Is it wrong to buy sex?

by on April 29, 2009 at 6:45 am in Philosophy | Permalink

The Intelligence Squared debate is now on YouTube.  If you will recall, Lionel Tiger and the Mayflower Madam were on my side, against Wendy Shalit, Catherine Mackinnon, and Melissa Farley.  They won and you will find Alex's interpretation here.  A few observations:

1. Catherine Mackinnon's closer was I thought the single best speech in the debate.

2. I was very pleased to have met and chatted with Wendy Shalit, as we hit it off very well; you'll find her books here.

3. I believed throughout that it would hurt my side of the debate to suggest that men would enjoy the experience of buying sex; the sociology of that fact is itself interesting.

4. During Q&A I was asked whether a woman raped at a very young age can later be said to have exercised autonomous choice in her decision to become a prostitute.  The premise of the question was "obviously not" but is it so simple?  Does everyone who was once a helpless victim, in a terrible way, lose autonomy?  The implications of that world view frighten me.

5. Legalization advocates still could use a better account of why this market, even when it is legal or quasi-legal, seems so prone to abuse.

1 ck April 29, 2009 at 7:57 am

Legalized prostitution is not unproblematic but, net-net, it’s a success.

2 Jody April 29, 2009 at 8:08 am

On autonomy and very bad things… to shoehorn it into an economics / game theory, I would say you still have your entire action set available to you, but your utility function can change.

3 LNK April 29, 2009 at 8:34 am

Re: 4, I think I’d view it on a collective level rather than individual. Individually, I have a very hard time with the suggestion that any child sexual abuse victim somehow loses adult autonomy. But on a collective level, it’s clear such earlier sexual trauma is somehow correlated with prostitution, and I think it’s fair some sort of change in brain wiring or emotional character makes the choice more likely to occur than it would otherwise.

And for all the people who keep posting here saying “everybody pays for it”? Man, that’s just sad. I sorta feel sorry for you.

4 Jason Malloy April 29, 2009 at 10:01 am

Mackinnon’s closer is at 4:50. Yawn and meh. And there is a market for male prostitution. Black men in Africa and the Caribbean are bought by upper-class, middle-aged white and black women from rich countries. Usually the women end up getting exploited by these transactions as well; e.g. the real life outcome of “How Stella Got Her Groove Back”. On either side of the transaction, men are more physically and psychologically dominant, more willing to hurt, lie, or kill for selfish ends, and less emotionally affected by sex.

Legalization advocates still could use a better account of why this market, even when it is legal or quasi-legal, seems so prone to abuse.

Because human criminality is intimately associated with high mating effort (i.e. preference for higher number of sexual partners). Therefore the people involved are often anti-social, uncaring, selfish, and violent. In fact, the most dangerous elements of society– sadists, serial killers, murderers, and psychopaths– are almost certain to use prostitutes. And unless the industry is heavily regulated to protect prostitutes from such men, they will very likely be victimized by them.

“High-class” prostitutes are also relatively shielded from the violent dregs through simple class barriers. (The sadists, etc, are largely confined to the lower tiers of society.)

5 Ed April 29, 2009 at 12:28 pm

There is one thing that bothers me about the prostitution discussion. OK there are pros and cons to legalizing or semilegalizing it. But it has been legalized in parts of Europe and there are even a few counties in the US where it is legalized. Legalization is discussed among academics and policy wonks.

So why no serious proposals for legalization in the legislatures of the other 49 states? Why hasn’t Eliot Spitzer used his resignation speech or Slate column to call for reform of the law that ended his political career? He doesn’t seem to have thought his behavior was enough of a failing to keep him out of the public eye.

In other words, why is there such a large status quo bias on this issue? In the US, I keep on seeing policy proposals discussed by academics that never come close to making their way into the political debate. I realize this post is really more about American politics than about prostitution.

6 anonymous April 29, 2009 at 1:03 pm

I was quite surprised how few of the debaters had any sense of debating tactics, using time effectively, advance preparation, or emphasizing key points without rambling. I would be willing to bet good money that you must have belonged to a debating team in high school or university, unlike everyone else on that stage.

It is very easy to game the result. If you’re an audience member and you want your side to win, pretend to hold the opposite viewpoint before and “switch” to your real viewpoint after. What were the demographics of the audience and who controlled the issuing of invitations?

7 Susie Bright April 29, 2009 at 1:53 pm

Well,I can’t let this one go by. I’m going to devote a podcast to it, so I guess the debate was a trimph in at least the PR sense.

I can’t believe all the assumptions in that one little question: “Is It Wrong to Buy Sex?”

Is it “wrong” to buy anything? Why is everything for “sale” in capitalist economies except for religiously pursued exceptions? Why is it wrong or right to buy or sell intimate services of any kind? What is the nature of sex that is exceptional? How would you compare it to highly intimate services like nursing, therapy, childcare, end of life care, personal trainers, bodyworkers, companions, etc?

Is a marriage contract sex for sale? What is the difference between romance for sale and sex for sale? Should the state be your pimp?

Men buy sex in almost equal numbers from men and trannies, but this question sets it up as if it’s a bio-man to bio-woman exchange. Incredible. The sexism of the whole debate and the heterosexism of both sides is insurmountable.

In other areas of commerce and life, some of these same debaters would point to the issues of criminality, shame, religious oppression, gender inequality, etc, as the culprits. But instead we get this nonsense.

8 me April 29, 2009 at 2:00 pm

According to Al Roth, the market for commercial sex is getting safer, because of improved screening and signaling methods. Thus, to Jason Malloy’s point, it’s plausible that the risks from being assaulted by clients is falling because of the Internet’s effect on getting information about new clients to prostitutes beforehand.

9 Jason Malloy April 29, 2009 at 2:27 pm

Barbar: “Jason Malloy seems to think that (a) the primary threat of abuse to prostitutes comes from their customers and (b) that people who provide sexual services for a fee are protected from certain customers by “class barriers” instead of their fees.”

figleaf: “My dear sweet innocent child where on earth did you get that idea? Class has nothing to do with it.”

I got this idea from the empirical literature on prostitution. I discussed and linked to some of it in the last thread on Dr. Cowen’s prostitution debate. (See the Weitzer paper linked in my comment)

I don’t know what idiosyncratic idea of class you have, but a fee is a class barrier. If you can and do charge $15,000, you will generally get Eliot Spitzers as your customers, and don’t have to deal with the violent pimps and thrill killing truckers at the bottom of society.

Look at the neighborhoods where you can shake hands with the guy who you pay for gas, and neighborhoods where there is a three inch pane of glass between you and the guy you pay for gas. The prostitutes in those neighborhoods don’t have that 3 inch pane of glass.

10 me April 29, 2009 at 2:45 pm

I suspect because even when legalized the regulators and police don’t take abuse reports as seriously as they would an assault claim at a McDonalds.


Which begs the question – why don’t they take those abuses as seriously?

1. Is this true? What’s the evidence that in a legalized environment (say rural counties of Nevada) that there is abuse?
2. What kind of abuse are we talking about? Client-specific abuse (meaning assault)?

My answer: Prostitution has risks independent of the regime in which it occurs. You’re asking people to insert things into your body while they are sexually aroused. We know that when people are sexually aroused, they’re not in their right minds (see the ARiely paper on “the heat of the moment”). The relevant question is under which regime are the social costs of prostitution the lowest, not can legalization reduce all the risks of prostitution.

11 Susie Bright April 29, 2009 at 2:57 pm

Hi anon,

I know you don’t want to hear “my 30+ years of experience covering the sex trade”.. as the answer for why prostitution is so gender-defiant, so let me think of a couple quick references.

I would suggest reading “Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry” by Laura Maria Agustin, and looking at her blog for some of the international conversations that go on among sex workers who are politically outspoken.

Among sex workers, it’s embarrassing to hear “experts” or “celebs” like Mayflower Madam talk about sex work like it’s Adam and Eve, when it’s so often Adam and Steve or Adam and Sasha. it doesn’t have anything to do with how men identify, (Straight vs gay, etc) it’s anonymous behavior driven by curiosity, habit, and lust.

There are unique issues to talk about female and male experience, but the 80s-era feminist sex war debates were often truncated and diminished by a lack of understanding of the big picture of who’s working where, doing what. The spectre of moral guardians protecting women just keeps getting reintroduced over and over like a Victorian avenging angel.

12 Barbar April 29, 2009 at 3:19 pm

Jason Malloy — Tyler was looking for an explanation for why the sex market seems prone to abuse. Your answer is that it’s because low-class prostitutes are exposed to abusive sociopaths. This just strikes me as a pseudo-explanation. I mean, are you really “explaining” the behavior of violent pimps and serial killers with regards to prostitutes just by saying that their personalities are highly associated with “high mating effort”?

13 vortex April 29, 2009 at 4:17 pm

Yo figleaf: read carefully next time please

“It is a rare stripper or escort or prostitute that has not been the victim of some form of abuse, be it physical, emotional or sexual, and neglect counts.

These people are far beyond being over represented in their ‘line of work’ than in the general population of women.”

14 Bill Mill April 29, 2009 at 4:36 pm

The hissing of the audience members is intolerable.

15 Barbar April 29, 2009 at 5:06 pm

Jason, the fact that sociopaths may like to purchase sex can’t explain why pimps or cops or boyfriends abuse prostitutes.

16 Barbar April 29, 2009 at 5:33 pm

Intelligence Squared had a debate about organ markets sometime ago. The pro-market side had no problem winning.

17 anon April 29, 2009 at 6:36 pm

Jason – this is definitely true. But is the violence towards lower class prostitutes really lower under prohibition than under legalization? Under legalization, lower class prostitutes can use the resources of the state to enforce contracts and protect property rights. Under a prohibition regime, they cannot. They can only use the price mechanism to screen out their clients. It would seem therefore that prohibition actually amplifies the adverse selection, not decreases it.

18 Cyrus April 29, 2009 at 8:31 pm

Approached from a slightly different angle, questions like #4 are the ones I can entertain, and which entertaining cause cognitive dissonance with my libertarian bias. Once a person has only bad options, is giving them additional bad options really an increase in their liberty, even at the margin?

(I strongly suspect that when an actual human being is the monarch, not even monarchy satisfies independence of irrelevant alternatives.)

19 Gary April 29, 2009 at 11:29 pm

I wonder if those on the opposing side have watched pornography…

20 Rob April 29, 2009 at 11:34 pm

This begs Tyler’s standard question, “Under what conditions?” Opponents provided ample anecdotes of instances under which most would agree it is OK and not OK. The answer or the presented question is clearly, “It depends.” Tyler offers, “under proper regulation.” Others argue, “If the seller has a choice.” I surmise the regulation is largely to provide choice, so it operates more as a means than an end. In many cases, “What is the prostitutes alternative?” is not asked. The prostitute might not have a better choice, but isn’t the potential benefit of prostitution to the sellers that it is the best choice? The question was underspecified and the public good of specification was not provided by any of the participants. Accordingly, the most emotional arguments won.

21 bangecon May 2, 2009 at 2:38 pm

Many things are objectionable and disgusting, but if the alternatives to prostitution are worse, then address the root problems (poverty, discrimination, and abuse) that distort the market instead of focusing our energies on consensual, informed exchange?

22 pietrobruno July 23, 2009 at 3:02 pm

Why do men pay for sex? Check-out Pietrobruno’s film GFE: Girlfriend Experience. “As a filmmaker, I simply want to reveal what is hidden – the john”. Movies often portray sex workers, but their customers remain well hidden – faceless and nameless. Pietrobruno’s GFE: Girlfriend Experience calls attention to this bias, at the same time as it shifts the cinematic gaze onto the client.

23 chachagirl February 21, 2011 at 2:06 am

I work as an Amsterdam escort and when you ask this question, I can think of this answer: if people wouldn’t pay for sex, I would be out of a job… and I sincerely do not want that to happen.

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