Prostitution and Liberalism

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Prostitution and Liberalism

by Ari Armstrong, November 12, 2001

The CU Campus Libertarians hosted a debate November 6 about prostitution. Wendy McElroy, a libertarian feminist, argued the practice should be decriminalized. Kathleen Barry, a professor at Pennsylvania State, argued the consumers of prostitution should suffer criminal penalties. On some issues, the speakers made surprisingly similar points. At times, however, a wide ideological gulf separated the women's views.


Brian Schwartz, Wendy McElroy, Matt Zenthoefer, Heather Demarest, Flux Neo, John Thrasher, and Alex Baia meet for the November 6 debate at CU.

One central question was whether prostitution is inherently exploitative. McElroy argued that prostitution can be consensual and that many prostitutes choose that lifestyle. She acknowledged that some prostitutes are subjected to rape and violence, though she said such problems occur in a minority of cases. Such problems are largely caused by the laws intended to prohibit the practice. Prostitutes cannot call the police for protection and they cannot have contracts enforced in court. If McElroy is correct (as I think she is), most problems with prostitution can be eliminated through a combination of decriminalization (with normal legal protection) and cultural persuasion.

McElroy reviewed some of the history of feminism. Through the 1970s, feminists and prostitutes formed alliances, and prostitution was often seen as an empowerment of women. Then, in the 80s, the common view among feminists shifted and held prostitution in contempt. According to McElroy, this new "radical" feminism is condescending toward prostitutes and refuses to grant them personal choice.

Barry argued that prostitution is inherently exploitative and the result of our "patriarchal" society. Barry linked this patriarchy to American capitalism. During the question period, somebody asked Barry if all business leaders should also be sent to prison because of the "exploitative" nature of their activities. Barry responded that she wouldn't mind if CEOs were forcibly "re-educated." (I immediately thought of Orwell.)

Tensions in Barry's thinking came to light at several points during the evening. For instance, McElroy argued that, based on her own empirical research in the U.S., most prostitutes do not solicit business on the streets, but instead are call girls or something similar. To this, Barry responded that, because society as a whole is characterized by a tiny wealthy class, a "vanishing" middle class, and a vast under class, it is therefore obvious that prostitution must also be similarly structured. Barry continually characterized prostitution as though it consisted mostly of women on the streets.

Barry didn't offer any empirical analysis to back up her position. She didn't explain why we should believe society as a whole is analogous to prostitution. She didn't address the issue of how current prohibition laws contribute to the problems many prostitutes face. And, she didn't offer anything other than Marxist dogma as to why we should believe society as a whole consists of a few "haves" and the masses of "have-nots."

The only way anti-capitalists are able to claim the middle class is "vanishing" is to continually re-define poverty at higher levels of wealth. In reality, though I technically lived in "poverty" for several years, I maintained a standard of living unmatched even by the wealthiest persons a couple hundred years ago, or even a hundred years ago. (That said, obviously many CEOs today benefit from government subsidies and regulations, which libertarians decry as hostile to the free market.) Barry neglected to discuss why women's rights have flourished with the rise of free markets.

Similarly, Barry repeated the claim that women (in the U.S.) make less pay for comparable work. Critics argue that when scheduling flexibility is factored in, the pay is about equal. Of course, Barry would probably counter that women are "forced" to take jobs with more scheduling flexibility because of the pressures placed on them by men.

Valeria Damiao asked Barry a question that begins to unravel the tensions in Barry's perspective. Barry believes that those who solicit prostitution should face legal sanctions, but prostitutes should not. Damiao asked if a law would be sexist if it failed to arrest women who bought sexual services from men.

Barry acknowledged that such a law would be sexist, thereby taking the stand that women who solicit male (or female, presumably) prostitutes for sex should be arrested.

The problem this raises for Barry should be obvious: if female prostitution is inherently wrong because it is a product of patriarchal exploitation, then what could possibly justify arresting women who purchase sexual services? This apparent absurdity begins to eat away at Barry's claim that prostitution is inherently exploitative.

Indeed, Barry admitted the limitations of her view. Another questioner asked if, in some other cultural context, prostitution could be carried on in a non-exploitative way. Barry said that if everybody were treated equally as an individual, absent any patriarchal power structures, "the question of exploitation would be moot."

McElroy maintained that, despite social pressures and bigotry toward women, women in today's society can still choose to be prostitutes in a way that doesn't exploit them. While society does play a huge role in the way individuals develop, McElroy said, still the individual maintains the possibility of making basically independent choices.

McElroy argued that Barry's attempt to arrest the men still infringes on the female prostitutes' personal choices. An analogous case, McElroy noted, would be telling lawyers they are free to practice law, except all their clients are subject to arrest.

In general, though Barry said on numerous occasions her goal is to "liberate" women, her policies are heavy handed. Again, I immediately thought of Orwell: freedom is slavery. Barry wants to "liberate" female prostitutes by sending out men with guns to arrest the prostitutes' clients.

McElroy argued that laws which arrest men who solicit female prostitutes actually hurt the prostitutes. She noted that political organizations of prostitutes routinely denounce such laws. The reasoning is fairly straight-forward: when the police arrest the men, the well-to-do men who would be harmed by such publicity don't solicit prostitutes as often. Thus, prostitutes face a reduced demand for their services and can't be as selective. When more prostitutes do business with less reputable men, the inevitable result is more problems for the prostitutes. McElroy pointed to statistics showing increased violence against prostitutes in the wake of such laws. Barry never addressed McElroy's claims.

However, it would be a mistake to over-emphasize the difference between the speakers' views. Barry argued that most prostitutes face violence and do drugs to distance themselves from their activities. McElroy said the magnitude of such problems is lower than what Barry claims, but she was (obviously) concerned about the problems which surely exist.

Barry made a few very libertarian proposals. For instance, she said she'd like to see more programs similar to safe houses for abused women. She'd like to create places where former prostitutes can go to heal from their emotional scars, talk about their problems, and seek a better life for themselves. This is a laudable goal, and one wholly consistent with a libertarian framework.

While McElroy argued decriminalizing prostitution would dramatically reduce the problems faced by prostitutes, she too argued that voluntary social pressure is a needed instrument in curbing the mistreatment of women.

Interestingly, both speakers blasted the notion of letting the state regulate prostitution. (McElroy said "legalization" of prostitution usually refers to state regulation of it, whereas "decriminalization" is generally understood to mean getting the state out of it altogether.) Both McElroy and Barry said letting the state regulate prostitution would be the equivalent of turning the government into a pimp.

When I considered the notion of the government as a pimp, the thought crossed my mind that many politicians are already prostitutes of power. This tendency to think of prostitution in negative terms raises a crucial issue: it is possible to call for the decriminalization of prostitution, and still maintain a moral aversion to it. No responsible parent wants his or her daughter to grow up to be a prostitute. Prostitution is a bad choice for women.

Prostitution is also a bad choice for men. And, interestingly, this is an issue that neither Barry nor McElroy addressed. A fairly strong moral case can be made that women should not engage in prostitution and men should not attempt to solicit it. The key here is tolerance: not all things which are morally suspect should be illegal. The realm of personal choice is certainly larger than what Barry acknowledges, and consensual activities should be permitted. The only time the law or armed enforcers should get involved with prostitution is to defend the prostitutes against violence or breech of contract. If enforcement resources were thus prioritized, people would be safer and police would be more honest. (According to one news account, a police department actually paid people to have sex with prostitutes, in order to bust the prostitutes. Now that's just crazy.)

It is notable that Barry's opposition to prostitution stems from her concern for women, whereas many conservatives oppose prostitution because it's considered sinful. Several religions have actively encouraged the murder of prostitues.

McElroy noted that American women regularly act in ways that would be punishable by death in other cultures. Smoking and drinking in public, wearing fasionable clothing, pursuing careers -- things Americans take for granted -- are forbidden to women throughout much of the world. It is true that much of human history, and much of the world today, is marked by abusiveness toward women. McElroy and Barry are united in their desire to eliminate such abused and achieve civil rights for all women.

Barry is to be commended for wanting to better the lot of women in this world. In the broad sense, both Barry and McElroy are liberals in that that they want people to be individually empowered and to not be oppressed by those with more power. The main distinction lies in means, not ends. As McElroy pointed out, Barry argues that society is marred by patriarchy, yet she turns to the "patriarchal" and "exploitative" system of legislated laws and government force to achieve her goals. McElroy takes the libertarian stance that government force should be limited to counter only acts of physical aggression and fraud, and that voluntarism and persuasion are appropriate means for the pursuit of the rest of our goals.

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