I’m fascinated by the Spitzer-inspired discussion of prostitution on blogs that identify as feminist, most of which seem to be conflicted but marginally pro-decriminalization. It’s a surprisingly utilitarian back-and-forth; few posters or commenters are arguing from self-autonomy (OK, none), and most are weighing the obvious harm of denying sex workers access to law enforcement (in the case of criminalization) against the desire not to reinforce patriarchy and/or heteronormativity (in the case of legalization). Everyone seems to assume that legalizing sex work will reinforce all sorts of ugly cultural phenomena women struggle against all the time. Writes one commenter at Feministing, “I’m politically liberal, openly feminist, and opposed to sex work precisely” because of “patriarchy” and “heterosexuality issues.”
I find this incoherent precisely because I share all the poster’s intuitions about problematic cultural norms. Of course sexism restricts autonomy in all sorts of ways that deserve consideration when discussing the prevalence of prostitution or the choice to enter sex work. Of course it’s deplorable that sexually adventurous young women are constantly told they are “degrading themselves” by seeking out various experiences, that every bit of enjoyment eats away at some secret store of purity. This whole tradition–the idea that women need be preserved in glass so as not to “ruin” themselves, lest they diminish their sexual value by “giving it away”–restricts the lived autonomy of women in ways I can’t even begin to articulate. None of the slut-shaming makes sense unless you assume women live to give themselves to men in their purest possible form.
If you find all of these cultural pathologies unfortunate, what is the public policy you should prefer? It seems to me that it is not the policy that deems it a crime against the American people to open your legs. Anti-prostitution laws add a layer of legal sanction to all of our worst intuitions about the treatment of sexually independent women; they strengthen and validate the idea that women who bed men with any frequency are sick, marginal, pariahs. Even decriminalization, which treats Johns as outlaws and sex workers as victims, assumes that all sex workers are damaged, that no woman would ever love sex enough to make a career out of it. And why not? Well, because every woman knows that she is her sexual purity rating. No sane woman would ever choose to mess that up.
In sum: If we are ever going to introduce a conceptual distinction between the moral character of individual women and the integrity of their hymens, it seems extremely important not to criminalize aberrant sexual behaviors.
For a more direct view of sexual autonomy (plus explanatory geometry!), please consult Rev. Moon.