Privileging Fantasy over Reality

Basically, Dianne Post’s argument in her latest, “Prostitution Reinforces the Subordination of Women”, boil down to “prostitution is wrong because I don’t like it.”  She fails to provide even a single valid reason why the reader should accept her flat statement that the exchange of money somehow transforms a perfectly normal act that few would consider intrinsically harmful into the bane of female existence she paints it as; furthermore, she asks us to believe that the majority of sex workers are “owned” by pimps, brothel owners and criminal gangs, that they are “sold at auction in a market”, and that these ruffians “brand them and they kill them if they rebel or try to escape.”  But none of these things are true except in the rarest and most unusual circumstances, and the conditions which produce such exploitation are neither unique to the sex trade nor restricted to women.  Study after study has demonstrated exactly the opposite:  the overwhelming majority (about 98%, as I explained in my lead essay) of sex workers make the best choice available to them under the circumstances, which are no more or less constrained than the choices of other men and women from similar backgrounds.

However, Post also tells us that even if she recognized this lurid fantasy for what it is, she would still believe the selling of sex was wrong for reasons she cannot adequately explain.  Her attempt to do so largely consists of an ill-considered comparison to slavery, but I must point out that since slavery is unpaid labor, the unpaid sexual labor people provide to others (for all the myriad reasons humans have sex) might be considered a step closer to it than the paid sexual labor practiced by sex workers.  Indeed, it is not unusual for sex workers to half-jokingly criticize other women for giving their sexual favors away rather than charging for them; a recent example of this was the “#banfreebies” hashtag on Twitter (, under which sex workers from around the world lampooned the arguments of prohibitionists by joking that women who don’t charge suffer from “false consciousness,” that they are “victims” in need of “rescue,” that unpaid sex is a form of rape, etc.  The ease with which these propagandistic statements are reversed from paid sex to unpaid reveals the plain truth of the matter:  that there is no clear and substantive moral difference between the various motives for which a person might have sex.  An external observer might have a hard time discerning whether a person had chosen to engage for pleasure, love, intimacy, gratitude, excitement, spiritual fulfillment, money, or any other reason, yet Ms. Post asks us to believe that the one single motive, money, is somehow “wrong” and harmful.  Perhaps she believes commercial exchanges are inherently demeaning to women, in which case it’s unclear how hiring oneself for sex could be any worse than hiring oneself as a writer, advocate, or teacher.  Or, given that Post cited Sheila Jeffreys in her second essay, it may be that she accepts Jeffreys’ doctrine that the very act of heterosexual union is intrinsically subordinating to the female; if that is the case, it’s difficult to imagine how commercial sex could be especially so, when its terms are usually negotiated much more clearly than those of the noncommercial variety.  

But aside from all this, Post’s argument appears to rely on a deeper, even more abhorrent concept.  Those who wish to control others’ lives often insist that the private, consensual behavior of individuals has some mystical negative effect on people who do not know them and are in no position to be affected by them in any way. Individuals are told that the violent abrogation of their personal autonomy is necessary for the advancement of abstractions like “The Faith” or  “national pride”; in this case it’s “the equality of women.”  Post claims that sex work is not merely harmful to the individual, but to an imaginary gestalt entity comprising all Womankind, whose needs (as defined by governmental feminists) supersede those of individual women; though she speaks theoretically of the freedom and dignity of each individual, in reality the system she supports (the Swedish model of criminalization) uses police violence to suppress peaceful, consensual behavior which offends the sensibilities of those in power.  And while she claims this violence will somehow free the feminine gestalt from what she views as “subordination,” individual women who fail to conform to the State’s definition of “integrity” are infantilized, spied upon, denied a livelihood, deprived of their children, and evicted from their homes.  All of her hand-waving about “slavery” is designed to obscure the fact that around the world, in every country, the vast majority of sex workers are unified in calling for decriminalization; indeed, the entire premise of her essay is that our wishes are less important than feminists’ feelings that our work is “demeaning to women.” 

Last Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada listened to us; in a unanimous decision it struck down the Canadian laws which make sex work more difficult and dangerous, laws which served no purpose other than to “send a message” of the sort Ms. Post favors.  And in doing so, the court made a clear declaration of its own:  that such “messages” are unacceptable in a civilized society when they cause harm to the individuals on whom they are imposed.  It may be that Canada’s conservative government may attempt to impose new and even worse laws in place of those which were overturned; there are many who believe, as Post does, that the violent suppression of individual rights is a “price worth paying” to promote their personal ideas of morality and social purity.  But fortunately, such people no longer form an overwhelming majority as they once did, and ever-larger numbers are beginning to recognize that the rights of individuals must always take precedence over collective fantasies, no matter how dear they may be to those who believe in them.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Sex work is ubiquitous. Where a substantial demand exists, some people will inevitably try to meet that demand for a price. Retired call girl and madam Maggie McNeill reviews the various legal regimes that have been set up to regulate and/or prohibit sex work. She concludes that many approaches, particularly the most restrictive ones, increase the likelihood of harm to all participants. They tend to infantalize women and invest law enforcement with arbitrary and dangerous powers. She argues that the best approach is a regime of simple legalization, without licensing or heavy restrictions.

Response Essays

  • Prof. Ronald Weitzer argues that prostitution should be treated as a legal commercial transaction. He finds that much of the conventional wisdom on the sex trade is the result of generalizing from experience under legal regimes where it is criminalized. He argues that in a legally tolerant regime, many of the problems we observe today would vanish. He argues for a set of “best practices” that would entail some government regulation of sex work, including subjecting business owners to background checks and licensing, zoning regulations, and restrictions on advertising. These measures would make decriminalization politically palatable and protect against a possible backlash. He also finds, contrary to McNeill’s claim, that no country has fully deregulated sex work.

  • Dianne Post argues that prostitution is a form of exploitation, and that the only proper response is to abolish it. Prostitution, she argues, only exists because of material inequalities. Worse, it tends strongly to produce further inequalities – material, social, and political in nature. Prostitution traps women in economic dependency on men, and it encourages men to view women merely as commodities. Following this strong normative case against prostitution, Post looks at the empirical evidence, where she concludes that experiments with legalization have all been failures. She praises the “Nordic Model” approach to sex work, in which in which sex workers’ clients are prosecuted, rather than the women involved in prostitution.

  • Steven Wagner argues that the large majority of prostitutes are not workers at all, because they are not acting voluntarily: they are enslaved. The personal experiences of Ms. McNeill notwithstanding, many others have suffered horribly in prostitution, and even left-leaning governments like that of France under the socialists have justifiably outlawed the sex trade. Wagner likewise prefers the Swedish approach, in which prostitutes are not treated as criminals, but those who attempt to buy sex are.