Dean Esmay* has an interesting essay on this topic, built around a Robert Heinlein quote:

A whore should be judged by the same criteria as other professionals offering services for pay — such as dentists, lawyers, hairdressers, physicians, plumbers, etc. Is she professionally competent? Does she give good measure? Is she honest with her clients?

It is possible that the percentage of honest and competent whores is higher than that of plumbers and much higher than that of lawyers. And enormously higher than that of professors.

Dean rightly believes this to be wrongheaded. His argument is complex but the crux of it is,

A whore is a predator. She feeds upon her john’s loneliness, insecurity, and need. Meanwhile, by paying her, he trivializes her humanity, giving money for something he desperately wishes she would give gladly.

Dean also notes that,

To refer to it as “a profession” demeans humanity even more.

Heinlein appears to mean “professional” in the sense of “making a living at it” given the list: “dentists, lawyers, hairdressers, physicians, plumbers, etc.” Most of us wouldn’t consider hairdressers to be “professionals” and plumbers are skilled craftsmen instead.

As to the exploitation issue, Dean is correct in principle. Still, don’t lawyers, physicians, and plumbers exploit the misery of others to make a living? Their clients are being sued or facing prison; miserable and/or dying; or just had their pipes burst or their toilets overflow. They probably haven’t budgeted for these emergencies but have little choice. In a larger sense, isn’t the entire economy predicated on exploitation? I like my job, but there are days I’d rather go to the movies or something. But The Man won’t pay me for doing that, so I am forced to go into the office. I have an innate human need for food, but the folks at Safeway won’t give me any without my turning over some money. And so it is with most of my economic existence. Oh, the humanity!

Now, it is certainly true that prostitution is more degrading than the other lines of work Heinlein lists. Would you rather your daughter or sister grow up to be a prostitute or a lawyer? [What’s the difference? -ed. Stop that.] I think almost anyone would agree that there’s not much of a contest there.

My public policy instinct here is that, like other consensual “crimes,” prostitution should be decriminalized. Not only from general libertarian principles but only simple efficacy grounds as well: the demand is too strong, the suppliers too willing to stop it, so we might as well bring it into the open so that we can at least regulate it at the margins. But, as Dean’s post makes clear, the argument that “nobody is hurt by this” is untrue.

*One of the unfortunate byproducts of Howard Dean’s rise to prominence from this campaign season is the likely permanent ruinance of the “Dean’s World” name.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mithras says:

    First, Dean Esmay must live in some kind of sheltered suburban world where he’s never actually run into actual prostitutes. His opinion about prostitutes being “predators” is just ludicrious.

    But, as Dean’s post makes clear, the argument that “nobody is hurt by this” is untrue.

    Fewer people would be hurt by it if it were legal.

  2. James Joyner says:



    And I don’t disagree on the second part. I think it should be legal; that doesn’t make it a good thing, though.

  3. Steven says:

    Yup on the Dean/Dean problem. Even though you noted that the info was from Dean Esmay’s blog, I still thought it was about Howard Dean, as in Esmay is commenting on Dean. I did catch on after a few lines, however, as I pondered what in the world the Good Doctor was doing quoting Heinlein.

  4. Mithras says:

    Most of the street hookers I see in Philadelphia look and behave like drug addicts. These are people who – whether because of addiction, or otherwise – have to do work outside of the regular economy. From what I’ve read, even the high-price prostitutes who don’t work the streets don’t make much money, so I can only imagine what the street prostitutes make after paying their pimps. In the meantime, they’re in constant danger of being attacked by customers, other prostitutes or their pimps, or the police. To say that these people – women and men – are predators is to attribute a level of calculation and an amount of personal autonomy to them that doesn’t exist.

  5. James Joyner says:


    Dean says as much in his post. He’s just saying that, as an industry, prostitution exists because of desperate, lonely men.

  6. Lisa says:

    I agree with Mithras’s comments, as well as thew view that prostitution should be legalized. These women aren’t “predators”; their personal autonomy is, as Mithras points out, largely lacking. These aren’t happy-go-lucky professionals, they are usually desperate, down-and-out women. Making prostitution illegal adds a criminal element that hurts these women — violence is added to the equation, as are threats and a constant fear of incarceration.

    Interestingly, the women’s movement is divided on the issue. I do think the fact that women are choosing to be prostitutes is indicative of underlying social problems, but that doesn’t mean the state should make it illegal. I would be interested to hear an explanation on why prostitution should remain illegal from a women’s movement POV; is there an aspect to this debate that we are missing?


  7. Eddie Thomas says:

    Is it correct to say that the demand is really high, or is it just persistent?

  8. James Joyner says:


    I haven’t done any surveys or seen the numbers, so I’m not sure. Certainly, the demand for the base service is almost universal. The willingness to expend capital in the pursuit of this resource is also nearly universal, at least among single males between the ages of, say, 13 and 60. How this translates into a direct exchange of money for said service, especially given the quality of supplier involved, is unknown to me. Presumably, the fear of arrest and public humiliation is also a barrier under present circumstances.

  9. Mark Hasty says:

    Is prostitution the only case of the government making it illegal to sell something it’s perfectly legal to give away?

  10. James Joyner says:


    There are other examples that come to mind: Babies (one can give them up for adoption with no problem but just try to sell for crack money and people get all up in arms), body organs (kidneys for transplant, e.g.), and various types of intellectual property (movies, music, etc.–although giving them away in mass is apparently a problem now).

  11. Anonymous says:

    Let’s take two examples:

    1. Richard hears that the new girl in accounting is “easy”. He goes over and chats her up and asks her out on a date. He takes her to drinks, dinner, a nightclub, etc. spending $150 for the evening. They go back to her place and have a good time. Richard goes home and never calls her back.

    2. The next week Richard is feeling frisky and finds a “provider” on-line who is relatively close. He goes over, pays her $150 and has a good time.

    There is a legal difference between the two, but is there a moral difference?

  12. James Joyner says:

    In the first example, “they” have a good time. In the second, “he” does.

  13. Anonymous says:

    But both girls are compensated for their effort in a way that has value to them. Ms. Easy gets a night on the town (maybe she enjoyed the sack, maybe she faked). The provider gets the monetary compenstation.

  14. Four times out of five Ms. Accounting did fake it.

    Both girls grew up without fathers. The difference is, Girl #2 doesn’t have to put up with it if she gets another call from this guy who was just using her anyway.

    Lot of women out there with few skills. And we don’t have the upper-body strength to hang drywall.

  15. Andy Reddson says:

    The longer we pretend to our prudish pretentions, the more harm we will do. The will ALWAYS be a sex industry, for well or ill. To continue to treat it as a “bad thing” is to force those who practice these businesses underground, leading, inevitably, to a lifetime of abuse.

    The only emanciption possible for these slaves is to end this double ended abuse- Punish them for their work, AND allow them to be punished by those they work FOR.