In a recent op-ed for The Washington Times, Grazie Pozo Christie takes feminists to task for their opposition to the shutting down of Backpage.com, a website that had long been involved in sex trafficking and sex slavery. Christie writes:
If you think feminists everywhere are celebrating the prosecution of the world’s largest online sex market, Backpage.com, as a major blow against the exploitation of women, you would be wrong. The Women’s March is perhaps the most vocal and visible group to self-appropriate the label “feminist,” but others as well have come down decisively on the side of prostitution as sexually empowering because “the real mark of feminism is trusting women to do what they want with their bodies.”
According to the Women’s March Twitter feed, “The shutting down of #Backpage is an absolute crisis ” and the crackdown is “motivated by the patriarchal notion that women should not be free to do what we want with our bodies.”
The story of Backpage.com, where thousands of children and women kept as sex slaves were being sold again and again by their pimps, illustrates how modern slavery and human trafficking pervades the sex industry—and how the “happy hooker” is a statistical blip. Most women (and of course, all children) who sell their bodies have arrived there through poverty, grooming, coercion, and a host of societal dysfunctions and failures. Even when not coerced, prostitution is a last resort for desperate women. No matter how vigorously ideologues celebrate the “choice,” renting out one’s body to a stranger comes with many obvious negatives.
Christie goes on to make a cogent and principled case. Still, given the overwhelming changes that have happened in America since birth control became widely available and since the Sexual Revolution, it is worth considering whether prostitution might become legal in this country. Of course, legalizing what most people believe to be a moral evil may now seem unthinkable. And yet, it wasn’t long ago that gay marriage and “sex change” surgery were regarded in the same manner. As American culture becomes less determined by its traditional Christian morality, the way is clear for citizens to decide moral and legal issues via a libertarian approach.
The essence of libertarianism was best captured by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty (1859).
The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right…. The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.
Here, in what is often called “the harm principle,” the feminist who advocates the legalization of prostitution may find powerful support. For while you may not approve of prostitution, what right, what authority do you have to stop the prostitute from doing her business, so long as others are not harmed? This is America, a free country—so mind your business!
Yet this immediately raises the question: What is harmful? Everybody will agree that physical pain is harmful, but outside of that it is generally difficult to make a case for which there will be consensus on whether legal intervention is justified. (I take it for granted, I should add, that the exploitation of children, and the subjection of unwilling agents generally, constitute grounds for legal intervention.) Anyway, since physical pain is the default premise, and since, presumably, the prostitute is not as a matter of course subjecting johns to physical pain, the libertarian argument for legal prostitution seems pretty compelling.
Then there is the pragmatic argument, a matter of trade-offs, at bottom. As Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs put it, “Sexual marketplaces take the shape they do because nature has biologically built a disadvantage into men: a huge desire for sex that makes men dependent on women.” Of course, for most of history female sexuality was controlled by certain official arrangements: religious, moral, and legal. But it is no longer so. Women now have the same legal status as men, and no longer being answerable to external systems, they serve as the gatekeepers of sex. Add to this female hypergamy—a socially destabilizing force, akin to global capitalism—and it follows over time that even many fairly high-value men struggle in the sexual marketplace.
That last remark calls to mind the incels, those unhappy souls about whom we have been hearing so much of late. It is important to understand, though, that they are not altogether representative of the general disadvantage men now face in eros. The situation, indeed, is much more complicated than the frustrations and resentments of the lowest sexual market-value men suggest. In his essay “Pilgrim at Tinder Creek,” the academic Andrew Kay describes his hilariously futile efforts to find a decent woman in the age of hypergamous instrumentalism, when it’s natural for women to equate Mr. Right with Mr. Perfect. Kay seems to be your classic nice guy (read: weak and boring to the most selective women), and certainly he is intelligent, successful, and not unattractive. And yet, many women found him “inadequate.”
While Kay is a benign figure, as we know from the incels, many men are not so. In fact, men who lack access to sexual partners have always been a dangerous social evil, and as female hypergamy, like global capitalism, runs its unforgiving course, we should expect that problem to become more prevalent. In the face of this, legal prostitution may be a means of mitigating one evil by tolerating what is arguably another.
However appalling it may be to Christians, this view, in a certain sense, is not so far from Christianity itself. It is best to be chaste, according to St. Paul, but if we lack the will for that, marriage is the next best option. Per the pragmatic argument, legal prostitution is a somewhat similar compromise on what, after all, has always been a material arrangement, founded on value exchange. Besides, from a historical point of view, monogamy and marriage are essentially customs based on prudence and utility, and no more consistent with human nature itself than are prostitution, polygamy, or hookup culture.