Legalizing Prostitution

Edward Morrissey (not to be confused with the less formal “Ed” Morrissey who writes his other blog) takes on Cathy Young‘s libertarian argument for legalizing prostitution.

I am loathe to insinuate myself into a private relationship between consenting adults. However, this is not a relationship in any sense but the literal and existential. The “relationship” between prostitute and trick is essentially exploitive on both parts, and has no other benefit to themselves or society except sexual gratification and cash flow.

That one brought a hearty chuckle. For one thing, “the literal and existential” pretty much covers all the senses one needs for something to be the thing which it’s declared to be, no? And sexual gratification and cash flow were precisely the things the parties in the transaction in question desired.

My “relationship” with my barber brings no benefit to me other than shorter hair and none to him save cash. Ditto my corner gas station (gas/cash), grocery store (food/cash), dry cleaner (clean clothes/cash), and . . . well, you get the idea.

At its most basic, this transaction involves the selling of a human being for the most intimate of purposes. It makes little difference whether the women (or men, for that matter) sell themselves or someone else sells them, or even “rents” them. It exploits humans for no purpose other than meaningless gratification; it turns people, and usually women, into nothing more than a commodity like pork bellies or cattle futures.

But, again, isn’t that true of most jobs?

Certainly, the man who cuts my grass isn’t doing it for self-actualization. The couple who cleans our house every two weeks are exploited for no other reason than my laziness. If those people quit, or stopped performing their jobs to my satisfaction, I’d replace them with others without any significant remorse. They are, in a purely economic sense, commodities.

So what?

That’s how they provide for their families. And they’re doing well enough that their kids will have the opportunities for more personally satisfying jobs.

Edward goes on for several more paragraphs along these lines, arguing for preserving “the exceptional status of humans” and that allowing some people to sell “their bodies for the gratification of others” leads us down a slippery slope “back to the feudal system, where the serfs and the slaves got bought and sold for the pleasure and profit of their masters.”

I sympathize with this view but see no obvious point of demarcation after which exploiting labor on the basis of voluntary exchange becomes too exploitative. People who do manual labor or drudge work are, for all intents and purposes, selling their bodies. For that matter, cops, firefighters, and soldiers put their bodies in mortal danger for a living.

One could argue it happens even at the upper range of the pay scale, such as with professional athletes. In what sense is a professional boxer less exploited than a prostitute? What about lingerie models? Indeed, one could argue that players in professional team sports, who may be traded to other teams and forced to move across the country — or even out of the country — if they wish to continue to work in their industry are much more like serfs than a self-employed prostitute.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Gender Issues, Law and the Courts, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Rick DeMent says:

    …and further the services a prostitute provides is not any different from that provided by a masseuse or physiotherapist. In fact if exploitation is any reason to ban something, most jobs would be illegal. This entire line of reasoning is flawed. They want to ban it because of perceived ills it imposes on “society” or just because they think it will be “icky”.

    Portion of comment in violation of site policies deleted.

    Editor’s note: Young takes the pro-legalization position.

  2. legion says:

    Indeed, Rick. I wonder what it is about the involvement of an orgasm that makes this particular “personal service” different from any other in Morrissey’s mind?

    Selling women in red-light districts cheapens everyone by denying the exceptional in humans — the religious would call it the soul — and reducing people to the value of their component parts, or even less. The prostitute is valued for her vagina and possibly her breasts, and the rest comes as a package deal that some customers barely notice.

    That’s not an objection to prostitution, it’s an objection to pornography. And frankly, similar descriptions could be put to any form of entertainment, from acting to singing to creating works of art. He strikes me a little more than a prude who wants to approve what sort of fun other people get to have, regardless of what he uses to justify his own judgements.

  3. Anderson says:

    You don’t have to be a libertarian to admit that prostitution shouldn’t be illegal, tho I might favor more health regulation than a libertarian might.

    But it’s a non-starter in this Puritan-haunted nation of ours.

  4. Steve Verdon says:

    A very libertarian position for you James…you have come far my young apprentice [/Darth Vader mode] (although I’m not quite sure which of is the older).


    I agree although who knows what the future holds. Not too long ago sodomy laws were enforced (usually agianst gays) and gay marriage wasn’t even on the radar. Now….

  5. carpeicthus says:

    As usual, George Carlin puts it best. Also as usual, they’re in terms that probably shouldn’t be put in the comments here.

  6. Tlaloc says:

    I always wondered why you are allowed, and strongly encouraged, to sell the use of every part of your body except your genitals.

    Actually I don’t wonder, I know it has to do with our puritan founding and our completely screwed up view of sex.

  7. Steve Plunk says:

    Anderson touched upon it, there are still religious objections to legalizing prostitution and even some non-religious objections when it’s your daughter rather than just some abstract woman making a living.

    Moral standards have served us well in the past and I suspect they will continue to serve us well in the future. While I lean libertarian on many issues I must still respect the historical record of Judeo-Christian influence on this country and take it as a net positive.

    Of all libertarian ideas to fight for I don’t see this one as important enough compared to the damage it would do as far as the relationship between libertarians and religious believers. I would also warn of the law of unintended consequences, we may not see all the effects before we try it.

    Prostitution and the selling of ones body has a link to physical love and therefore love in general. Those emotional factors can complicate this “business transaction” and turn it in to a dangerous thing for society.

  8. Anderson says:

    All I can say is, with legalized prostitution, my wife would never again have to wonder what to get me for my birthday …

  9. JohnG says:

    The slippery slope to serfdom and slavery makes no sense at all. Isn’t there a pretty giant difference between a person selling someone else’s body, vs a person selling their own body? Isn’t the reason slavery is wrong because the slave has no voice in the decision? Most US slaves were farmers or house slaves. We still have non-landowning farmers and servants in the house. By the slippery slope logic, shouldn’t this bring us much closer to the return of serfdom than prostitution does?

  10. Anderson says:

    Isn’t the reason slavery is wrong because the slave has no voice in the decision?

    Well, you can’t sell yourself into slavery, either. But agreed, slavery isn’t the analogy. In fact, illegal prostitution dominated by violent pimps is more likely to be oppressive than legal prostitution that’s “just another job.”

  11. Floyd says:

    There is, of course, the report from the EU [German I think]of a woman who was refused unemployment benefits because she refused,on moral grounds, to accept a perfectly legal job as a prostitute.
    So; which would apply in the U.S.? The “free exercise clause” or the, literally non-existent, “separation clause”??