Tuesday, September 18, 2007

sex work

Is it wrong to sell sex for money?

If you are reading this blog, you are probably liberal enough to not have any of the standard conservative strictures against sex itself. I think I speak for most of my audience in saying, have respect for yourself and your partner, protect yourself, and otherwise do what makes you happy. Audience, please feel free to correct me in the comments.

But what about sex for money? First off, is there anything inherently wrong about it? I am inclined to think not. I don't see why the exchange of money should alone should turn anything inherently immoral, although it can certainly make some things ethically tricky. There is no real comparison in this field: there is no other activity that becomes illegal and/or immoral simply because money is involved.

But here is the ethically tricky part: sex work is notorious for its connection to drug and alcohol abuse, violent crime, poverty, and all types of human abuse. Guilt by assocation. Most sex workers (I mean this term in a more narrow sense, referring specifically to people who offer sexual services for money) have some history of sexual abuse. At the same time, almost all sex workers say that their primary motivation for going into sex work is money. How can we ethically permit a profession which seemingly by its nature is so exploitative? How can we ethically deny a source of income to people who have virtually no other means of supporting themselves, particularly in the current economy?

Of course, the exact relation between sex work and crime is nebulous. We don't really know which comes first, or why. This leads to a lot of pro-sex work speculation: could it be divorced from its negative associations? Do these arise because sex work is not protected in the first place? Certainly conditions are better where it is legal. In Nevada there are unions, complete with health benefits and worker's comp. Offering health services to sex workers seems like a pretty obvious, even vital function for a community interested in public health, but you can't do that if it is illegal.

There is also the issue of funding. The Bush administration cut off funding to any group that supports sex work, which has hamstrung AIDS relief efforts in certain regions like Thailand where the most effective outreach is done through sex workers' associations. Pretty much you are damned if you don't legalize it. At the same time, the archetype for legalized sex work is Amsterdam, which also has the highest rate of human trafficking or sex slavery. So you are also damned if you do.

Moreover, if you legalize sex work you then essentially move control away from the whims of the market, so to speak, and into the hands of the government. Clearly the government isn't always the best arbiter of public or private behavior, especially when it comes to sex. I personally have a strong faith in the power of our decision-making process to get shipwrecked on cultural norms rather than making decisions based on individual and community health. But that's my liberal soapbox for you.

I have my own opinions on this, but I am not sure I am satisfied with them. It is my intuition that strong sex worker communities and resources need to be developed in the shadows before sex work could be legalized, that way the law is forced to bend around a pre-existing reality. Not that the law always bows to reality. Eh, I could talk myself into and out of positions all day. I am really curious about other people's opinions.


Steven said...

My opinion on really tricky issues like this tends to fluctuate from day to day. It's pretty easy to justify a lot of positions. Here's mine at the moment:

There's nothing inherently wrong about sex work. I think if it's done the right way then it can be a normal business transaction. However, it is most often done in the completely wrong, completely exploitive way. So on the one hand, in an abstract, idealistic sense it's fine. On the other hand, is the practical matter that most of the time, as practiced, it's not fine. So side with ideals or reality? Current mood: ideals. We should legalize it and take pains to make it non-exploitive. That's better than throwing up our hands and saying it'll never non-exploitive so just make it illegal.

rjamm said...

I think it should be something every community should decide for itself. In some communities, sex is seen as something that shouldn't be sold, so understandably, people who sell sex can be disregarded by the system and sometimes their rights get trampled since they're seen as morally flawed to begin with. In some communities, sex is seen as a commodity and the human element gets forgotten. I think both of these communities should not have sex work be legal. The first case might be a conservative community and the second might be something like Amsterdam. In a place where sex is not a commodity or considered not for sale, but is instead seen as a profession, like in Nevada, then sex work can be legal. Sex is such a big issue in people's lives that most people are going to have opinions on it and they're not exactly going to change their opinions. I mean, you can work to change people's opinions, but there is so much structure around those opinions and so many powerful people reinforcing whatever the status quo is that it seems pretty unrealistic to think that way. I say whether or not it should be legal depends on how people in the area view sex. Changing people's opinions seems unrealistic. I guess it's a bit of a laissez-faire attitude. Maybe it's not a good thing, but it's all I got.

zurvan said...

I think I disagree with the localization argument. Allowing different communities to determine their own laws regarding sex work would cause there to be different standards through the country, assuming anyone other than Nevada bought in. A community of legal sex workers and community of illegal ones will look very different. I have a feeling that the problems associated with illegal sex work would bleed into the legal community (and vice versa). I could also imagine a competition for resources in which one side doesn't have any legal backing, and so would resort to violence/extortion/blackmailing, etc.