I said I wasn't really interested in blogging about the Spitzer scandal, and that's true, but I am interested in blogging about the inevitable corollary to any prostitution scandal: the legalization of prostitution. Or not.
On the face of it, this seems to be a pretty simple equation: sex is legal, selling things is legal, why shouldn't selling sex be legal? And as a starting point, that makes fine sense. Where things get tricky is when we recognize that buying and selling is a social relationship between buyer and seller, and that it entails all of the power dynamics inherent in any social relationship.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, it is said. In many ways, desperation is the force that drives a capitalist economy, the mirror image of profit. Excuse this brief diversion from the salacious sex talk, but I think this is crucial to understand. Those that already own capital (or more broadly, that have money) make money by having other people work for them. Those that don't own capital (or money) make money by working. The workers have no choice but to work for the very means of subsistence. Through the lottery of education, ability, and random chance, they may get better or worse pay for their work, but they must do it. Furthermore, capitalism relies on a certain amount of unemployment to keep up a demand for work. The real reason Republicans and Libertarians are so opposed to social welfare is not the "free rider" problem, but because if people could subsist without being forced to accept low wages, their profits would fall.
I say all this because prostitution is, like many types of work, pyramidal in structure. There are a few high-end call-girls, a few more middle-class college students making quick cash, and then a larger number of poor women whose alternative for money would be a minimum wage job. It can be said that the higher up the prostitution pay scale, the more certain we can be that the people involved are doing it truly consensually. But at the lower end, even leaving aside the actual problem of sexual slavery, how many prostitutes are doing it because that's what they want to do, and how many are doing it because it's one of few jobs they're qualified for, and one that pays relatively well?
Simply legalizing prostitution does little to change this situation. If every streetwalker in the country were plying their trade legally, that would not mean they are doing it because they want to. It might still simply be a convenient job for someone without more marketable skills. So the first problem with prostitution isn't a problem with prostitution at all, but a problem with capitalism. In a competitive market for labor, people are forced by necessity to do things they don't want to do, sometimes even things they are disgusted by.
There is another problem with prostitution, of course: misogyny. This manifests itself in two ways. First, in the social stigma attached to sex workers of all stripes, but especially to whores. Second, in the actual treatment of prostitutes by their johns.
I think the social stigma is a reflection of a rather fucked-up societal view of sex, and women's role in sex, overall. In a society where virginity is considered a virtue, and people with multiple partners are sluts, is it any surprise that people who have the audacity to not only have a lot of sex but to earn a living doing so are thought of negatively?
This is a problem with the view we have developed that sex is special. Don't get me wrong, here. I am not saying that sex isn't different from other bodily functions. But society has decided that that difference entitles everyone to form judgments about people on its basis in a way that doesn't apply to any other activity. We think that having or not having sex says something relevant about the people involved, when in fact, it merely says that they had sex. And why shouldn't they have? Sex is fun.
So I don't think that legalization, or not, has anything to do with the stigma attached to sex work. That stigma can only be combatted by changing our cultural attitudes toward sex in a more healthy direction.
In a similar way, that many prostitutes are subjected to what most people would considered "degrading" treatment, or actual violence, is not something that depends on its legal status per se. Many men get off on treating women badly, or by demonstrating their dominance over them. This is because our social construction of masculinity is built around dominance and competition and hierarchy, and a strict distinction between the agency of men as virile conquerors and the passivity of women as receptacles or mere things. The mistreatment of prostitutes is a uglier version of the same line of reasoning that makes a confrontational man in the office ambitious and a confrontational woman a bitch.
In other words, we have to change what it means to be a "real man" in our society before we can expect some men to not act as we have trained them to act: like domineering brutes. Whether or not the woman the man wants to brutally dominate is receiving money for the domination is irrelevant.
Ultimately, the question of prostitution is a question of labor. It is a question that asks: are there some things that we do not believe are "jobs?" As long as prostitution is illegal, society is claiming that the women doing sex work are not actually working, and don't deserve the protections of society that workers are entitled to. This is true regardless of the nature of the work in question.
I don't think we can, or should, make that claim. Prostitutes are clearly working, and they should receive all of the same benefits other workers should receive. The legalization of prostitution is ultimately an extension of the same impulses that give rise to minimum wage laws, the right to union organization, and all other labor regulation. Regardless of our comfort with the work in question, there should be no question that prostitutes are working people, and deserve the same treatment as other working people.
The problems of prostitution — coercion, stigma, and abuse — are symptoms of a sick society, not problems inherent in the simple provision of sexual services. They must be overcome not just for the prostitutes, but for women everywhere, and cannot be used as an argument against legalization.
Clearly, legalization has many benefits. The eradication of the private pimp, the recourse to police for abusive clients, and health care are obvious. Whether or not legal prostitution eliminates underground prostitution or sex slavery is beside the point, just as nobody would claim that because one can download illegal music, legal music ought to be outlawed as well. Whether or not legal prostitution eliminates the sexist ethical problems of it is also beside the point.
Workers deserve support and protection, even when their trade is sex.