Recently I had a couple of my college English classes working on an essay assignment where they compared and discussed contrasting viewpoints regarding the flavor of the month in progressive American politics: legalizing (or at least decriminalizing) prostitution, which its proponents describe as “sex work”.
My students’ viewpoints concerning this idea varied greatly—as their essay titles made clear. Some saw sex work as just another job and the decision to do it as a sign of personal choice and agency (“It’s My Body”) while others were frankly frightened and appalled at the prospect (“Your Legs Should Not Be Open For Business”). Many landed somewhere in the middle, not wanting to encourage prostitution but wishing to make life a little safer for those who need to sell their bodies to earn money.
I assigned this essay because we now have at least two politicians vying for the 2020 Democratic nomination for President, Kamala Harris of California and John Hickenlooper of Colorado, who have suggested this is a topic worthy of consideration. This idea has also been the subject of many serious and weighty commentaries and academic studies that support a legal framework for legitimizing what is widely known as the world’s oldest profession. Given that prostitution is now legal (sometimes with restrictions) in approximately 65% of 100 countries recently examined, the laws of the United States are an outlier insofar as legal prostitution is now permitted in only a few areas of Nevada. Public opinion polls in the U.S. seem to suggest that roughly half of Americans favor fewer punishments and more protections for prostitutes as a matter of basic fairness and compassion.
Sympathy for those perceived to be victims and a rush to shrug off the shackles of conventional morality are the two most prominent features of progressive social thought today—and these two ideas neatly dovetail when it comes to supporting the cause of sex workers. However, the liberal-minded disinclination to ever discuss values or morality—which implies making a judgement of another and is therefore forbidden—lends a certain unreality to the logic of those advocating for prostitution as a legal and legitimate form of commerce. If we reduce physical intimacy to the level of the bland and unemotional directions that we use to build a bookshelf (“Insert Part A into Slot B and press into place”), discussions of the wearying physical and emotional toil involved with daily swapping bodily fluids with strangers can be conveniently set aside in pursuit of the “right” to turn flesh into cash.
In addition, you cannot help but wonder what framework of laws and regulations will spring into existence to manage the inevitable collision of sex work and a society that will suddenly be confronted with the friendly—and now legal—prostitute on the corner. If a father expresses anger at a sex worker or sex worker supervisor who seems to be recruiting his daughter, could he be hauled into court and charged with harassing a local business owner? Will we be paying the salaries and benefits of state employees tasked with inspecting the safe installation of the sex swings hung from the ceilings of the local brothel? Will Washington lobbyists now be advocating for federal tax breaks for National Sex Work Incorporated? I cannot wait to see how the I.R.S. handles the development of a depreciation schedule for lingerie or the decision regarding whether government’s cut of the business should be classified as a Service Fee or Entertainment Tax.
In addition, given that our society still struggles at times with showing proper respect for women, one has to wonder how the status of women—who will certainly make up the vast majority of this new industry—will be affected by a new reality where it would be legal to rent a female orifice for your personal pleasure. It does not take much imagination to see a future where women are even more objectified than they still often are and teenaged girls and young women will be regularly and cruelly scrutinized as a potentially lucrative commodity. I am certain the job interviews will be interesting.
I pity the 3rd grader who, should this dystopian future actually come to pass, finally figures out what mom does for a living; realizing there is no Santa Claus will be a minor trauma by comparison. I also pity a nation where ideas as hare-brained and injurious as this regularly fly from the mouths of supposedly responsible leaders.