Prostitution is a hot twenty-first century political issue. And the roots of that are in good old fashioned morality of the religious kind and the ideology of late twentieth century feminism. There are people who want to see prostitution eliminated as a social phenomenon and others who take a live and let live attitude. But why? What accounts for the polarised views? And is it a straightforward case of ‘morality good’, and not accepting a morality ‘bad’? Unfortunately, in the popular consciousness that tends to be true – even though objective analysis shows that the proposition doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Recently, I came across a book called The Righteous Mind by Johnathan Haidt (Penguin 2012). Apparently, it was a best seller. It passed me by on publication and I stumbled across it while reading a newspaper article which was examining the victim culture that we are currently wading through. Stuff about morality isn’t my thing usually (too serious and too up your own arse), but I went straight out and bought his book. And, boy, am I glad that I did because it helped me to understand why so many people have a hang up about prostitution and where the different groups are coming from and why. Haidt doesn’t address prostitution in the book but what he does do is provide the tools for others to make sense of the politico-moral debate which surrounds it. And that’s what I am going to try to do here (I think he would approve). It should go without saying that while he is responsible for me speaking out on this, he’s not responsible for what I’m about to say – but I’ll say it anyway. Haidt isn’t responsible for what I’m about to say.
I’m afraid we gotta start a bit (boring) descriptive, just to set the scene. He talks about Five Moral Foundations (the things that all moral decisions and positions can be traced back to) – and in order to set out my stall I’m going to have to share those. I’m also going to have to do a bit of editing in order to speed things up, so what follows is a summary of Figure 6.2 (page 146) in the book.
Foundation 1: Care/Harm – it’s rooted in the need for humans to care for their children; they are defenceless and vulnerable for a very long while. However, general suffering, neediness and distress (including in animals) triggers the moral response.
Foundation 2: Fairness/Cheating – it’s about reaping the benefits of two-way partnerships and covers cheating, cooperation, deception, marital fidelity, fairness, justice and trustworthiness. It’s also bound up with notions of equality and valuing the individual.
Foundation 3: Loyalty/Betrayal – it’s about forming cohesive coalitions (which might be at the level of two people) and threats and challenges to the group, as well as things like loyalty and self sacrifice.
Foundation 4: Authority/Subversion – it’s about beneficial relationships within hierarchies and includes notions of respect, fear, deference and obedience.
Foundation 5: Sanctity/Degradation – it’s about avoiding contaminants and disease and covers taboos and chastity and piety and cleanliness – and disgust.
Then there’s politics. We can’t ignore politics. We also need to take note of the broad linkage between political affiliations/tendencies and the Foundations. People on the left of the political spectrum (liberals, socialists, democrats) tend to value the moral foundations #1 and #2. Indeed, Foundations #3 and #4 (and the people who subscribe to those moral values) often piss off people who are on the left. People on the right (conservatives and republicans) are more drawn to Foundations #3 and #4, although they do accommodate moral foundations #1 and #2, but to a noticeably lesser extent than the moralists on the left of the political spectrum (following so far?). Both groups are inclined to value keeping clean and disease free! Although those on the right appear to value it more.
So now we’re set to think about prostitution in moral terms (well, I am, anyway).
That’s disgusting!! The place to start, I think, is with Foundation #5, the Sanctity Foundation. A pretty good way to pass on an infection or a disease is through the transfer of body fluids (just look at the damage a sneeze can do). It makes sense (certainly a few hundred years ago – OK, longer) to reduce risk by minimising body fluid transfer. It’s pretty obvious that people weren’t likely to give up on fuck-fluid transfer (especially since the survival of the human race depended on it) but maybe it could be controlled. What if people settled for one sex-partner and what if we called it marriage and we ritualised the experience and and dragged God into it (the Roman Catholic Church introduced God’s seal of approval into the marriage equation in the 12th century). As long as the couple were clean at the outset they could transfer body fluids to their hearts content. Well, almost. It wasn’t quite that straightforward. For example, she might relish the idea of putting his penis in her mouth but the truth is that the human mouth is a weapons factory. If he put his penis in her mouth he was asking for trouble. So don’t do it!!!! And the same goes for him putting his mouth on her vulva. It might feel nice having a clitoris tickled by a tongue but she doesn’t want a load of urinary and vaginal infections as a result of his shit oral hygiene, does she? And, yeh, playing with each other’s bumholes is definitely out!!! That is just asking for trouble!!! A bumhole is like the warehouse for a weapon of mass destruction. Just to make the point and keep people on track a few choice words were deployed to make sure people toed the line; if it got out that you were engaging in fellatio and cunnilingus or any form of anal play, it would earn you words like dirty, vile, disgusting, filthy, perverse or unnatural (unnatural being another way of saying evil).
It’s obviously pretty important that what starts in marriage stays in marriage. That means that nipping next door for a quick fuck was out of the question for both parties. And for that to work there had to be trust. Both parties needed to practice fidelity. Keep your juices to yourself!!! Put another way, we might need to invoke moral Foundation #2 (Fairness and Cheating) and in order to do that we’re going to come up with some other moral control words like slut and whore and philanderer and womaniser, and any children born out of wedlock are going to have a rough time because we are going to call them bastards. And since God is involved we’ll talk about sin and the wrath of God, and you just make sure that you respect the pronouncements of your local priest on this issue (Moral Foundation #4). Or else!!! And we are calling on moral Foundation #3 as well. After all, marriage is a key component of the social structure which keeps the group/community stable and healthy.
OK, so we can see (I hope) the obvious moral pressures to keep prostitutes out of the picture. And since people are (generally) thick we need to reduce all that shit about disease and sanctity and fairness to a short, snappy soundbite: something like sex outside of marriage is sinful!!!!! Start fucking around and God will start fucking with you!!! On top of which you are going to find yourself an outcast in an environment where the job opportunities are seriously limited. And the shorthand for those disgusting sexual practices that you so enjoy can be summed up in the word disgusting. I mean. you don’t want to be disgusting, do you?
And these messages have been drummed into people (including you and me) over centuries and for many people notions of ‘sin’ and ‘disgusting’ are almost Pavlovian reactions to certain stimuli. It doesn’t matter that marriage as an institution has been found wanting. Not all marriages remain matches made in heaven (see divorce rates) and marriages are hotbeds of domestic abuse and child sex abuse, for example (it ain’t all sweetness and light). And that’s before we begin to factor in libido mismatch. On top of this, in twenty-first century western economies (the rich parts of the world) women are enjoying a new, unprecedented measure of economic freedom; they are nowhere near as dependent on men as they once were. If we throw in the efficiency of condoms in reducing infection transfer via body fluids, contraception limiting the number of bastards, and advances in medical science which deal with most of the body fluid transfer of disease that does get through, the moral imperative is undermined – but the morality isn’t. This is important because we have to recognised that although times have changed, morality (the religious perspective) hasn’t caught up.
OK, that’s the right-wing, conservative, religious moralisers, what about the soggy liberal, democratic, socialist left? What’s their moral take on prostitution?
Not straightforward is wot.
This group, remember, focuses heavily on Foundations #1 and #2 (harm and fairness). But they don’t agree. They have different moral values (broadly) to the right wingers but sometimes differ among themselves about what is moral; morality ain’t fixed and it ain’t the same for everyone. That’s important to recognise. Most of us have been brought up to believe that there is morality and immorality. The former is good and the latter is bad. And if I adopt a ‘moral position’ my position is automatically stronger than yours. Except that it isn’t.
The thing to pick up on, of course, is the feminist position on prostitution, especially, the position of those with radical, Marxist, socialist, left wing tendencies. They look at the prostitution picture and don’t see sin, they see inequality, which is a key feature of Foundation #2. Their whole political outlook is shaped by notions of gender inequality and prostitution is a huge symbol of inequality. Why? Because money changes hands. He appears to buy the woman. She appears to be something that the man uses, sort of owns, and treats as an object not a person. And that’s wrong! However, a lot of people will be saying something like, “It’s her choice. And he doesn’t really buy her, he buys her time and she agrees what sex can take place and the whole thing is time limited; it’s not like a slave market purchase. Actually, it’s more like market forces, a straightforward issue of supply and demand, and good luck to her if she can make a buck. And after all, times have changed.”
Against that kind of resistance you need a strong argument. And that’s where moral Foundation #1 comes in, the one about caring for others and not harming others. Prostitution gets framed as an issue about victims, not sexual morality or inequality. The women involved don’t do it because they want to. They have been coerced or forced. And that’s where the twenty-first century debate is centred. Both feminists and religious moralists have adopted the same strategy. There is an ‘however’, however. In order to make the case, it’s necessary to use negative imagery (prostitution is violence against all women, prostitution sends out the message that all women can be bought, prostitution reduces women to three holes, and prostitution is an expression of pure hatred of men for women, etc., etc.) and dubious/manufactured statistics and reliance on generalisations based upon single examples. And that’s the point where some members of the liberal/socialist-left part company with the feminists in their political camp. They draw on exactly the same moral Foundations as the feminists but interpret them differently. They would argue that most of the feminist evidence is bogus and that isn’t fair or honest (Foundation #2). They also set great store by the notion of the individual’s right to be himself or herself – ‘it’s her choice’ (Foundation #2). Notions such as, “She may not feel like a victim but she doesn’t realise just how much she is self harming and so I am right to save her (bend her to my will),” simply don’t wash; actually, bend her to my will raises the hackles of sober liberal moralists because it smacks of moral Foundation #4 (toe the line, respect authority and do as I say). They also recognise that in order for the feminists to get their way, a lot, maybe the overwhelming majority of women in prostitution, are going to get hurt; in effect they become victims of the women who are trying to rescue victims (moral Foundation #1). And as far as the liberal-left is concerned, their moral take on Foundations #1 and #2 trump those of the rescue moralists.
Can we reduce the argument further? I think so. The two sides of the argument hinge on the numbers. The feminist moral position is that the vast majority (pretty much all) of women engaged in prostitution have been forced to do so (and where they can’t actually find physical coercion they resort to notions like economic coercion (she’s only doing it for the money and this is a choiceless choice). And if they are right, they should probably win the debate. The opposition, however, claim that the evidence just doesn’t stack up; rigorous scrutiny of the stats shows that the numbers aren’t there and attempts to make it a numbers issue have been repeatedly discredited. And they would be right.
But the feminists won’t concede. Haidt points to two more important issues when it comes to morality. The first is that most of us adopt a moral position and then look for the evidence. And we do that selectively; if it fits we take it and if it doesn’t fit we burn it. The second issue is that if you back a moralist into a corner they won’t concede, they will actually become more entrenched in their views. And if the corner is particularly tight they will look for an escape hatch. In terms of the prostitution debate that might look like this.
Feminist: “Nearly all women in prostitution have been forced into it.”
Prostitute: “That’s not true. I have years of experience and a wealth of insider information.”
Feminist: “I don’t dispute your personal experience but you are not representative.”
Prostitute: “Well look, for example, at the women who work in the windows of De Wallen in Amsterdam. They are highly visible and the authorities have constant and immediate access and they simply aren’t turning up the victims that you claim to exist.”
Feminist: “I don’t mean those women. They are the lucky few who get the system to work. I mean all the others, the overwhelming majority, the ones you can’t see, the ones in clubs and brothels and private houses. Actually, I mean all the ones that even I can’t see!”
And so it goes on.
It’s like the feminists are staring at an optical illusion, one of those images which can be seen in two different ways. Most of us can switch back and forth, we can see a beautiful young girl and then an old woman, we can see a vase and now we can see two face profiles. Some feminists struggle with this. They appear to suffer cognitive dissonance. This occurs when evidence contradicts a belief. Instead of questioning the belief, it becomes more entrenched. And that leads to non-victims being victimised for the sake of ideology and dubious morality (and not just in the context of prostitution). And that (surely) is wrong.