Even in the modern world of fast, easy access to a limitless cornucopia of pornography, there is still the flash of excitement at nudity or sex in non-pornographic movies or television. Once in high school in the middle of a discussion about an actress appearing nude in some film or another (I recall essentially no specifics of this story), my employer — a man I otherwise respect and am still close to these many years later — offhandedly mentioned he always loses respect for an actress after she appears naked on screen. My unvoiced thought then was “But … why?” I’m still baffled. She’s an actress. She took her clothes off. Where exactly does respect enter into this, or exit?
This isn’t even sex work. The failure to respect porn performers is far more acute. Consider the treatment of the now famous Duke University student when she was outed to be the porn actress, Belle Knox. Damon Linker at The Week referred to her work multiple times as “low, base, and degraded.” But why low, base, or degraded? Kevin Williamson thundered at the National Review that Knox’s
shallowness is unsurprising in that she became a public figure through participation in what may very well be the shallowest form of self-expression short of Rachel Maddow’s Twitter feed: pornography, a sad and hollow species of entertainment the point of which is to provide stimulus during masturbation.
But why sad or hollow? Pamela Hobart (then Stubbart) described how she couldn’t bear the indignity of sharing a digital letterhead with Knox. Hobart wants sex work to be legal (to be sure!) but she
can’t even implicitly condone rampant, publicized promiscuity (which even on camera and for money constitutes rampant promiscuity nonetheless). Keeping your experiments in sexual growth small and private helps to limit their potential to damage both yourself and our normative socio-sexual frameworks.
Liberty yes, but there shall be no dignity. At least she gestures toward something worthwhile actually being threatened. But it is the normativity of our socio-sexual frameworks that I want to contest.
Matters worsen dramatically when we move from the legal but shamed forms of sex work (porn, stripping) to banned and shamed forms (full service sex work). Reason writer Elizabeth Nolan Brown has helpfully catalogued the cases of police officers raping and assaulting sex workers in the US in just the last year. The prohibition of full service sex work creates conditions of exploitation, abuse, and rape apology. The sex worker can be evicted from her home, lose custody of her children, be denied “mainstream” employment opportunities, lose the benefit of the doubt before the law and public opinion, and be shunned by friends and family members, which in addition to its intrinsic emotional costs also robs her of a natural social support network. (I’ll use mostly feminine pronouns throughout, though I by no means wish to deny the validity of male, trans, or other sex workers).
For the rest of this essay I take it as given that full service sex work should be fully decriminalized. There’s some inconsistency in what “decriminalization” means, but I mean this: the voluntary exchange of sex for money by adults should be neither prohibited by law nor onerously regulated or taxed by law. Call this liberalization. The reasons follow classical black market logic and they are overwhelming. What I want to explore instead is the social esteem of sex workers. Prohibition itself could never be sustained without widespread stigmatization of sex workers. And any decriminalizing reforms will fail to eradicate the exploitation associated with sex work if they go unaccompanied by a widespread cultural shift toward esteem for the sex worker. Of course the legal and the cultural feed back into one another, so that no reevaluation of the dignity of the sex worker may be completed without liberalization, yet some cultural reevaluation must take place before any liberalization can occur.
A Sexual Dignity
In the Future of Feminist Liberalism, philosopher Martha Nussbaum discusses how human beings have dignity though we are mortal and profoundly needy.
For Kant, human dignity and our moral capacity, dignity’s source, are radically separate from the natural world. Morality certainly has the task of providing for human neediness, but the idea that we are at bottom split beings, both rational persons and animal dwellers in the world of nature, never ceases to influence Kant’s way of thinking about how these deliberations about our needs will go.
What’s wrong with the split? Quite a lot. First, it ignores the fact that our dignity just is the dignity of a certain sort of animal. It is the animal sort of dignity, and that very sort of dignity could not be possessed by a being who was not mortal and vulnerable, just as the beauty of a cherry tree in bloom could not be possessed by a diamond. If it makes sense to think of God as having dignity (I’m not sure — magnificence and awe-inspiringness seem more appropriate attributes), it is emphatically not dignity of that type. Second, the split wrongly denies that animality can itself have a dignity; thus it leads us to slight aspects of our own lives that have worth, and to distort our relation to the other animals.
We are not timeless gods trapped within corporeal bodies; we are biological through and through. Part of that biology is sexual desire. There is nothing low, base, degraded, sad, or hollow about this. Our sexual nature has as much worth as our other characteristic needs for food, shelter, fellowship, play, work, transcendence, and so on, and it is consistent with human dignity properly understood. But sexual desire is not merely (or even mostly) physical. The particular kind of animal we are is social and rational, and sexuality has important social and intellectual aspects in addition to the physical.
Sexuality is not just a procreative and biological impulse. We talk about sex, read about it (fiction and nonfiction), and yes, we like to watch it. Location, atmosphere, and our moods affect how we perceive and enjoy sex. Sex often involves a partner (at least one) and it’s a central component of those relationships. We learn about sex, explore and develop our sexualities and our erotic imaginations, and we play. Our dignity is the dignity of a sexual animal, and the intrinsic worth of our sexuality should not be slighted.
Skeptics will no doubt acknowledge that the right kind of sexual behavior is indeed dignified but sex work lies outside this circumscribed realm. But this narrow view relies on a singular set of values with a singular prescription for sexuality. But our values, conceptions of the good life, and ideas about sex are inevitably plural. Individuality, diversity, and experiments in living should be respected in sexual matters absent strong justification to do otherwise. A good guide is John Stuart Mill’s principle that coercion on an individual is only justified when it prevents harm to others, keeping in mind — as Mill did — that public shame is a species of coercion. A comparison with religious differences is apt: when we interact with people of alternative faiths in the public square, we treat them as equals deserving our respect, despite the fact that many would hold the spiritual stakes to be far higher in the case of religious differences than sexual differences.
What has been commonly thought of as deviant is actually widespread (see the figure). And while I haven’t seen any data on how common it is to fantasize about being paid for sex, it seems likely to be well north of zero. Probably one reason why sex workers face such stigma is the inability for many people to see themselves walking a mile in a sex worker’s shoes. Sex workers are seen as just immoral (as some on the religious right might contend) or as having necessarily been coerced (as many radical feminists contend). It is thought that no morally upright woman in possession of her full, informed agency could possibly choose to do sex work. But this ignores the possibility that some women do not place special emotional attachment to sex. It certainly ignores the possibility that some women enjoy sex work or find it fulfilling. Indeed, “indoor” sex work (comprising most sex work, to be contrasted with work directly from the street) does not seem to be associated with adverse psychological consequences, as summarized by sociologist Ronald Weitzer (emphases in original, citations omitted).
Research on streetwalkers and call girls in California and legal brothel workers in Nevada found that 97% of the call girls reported an increase in self-esteem after they began working in prostitution, compared with 50% of the brothel workers but only 8% of the streetwalkers. Call girls expressed positive views of their work; brothel workers were general satisfied with their work; but street prostitutes evaluated their work more negatively. Similarly, a study of indoor prostitutes (most of whom work in bars) in a Midwestern city in the United States found that three-quarters of them felt that their life had improved after entering prostitution (the remainder reported no change; none said it was worse than before); more than half said that they generally enjoy their work. In The Netherlands, three-quarters of indoor workers report that they enjoy their work. Research on 95 call girls in Sydney, Australia found that they were generally emotionally healthy. All of the escorts studied by Foltz took “pride in their profession” and viewed themselves as “morally superior” to others: “they consider women who are not ‘in the life’ to be throwing away woman’s major source of power and control [sexual capital], while they as prostitutes are using it to their own advantage as well as for the benefit of society.” And an Australian study found that half of call girls and brothel workers felt that their work as a “major source of satisfaction” in their lives, while 7 out of 10 said they would “definitely choose” this work if they had it to do over again. Other studies of indoor work report that the workers felt the job had at least some positive effect on their lives or believed that they were providing a valuable service.
The differences between street work and indoor work arise for familiar reasons. Street sex workers typically come from worse socio-economic conditions, and are more likely to have psychological and drug-related problems. They are more likely to come to sex work out of desperation than from genuinely euvoluntary choice. But “more likely” does not mean “necessarily in every case”. Individual circumstances are unique. Laura Agustin demonstrates this vividly with interviews of hard-scrabble migrant sex workers in Europe, many of whom express such “privileged class” motivations as wanderlust and adventure. Even with sex workers who have come from adverse conditions, disdain and interference are counterproductive. Sex work is a choice, even when background conditions are dire, and refusing to recognize that choice for what it is robs street sex workers of their agency.
The philosopher Elizabeth Anderson contrasts pity with compassion.
One might argue that the concern expressed by equality of fortune is simple humanitarian compassion, not contemptuous pity. We must be clear about the difference. Compassion is based on an awareness of suffering, an intrinsic condition of a person. Pity, by contrast, is aroused by a comparison of the observer’s condition with the condition of the object of pity. Its characteristic judgment is not “she is badly off” but “she is worse off than me.” When the conditions being compared are internal states in which people take pride, pity’s thought is “she is sadly inferior to me.” Compassion and pity can both move a person to act benevolently, but only pity is condescending.
Those who come to sex work out of desperation, like those who choose any job out of severe need, deserve compassion. The best way to provide this is to respect them and their choices, resist making facile assumptions, and work toward a society where those hardest on their luck can achieve the capabilities sufficient to live full lives worthy of human dignity.
Does the sex worker lifestyle — by the example it sets — hinder the advancement of sex and gender equality? Sex work may serve the patriarchy by inundating society with images of degraded women enjoying their own degradation (in pornography), and perpetuating the idea of women as mere sexual objects. Feminist Susan Brison makes this argument (in this volume) by making an analogy to race.
Suppose there were “slave auction” clubs where some blacks allowed themselves to be brutalized and degraded for the pleasure of their white customers. Suppose the black “performers” determined that, given the options, it was in their best interest to make money in this way. Their financial gain – imagine that they are highly paid – more than compensates for the social harm to them as individuals of being subjected to a slightly increased risk (resulting from the prevalence of such clubs) of being degraded and brutalized outside their workplace. Some of them even enjoy the work, having a level of ironic detachment that enables them to view their customers as pathetic or contemptible. Some, who don’t actually enjoy their work, don’t suffer distress, since they manage to dissociate during it. Others are distressed by it, but they have determined that the financial benefit outweighs the psychic and physical pain. For those blacks who did not work in the clubs, however, there would be nothing that compensated for their slightly increased risk of being degraded and brutalized as a result of it. They would be better off if the clubs did not exist. The work done by the blacks in the clubs would make it harder for other blacks to live their lives free of fear.
I take this analogy seriously. I believe that macro-scale patterns of sex- and gender-injustice obtain from individual beliefs, attitudes, and acts. That said, the analogy could only really work for “degrading” sexual acts, and run-of-the-mill sex work includes nothing of the kind. This argument has no sting for self-confident sex workers and non-sexist clients who can have sex with a person and still consider her a fully dignified equal.
But even for “degrading” sexual acts, there is a strong disanalogy between sexuality and race relations. Sexuality is playful, and not infrequently involves consciously brushing up against taboos, and subverting or parodying socially expected roles and power structures. Consider again the sexual fantasies (of men and women, it should be noted) listed in the figure. If Brison’s fears were warranted, the increasing ubiquity of porn of all varieties and the undiminished presence of full service sex workers in the modern world would exert some downward pressure on women’s social standing. Brison’s hypothesis at best exists in tension with a world of greater gender-egalitarianism.
Perhaps sex workers enable the vice of others, especially romantically committed persons. This would admittedly be a pathetic argument to include in a debate about legalization. But to take seriously the idea of normalization — what I advocate here — we should have some sense that sex work deserves an inconspicuous place in the prospering polis of virtuous citizens. Heterogeneity of experience is again illuminating. People desire the services of sex workers for a wide variety of reasons at different parts of their lives. The stereotypical married couple has no need for full service sex work, but not all married couples fit the stereotype. Single folks may give custom to sex workers for all kinds of reasons, from the whimsical to the profound. As examples of the latter, consider a young person ready to ship off for war (or some other dangerous mission) who has never had sex; or a person with a disability that sharply reduces their chances of finding a romantic partner (despite our egalitarian sentiments); or a person who, for whatever idiosyncratic reason, can only find sexual satisfaction in rare fetishes. These individuals do not need pity. But sexual fulfillment is a legitimate desire, and compassion dictates we allow these individuals to find consenting sexual partners whether money changes hands or not. No additional social burdens should be imposed on them. But the point of normalization is that reproach is inappropriate even for the bored, the curious, and the adventurous.
Sex workers are as capable as members of any profession to lead lives of virtue and self-respect. They can view their clients as ends in themselves instead of so many paychecks. But they can also discern when their clients deserve to be treated as mere means. There is no reason to believe sex workers cannot be responsible members of their communities as well as any other professionals or businesspersons. Sex workers are entrepreneurs, and the successful ones must embody all the bourgeois virtues of the commercial world. Like the rest of us, sex workers can and do extend their awareness beyond their own narrow concerns. Their very stigmatization has forced them to hone the virtue of solidarity. The existence of organizations like the Sex Worker Outreach Project, platforms like Tits & Sass, and the thriving community of sex workers on Twitter illustrate the political virtues of actively working for a better world.
The strongest evidence that sex workers and their enterprises are worthy of our respect comes from their own passionate, articulate, and intelligent voices. Indeed I hesitated to write this essay because sex workers themselves have no problem defending their own dignity. If only we would pay attention.