly find an attractive simplicity in George Carlin’s old reasoning that sex is legal, selling’s legal, so selling sex should be legal. A step beyond simplicity, however, it becomes apparent that one could just as reasonably suggest that sex is legal, being in public is legal, so having sex in public should be legal, and few of those who would tolerate prostitution (I hope) would accept the requirement that we allow pornographic street theater. No, just as being in public changes the nature of the sexual act, so too does its being for sale.
At the same time, the potential states of a particular thing or act affect its essential meaning. Either we allow it to be in the nature of sex to be salable, or we treat its sale as unnatural. Our choice between the two makes a difference in the import of our decisions about whether and when to give it voluntarily.
Such cultural reasoning isn’t generally carried out on an individual basis. The teenage girl contemplating her first sexual encounter won’t look to the legal and social treatment of prostitution to gauge the significance of that to which she’s being pressured. She might, however, give her submission a deeper level of thought — perhaps even lingering over her intentions and hopes for the future — if her choice is made within a culture that holds sex as too intimate to be commodified. Too sacred to be permitted the attenuating pull of market forces.
(Did I just say “sacred”? Well, yes. Part of our broader illness is our confusion about whether it is appropriate for our pluralistic society to treat certain things as sacred. It is entirely appropriate, as long as we don’t hand definitional authority to the priestly caste of a particular religion.)
In the course of her consideration, the young lady would find the purpose of sex to be an unavoidable factor. In largest part, sex affects her future via its essentially procreative nature, with the related impact on that biological and emotional tangle between partners. The thread runs deep:
Economists believe humans act rationally (a somewhat irrational belief, if you ask me), so some conclude that all this out-of-wedlock childbearing is a logical response to market forces, not the result of something as amorphous as “culture.” Since many working-class men do not offer the financial stability they used to provide, women see little incentive to marry them. As Obama said, “[M]any black men simply cannot afford to raise a family.” (The out-of-wedlock birthrate among black Americans is close to 70 percent.) I’m trying to follow the logic here. I can understand that a woman looking to get married may decide that a man is such a poor economic prospect that he’s not husband material (even if a husband with a low income is better than no husband and no income). But how then is that same man, or a string of them, worthy of fathering her children?
And if not worthy of fathering her children, how then worthy of a degree of intimacy once reserved for husbands? The evil of objectification rears its head in multiple corners: loose sex inherently presumes that the other person is merely for pleasure, which is what exempts him or her from being judged by the scale of a lifelong partner, and accepting your own sexual favor as something that can be doled lightly brings into view a price for allowing others to objectify you.
At this point, some minds will be entertaining clichés: that ship has sailed; the horse has left the barn. Sex is what it is, in our society, so why not err on the side of freedom? Let the men be honest about their desires and the women turn a profit. The tacit presumption, though, is that matter won’t end badly.
Ships can be turned around over time; horses can be found; and if the legality-by-omission of prostitution in Rhode Island isn’t sufficiently shocking to begin the return, then we’ll have to hope that a chance remains to do so when the shock comes via discovery of Rhode Island’s daughters’ means of putting themselves through college.