Friday, 26 August 2011

The Wrongness of Prostitution

Recently I had a protracted dispute with two philosophers on Twitter over the moral status of prostitution. The conversation settled on this topic after an initial altercation concerning reality television but there's little doubt that the subject of prostitution is of much greater interest than reality television. Essentially my inter-locutors presented two alternative views of prostitution to the conception that it is morally wrong. On the one hand, the argument was ventured that dislike of prostitution is an aesthetic rather than a moral stance and, on the other, the argument was made that it is essentially not different to any other trade. The second of these arguments seems to me more worthy of consideration than the first, not least because it cuts to the core of the disagreement. The first argument can only really be responded to by showing that the reasons for objecting to prostitution are primarily moral rather than aesthetic ones. In this posting I want to list the reasons for considering prostitution morally objectionable at greater length than can be done in a set of tweets but should add that it is only as a moral question it is here being treated, not as a jurisprudential one though there are certainly important questions in the latter area. But there is here, as elsewhere, no simple move from moral to jurisprudential considerations. Finally, I should make clear that in presenting arguments concerning the wrongness of prostitution it is the trade as a whole that is being so considered, not simply, or even primarily, the acts of the prostitute alone. Acts of clients are just as much viewed here as wrong, perhaps, though I'll leave this open for the sake of the argument here, it is the clients who are engaging in acts that are much more wrong than the prostitutes themselves. Finally, gender matters are recognised in the discussion in the sense that the feminine article is preferred for the reference to the prostitute, not to deny that there are male prostitutes but they are rather less numerous.

As I brought out in a posting sometime ago Kant's arguments in the area of sexuality have a great deal in common with those of some contemporary feminists. This is particularly true with regard to his views of "objectification" and this matters here since one of the central arguments concerning prostitution is the view that what makes it "wrong" is that it involves objectification. In order to begin with an assessment of this claim it is first necessary to specify what the notion of "objectification" involves. In the Stanford Encyclopedia article on feminism and objectification a number of features are listed as involving objectification, seven from a study of Martha Nussbaum's and a further three from Rae Langton. They are:

1. A purely instrumental relation to the person is involved which treats the person in question as merely a "tool" for the other's use.
2. Denial of autonomy: a person who is objectified is treated in a way that denies their autonomy and self-determination.
3. The objectified person is treated as inert: meaning by this that their agency is denied.
4. They are viewed as fungible: that is, as inter-changeable with objects.
5. They are viewed as violable: meaning by this, that their person has no integral boundaries that cannot be crossed.
6. The person is treated as something that can be owned by another.
7. The person in question has no feelings that need be taken into account so we deny their subjectivity (correlate of viewing them as an object).
8. They are reduced to their body and identified only with their body.
9. They are reduced to their appearance so they are treated only in terms of how they look.
10. They are treated as if they had no capacity of speech (silenced).

Now it is clear from just looking at this list that not all of these characteristics apply to how the prostitute is related to and that some of them apply to wider relations than the one the prostitute is specially part of. This particularly applies to the last 3 characteristics listed (all taken from Rae Langton). Reduction to appearance, for example, applies to fashion models, film stars, body-builders, athletes and others. Reduction to body is a more subtle notion but surely the person of the athlete is, again, largely conflated with their body parts. Finally, silencing, whilst perhaps not applicable as a wide characteristic is not specific to prostitution and need not apply to it. So I think none of these three characteristics can be regarded as either necessary or sufficient ways of marking wrong-making aspects of prostitution.

Others that are listed apply to only certain types of prostitution.  Denial of autonomy is often part of prostitution and is part of the reason why prostitution is thought to involve exploitation frequently. In such cases it likely features alongside inertness but it could be argued the presence of these features are contingent elements of prostitution that relate to it being a trade engaged in by poor people often without their real consent being part of the transaction. Given that this is so the wrong-making characteristics here are part of a general pattern of injustice that need not apply to the prostitute's trade in principle.

So the real challenge of showing the wrongness of prostitution occurs with regard to the view that it is only contingent elements of the relationship that mark it as possessing wrong-making characteristics but that ideally it need possess no such elements. This would be the case, for example, if the prostitute operates without being coerced or exploited in the above indicated ways. In such an ideal case, which can be said to happen with what are euphemistically termed "high-class" prostitutes, the characteristics that are contingent appear not to be present.

So which characteristics remain and how do they suffice to render prostitution a trade unlike others in being wrong in principle? Again, they cannot include "ownership" if what is meant by that is that the prostitute can, as a whole, be sold (slavery). This is ruled out in such an ideal case and, in any case is wrong for its own reasons which are not specific to prostitution and would apply just as much to other cases.

What we are left with from our original list are instrumentality, fungibility, violability and denial of subjectivity, four characteristics of "objectification" that can be said to be wrong-making characteristics that, whilst perhaps not only applicable to prostitution could be said to be essential to it and its wrongness. Let's look at these criteria a bit more closely. Denial of subjectivity might be thought not to be essential in the sense that the ideal case being considered has assumed consent on the prostitute's part to a relationship that is not inherently exploitative. However what we can see by removing the characteristics that make the prostitutive relation exploitative is that it is not these exploitative elements that are conclusive in making prostitution deny the subjectivity of the prostitute.

The reason I make this claim is that the denial of the feelings of the prostitute, during the time of the transaction, is part of the point of the contract. The prostitute does not, during the period the contract defines, have lea-way to determine that at this point their feelings count. Should their feelings count at any stage of the relationship, count, that is, in such a way that they could, of themselves, determine what can and cannot happen now, then the prostitute will only have engaged in a partial transaction and the client would have grounds, if this is to be regarded simply as trade, to claim that they had not been delivered the product offered. And on those grounds they could sue for compensation. So it doesn't seem to me that denial of the subjectivity of the prostitute, at least during the period covered by the contract, can be removed from the relationship in question, even should we be speaking of an ideal transaction.

It is possible that the presence of denial of subjectivity is taken not to be essential to prostitution to some though I would require arguments for how the contract in question could possibly incorporate recognition, during the transaction, of subjectivity without violating delivery of service. The next element would be violability which is likely to be controversial in the same kind of way as denial of subjectivity and in this case I can concede part of the critic's case. The boundary of the prostitute is leaky in the sense that very different kinds of access to their body can be incorporated into distinct contracts such that it is not obvious how the prostitute can defend any part of their body from being included in the transaction. However it is the case that the prostitute in question could set guide-lines here such that certain types of act would never be regarded by her or him as permissible. In this sense violability is not necessarily an absolute characteristic of prostitution but perhaps only a relative one. I remain unconvinced, however, that this concession matters much since I am unclear as to how violability applies to other trades.

However the key characteristics that make prostitution wrong do nonetheless appear to reside in the first and fourth levels of objectification, namely, in viewing the person only instrumentally and purely fungibly. The instrumental characteristic alters the sexual relationship so that it involves nothing that requires reference, during the time of the transaction, to purposes that are those of the prostitute herself. So, during the time specified by the contract, the prostitute is put at the disposal of the client. This instrumental relation might be thought, however, not to be distinctive to the trade of prostitution. It might be argued that such instrumental relation is part of trade in general. However, if we look at other trades I don't find that this is so. So, to take an arbitrary example, it is true that a builder has purposes set for them by their client in the sense that they don't get to build things simply by virtue of their own wish to do so. They respond instead to the directives of their clients. However, whilst this is true, the manner and way the contract can be executed has a number of ways of being interpreted. The prostitute has no such lee-way of interpretation. What this suggests is that instrumentality is here understood in a relatively narrow sense in the prostitute's case and it is this which distinguishes her case from those of others.

Fungibility is, however, almost certainly the most serious problem with prostitution. The prostitute is treated as inter-changeable with things (such as sexual toys or inanimate objects). She is treated as on a par with these things in a relationship that would otherwise be expected to be intimate. This characterisation is quite different from what occurs in other trades since, whilst labour can often be replaced by operation of things, it is nonetheless not true that such fungibility is usually part of an intimate relationship between individuals.

These characterisations emerge from general consideration of the prostitute's trade. However, the fungible aspect with which I concluded also move us someway towards Kant's comments on sexual matters indicating the ways in which sexuality brings in matters of specific concern. Sexual relations are characterised, as Kant puts it, as involving someone becoming an object of appetite for someone else. In this respect there is something specific about sexuality that invites objectified relations. Kant thinks there is only a contractual solution to this problem in the form of monogamous marriage but that involves matters of jurisprudence that I've deliberately prescinded from here.

The point about fungibility in Kant's view is that the sexual relationship involves merely treating the person as a thing that can be related to for the purposes of satisfaction of an appetite. This is what specifically and clearly occurs in the prostitute relationship and is the point of the reference to the absence of intimacy (which reinforces my suggestion that the denial of subjectivity is not a separable part of the prostitution relation). For Kant the key question is one of respect for humanity and what is meant by respect for humanity is respect for rational capacity to set one's ends. 

The defenders of the prostitute contract as effectively being no different to other trades assert in response that the prostitute has adopted the rational choice of an end in choosing her trade. However the question is not whether the trade has been freely chosen, which we can grant in the ideal case, but whether such choice is a rational one. This is how Kant's universalisation test for the categorical imperative works by suggesting that there is a contradiction in a maxim that cannot be universalised and that this shows the wrongness of the activity in question. In relation to prostitution the question is best framed with regard to the notion of respect for humanity.

Respect for humanity is expressed in conduct that either preserves or enhances rational capacities. Does prostitution at least "preserve" such capacities? Not on the view I have suggested simply because it enshrines the contractual commitment of one of the parties to subordinate her rational capacities to the appetites of the other. Viewed in this way it cannot be universalised and is thus marked as wrong. So Kant's argument, as suggested above, focuses on instrumentality viewed in terms of fungibility. 

Widening the points above out, many feminists whilst generally agreeing with the Kantian analysis add the point that social subordination is an essential part of the prostitute's relation and that this again is distinct from other trades. So the prostitute is subordinate to the client, not least because the work in question cannot be reciprocated. This is effectively a combination of the point about fungibility with one about denial of subjectivity as the point about subordination is really part of a complaint about the lack of intimacy in a relation where we have a right to expect such intimacy.

Perhaps, in conclusion, the argument concerning prostitution does demonstrate a general problem with moral arguments since it might be thought that there is something intuitive at work here that is not shared between disputants and that this generally affects moral disputes. I suspect something of this sort might be true but that nonetheless listing of considerations might lead to clarity of argument in a general sense and at least make clearer which characteristics are properly disputed as having serious wrong-making force.


Tim Brown said...

I agree with your application of Martha Nussbaum and Rae Langton's respective views on objectification--at least, I agree to a point. I'm afraid you may have: (1) understated the similarities between prostitution and other occupations, (2) understated the potential for objectification in said occupations, and (3) overstated the prevalence of both instrumentality and fungibility in prostitution. In the end, I fail to see how either objectification or disrespect are essential to (or even necessitated by) prostitution.

Above, you compare prostitution to construction work--this comparison fails because it doesn't draw attention to just how violated a person can feel after a long day of repetitive work. A better comparison would be between the work of a prostitute and that of a factory laborer (any monotonous job fits here). Imagine that your job is to press steel bumpers using large stamping machines. You must first place a sheet of metal on a plate, align the sheet properly, press down on two levers to activate the stamp, remove the bumper from the machine, and repeat the process. There are, however, two problems. Safety is of utmost concern to your employer, so all bumper-stampers are required to wear arm braces that pull the arms out of the stamper once the stamp is activated. The jerking motion of the safety harness causes a mild soreness in the arms. Also, to your dismay, steel splinters worm their way under your fingernails (even with gloves). The filaments take 10 to 15 minutes to remove during your 30 minute lunch break. The job is hard, and it only pays minimum wage.

How might we interpret the bumper stamper's life? I have no qualms about using the term “interpret” here, as there is an interpretive leap being made. To put it another way, would we say that the stamper's employers have violated them somehow? Are they regarded as "merely means to ends?"

In the case of the factory worker, the question can only be answered by further analysis of the workplace. How does the employer feel about employee unions? Does the employer provide workman's compensation, retirement pension, health insurance, sick leave, and maternity/paternity leave? Does the employer make his workers compete with one another?--feel welcome? The factory worker's potentially painful and dangerous tasks, however, are not what's in question. What matters more is the way the factory worker is treated by other human beings.

Tim Brown said...

Now consider the happy prostitute. She enjoys sex enough, and she enjoys doing it as a profession. She has a list of clients of her own choosing. She dictates the terms of every sexual encounter: the cost, the time, the place, what's allowed and what isn't. Just outside her room is her roommate who can protect her if her clients do not comply (the police are supposed to serve this role). Given these conditions, it is not clear why we ought to call prostitution disrespect. As we see with factory labor, we talk the disrespect of relevant parties. If the clients don't (a) treat the prostitute as if she were *merely* replaceable or (b) treat the prostitute as a *mere* means to pleasure (a mere object of pleasure), how can we call prostitution wrong?

But even if a client does treat the prostitute as a mere means to an end, how does that render the entire prostitution enterprise immoral? If a person is treated as a mere object, it is the form of the sexual act that is salient not the sex itself. A few analogies could be made here: it's not the word “fuck” that is harmful, but how it's said; it's not the violent image that is harmful, but its situation in some context; it's not the office job that's harmful, but the person who threatens to replace his workers at every turn. It's not sex for money that objectifies; instead, it's client's the use of prostitute for objectification's sake. Choose one form: “I can get a whore anywhere, I don't need you” or “Shut up. You have a job to do, so do it.” In either case, it's not the sex-for-money that is the problem, it's the client's disregard for the prostitute's very humanity. 

Gary Banham said...

Thanks Tim for your extended comments and replies raising issues I agree are entirely salient to the discussion. Taking your points in turn:
1) the similarities between prostitution and other occupations. You illustrate this two ways, firstly by discussing the unpleasant and often degrading nature of other occupations and secondly by asking us to see how the prostitute could control her trade such that it was not rendered unpleasant to her. With regard to the second point, however, I don't see it as that relevant whether the prostitute "enjoys" sex or not given that the act in question here is not comparable to other sexual acts in the relevant manner (i.e. is absent intimacy).
However I grant your first point, namely, that lots of trades are capable of being prosecuted in ways that are degrading and which require conditions being built into them to say they involve respect for the humanity of the person in question. That's entirely right I think.
However, the point I was making here is that, however the conditions are specified with regard to the prostitute, however well she sets her terms of trade, still there is an element in it of objectification along the lines set out in the article. You don't address this point really but instead simply indicate disbelief concerning the point.
Your considered argument is to the effect that the client may not (a) consider the prostitute as a mere means and (b) as replaceable. The replaceability point is, I agree, tricky in the sense that the client could come to view the relation they have with a particular prostitute as especially important to them and not something that could be replicated by another. However here we come to a boundary line. Should this develop into an intimate relationship of the kind that is not specific to prostitution the question will arise as to what it is that requires there here still to be trade involved at all? Would not such intimacy lead naturally to a relation that was non-prostitutive? If not, what is to prevent replaceability coming back into the equation.
With regard to treating "merely as a means" I don't see how this could ever fail to be part of the relation. The prostitute is being used for a specific human purpose without the feelings, relations and intimacy that we expect within that purpose. It is stripping this out that ensures the relation becomes commercially available. But taking it also involves treating "merely as a means".

Tim Brown said...

Right, Gary. Thanks for your response. I don't address the point—I wanted you to illustrate what that element of objectification is that makes prostitution wrong. I'm starting to see it now.

I've argued that in an ideal situation, objectification is no longer exists. I also argue that it is the style or demeanor of the act that has the moral content here. You argue that the act necessitates objectification. We must say that prostitution renders the prostitute fungible because otherwise the relationship becomes irreplaceable, and prostitution is devoid of intimacy. We must also say that prostitution renders the worker as merely a means to some end.

Both problems arise only if we presume that the relationship between sex worker and client is a cold one. Why should we accept this? I will admit that the intimacy is not the same you'd find between the married, or between lovers-at-first-sight; but there are other forms of intimacy we can imagine between the sex worker and her client. We use a bank teller as a means to our money, but we do not treat her like an ATM. Even closer to the point, we still should ask the masseuse how their day has been, show them kindness, etc.  Equally, I can easily imagine a sexual code of conduct, kind words exchanged, fondness reciprocated. The service exchanged is still sex, but what is left out are all the trappings of a romantic relationship: the deeper feelings of commitment, the strong obligations, the open and complete exchange of thoughts..

I still don't know what aspect of prostitution objectifies in itself. 

Gary Banham said...

Thanks for your latest Tim which was very helpful and I suspected your basic argument was that objectification is only a contingent and not a necessary aspect of prostitution. It is good to get this clarified as it makes manifest where the real difference of view between us resides. I am claiming that objectification is an essential part of the prostitutive relation so let me go through again why I think this is so.

I take four elements of objectification to be part of the prostitutive relation. I assume these to be:

1) denial of subjectivity
2) violability (though, as I'll add, there are some complications with this)
3) fungibility
4) instrumentality

Going through these in turn, I should add it is was the first that I was referring to in my last reply and that your point about intimacy touches on. You are right that when we engage the bank clerk (which is instrumental) there is no need to view them as equivalent to an ATM (which would be to treat them as fungible). So, correct, instrumentality does equate with fungibility. However, I was instead referring to denial of subjectivity which is a different point. So I'll try now to separate these characteristics out.

Denial of subjectivity is part of the prostitutive contract I have suggested in one key sense. This is that the provision of recognition of feelings on the part of the prostitute can *never* (even under ideal conditions) form part of the contract. This does not entail, you are quite right, that the relationship *has* to be cold. It could well be that the prostitute engages with a particularly considerate client and that said client takes account of her feelings and presses nothing upon her that would violate recognition of those feelings. So, in principle, the client can recognise her subjectivity but, and this is what is crucial for me, his contract with her could *never* do so. Were the contract itself to recognise this then it would transform the relationship into one in which the subjectivity of the prostitute was officially recognised as such and, in so doing, her fungibility would be compromised. What makes her tradeable, in other words, is precisely that her subjectivity is denied a constitutive role in the relation with her that is prostitutive.

Violability is more complicated because, as I indicated in the original posting, there is nothing absolute about it here. The prostitute can, for example, dictate contractual terms such that some elements of her body are "off-bounds". In this sense violability is only a relative part of her situation. However, the problem I have here is that I don't see how it is part of the recognised situation of other trades to include it. I am unsure on that point and may be willing to concede it but at present it strikes me that violability (even though only relative) is essential to prostitution and only contingent in other trades if present in them at all.

Fungibility and instrumentality go together as aspects of objectification. She is fungible in being trade-able, capable of being treated as a commodity and viewed in this way as replaceable by things. That is surely essential to the prostitute's trade but, arguably, not exclusive to it. I think I can agree that others are similarly fungible but when fungibility is added to denial of subjectivity and instrumentality something different arises.

Finally, instrumentality, the suggestion I made in the posting is not merely that the prostitute is treated like this but she is so in a narrow sense. I'd need persuasion that it wasn't a narrow sense that was applicable.

Moises said...

Just a note, seeing that Tim pretty much has said what I would've said.

"On the one hand, the argument was ventured that dislike of prostitution is an aesthetic rather than a moral stance."

I think it might be helpful to clarify that this wasn't put forward so much as an argument for prostitution as a tentative explanation of why most people would see prostitution as inherently bad even if it weren't. Another explanation might involve social convention or religious influence on people's views, even the non-religious. None of them mutually exclusive. The main argument is the one you address. Thanks to both for this intelligent discussion.

Gary Banham said...

Hi Moses, thanks for your additional comment. I understand some might disapprove of prostitution for aesthetic reasons or, as you say, for religious ones. I agree these can be combined with moral ones or presented by someone in a "mixed" way that is often not easy to disentangle.

Gary Banham said...

Sorry to get your name wrong: Moises not Moses!!

Yojimbo said...

I came to this blog and post through one on cosmopolitics but could not resist peeking into this. I basically study workers and labour economics and the validity of prostitution had been raised and subject to heated debate.
However, this led to me introspect on how exactly prostitution was different from other professions.

And what I realised was that it was similar to all other occupations.

Except in the case of 'violability'. 'Violability' viewed as 'violation of the personal space'.
No worker in any trade has to subject their body (as a demarcated, unique space) from being invaded and used by someone else (a foreign body). This is a violent humiliation when someone wilfully enters your space and - what is most personal to your being - your body.
It is perhaps the ultimate end of all the holy concepts of private property, privacy and personal space.

I am no expert in philosophy but an ardent student and hence if this argument has already been stated and disproved - then I would like to be illuminated.

Gary Banham said...

Thanks for your comment Yojimbo: good to have another contribution to the debate on this posting, particularly coming from someone who studies questions connected to labour since the source of this posting was precisely to determine a sense in which, even under the most ideal conditions, a prostitute's "labour" has characteristics that are distinct from those of other workers.

If you look above to my reply dated 28th August you'll see I there treated of four characteristics that I took to be both elements of objectification and part of the prostitute's situation. In that reply I specifically indicated that my view of violability was less sweeping than you have suggested here. The reason why we here differ is I, think, because we have viewed this property in different ways. You are stressing the way in which violability specifies that the internal body is opened to another (Dworkin also writes quite a bit about this in her book *Intercourse* where she gives this as a problem with women's position in sex as such). I, however, was stressing a different sense of violability in my earlier reply. I was pointing to the way that a contract exists in the prostitutive relation. There has to be an agreement between prostitute and client concerning what is within the bounds of the contact between them and the prostitute is often (and certainly in the ideal case would) be in a position to indicate clearly what she will and will not allow in the area of violability. So it need not be absolute though you are right it always has to be present.

Back in that reply, however, I was careful to stress that whilst violability is relative in the prostitute's situation, its presence is part of her condition and this could not be otherwise though I also there stressed that denial of subjectivity is likewise essential to her condition in a way it is not essential to other types of labour (even if it can be present in them). So I don't think it is only violability that makes this condition different. It is true other forms of objectification are present in other kinds of labour but the presence of this two (violability and denial of subjectivity) impacts on the presence of fungibility and instrumentality to change the character of these latter and it is the inter-relation of these four distinct types of objectification that is, I think, essential to prostitution.

Yojimbo said...

Thanks for your reply, Gary.

There is a reason why I stress 'violability' as a differentiating factor. As you wisely point out, all the other characteristics of objectification are intrinsic to some degree in most occupations (for employees).

A classic example I would like to point out is assembly-line manufacturing - A very high degree of objectification exists here where aspects such as fungibility, instrumentality, denial of subjectivity all are strongly present and lead to the objectification of the worker. Service-oriented jobs where the degree of objectification (leading to 'alienation') was perceived to be lesser are thus sought out for. Thus, all aspects of objectification especially denial of subjectivity are found in assembly-manufacturing jobs especially non-unionised ones.

Thus, I arrived at the conclusion that the clinching differentiator was that of 'violability'. There are perhaps no other formal occupations where a worker who is employed allows their employer to even lay a finger on their person and thus this profession becomes unique - in the physical world.

It is true that the prostitute enters into a voluntary contract with the terms of contract set out. This is troublesome in the case of sex-workers because their agreements are often informal - and thus have no legal recognition.

Perhaps, the question really is that if a worker entered a contract allowing themselves to be abused by their employer - will it be socially acceptable?

Prostitution, unfortunately will remain a deeply controversial topic because perhaps at the core of it - is the nature of man itself.

PS - Thanks for the Dworkin suggestion.