Prostitution as Political Philosophy

Jameson Taylor
Reproduced with Permission

We moderns are expert immoralists. It is not that we are more licentious than our predecessors, but that we know how to better hide our sins, even from ourselves, under fine webs of philosophic rationalization. The philosophy in question is utilitarianism. It is the same philosophy that encourages women to abort their babies; the same ideology that drives the eugenics movement; and the same creed now demanding the legalization of prostitution.

The legalization of prostitution is not exactly a “hot-button” issue among pro-lifers. What, after all, does abortion have to do with prostitution? Think about it. Contraceptive sex entails an attitude of use toward a person by which that individual becomes an object or tool for the satiation of mindless desire. As St. Augustine explains, contraceptive sex transforms “husbands into adulterers, wives into harlots, bridal chambers into brothels, [and] fathers-in-law into pimps.” Pope John Paul II is just as explicit: “Take away from love the fullness of self surrender, the completeness of personal commitment, and what remains will be a total denial and negation of love. This subtraction, taken to its conclusion, leads to what we call prostitution.” Contraception is not the cause of prostitution, but the means by which such acts of use are normalized. In this sense, the legalization of prostitution would simply be a de facto recognition of how most men and women already unconsciously define sex: a temporary union engaged in for mutual self-satisfaction with no accompanying desire to conceive a child together.

Until recently, few adults claimed a right to be selfish. Hypocrites, at least, were decent enough to maintain egoism was bad; they simply denied they were being egotistical. Today, self-centeredness has attained the status of a political value. This happened because philosophy allied itself with materialistic sensualism in an attempt to overthrow the perceived tyranny of Christian morality. The victory, however, was incomplete, leaving us with zealous libertines instead of virtuous pagans. So, with puritanical self-righteousness, groups like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood unceasingly preach the gospel of choice that they claim is the inspiration for the U.S. Constitution.

Jane Roe, Jr.

Armed with the Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade decisions, the theologians of choice claim that a “zone of privacy” at the Constitution’s periphery demands the legalization of prostitution. Consenting adults, so the argument goes, should be allowed to perform any sexual acts they desire within the privacy of their own homes. Individual freedom is absolute, and, so long as no one else is harmed, people should have the legal right to do whatever they please with their bodies and minds. Such views are not those of the American Founders, but a radicalized version of the utilitarian philosophy of J. S. Mill.1

Of the justices now on the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the most vocal proponent of legalized prostitution. In a 1977 ACLU report, Ginsburg asserts that “prostitution as a consensual act between adults is arguably within the zone of privacy protected by recent constitutional decisions.”2 In 1995, a former Florida prostitute going by the nom de guerre of Jane Roe II decided to test Ginsburg’s indecent proposal and filed suit in U.S. district court. Roe II alleged Florida’s laws against prostitution violate “her fundamental right of privacy, and pursuant to that right, the right to control her own reproductive organs whether in a private or a commercial transaction.”3

“How can a woman not have the right to use her own reproductive organs to give away sex or charge for it as she sees fit?...This suit is about a woman’s right to choose,” declared Roe, Jr. Added the ACLU, “We support the right of women to determine what they want to do with their bodies—trade it for a fee, a good meal, whatever.”

The district court rejected Roe II’s argument and affirmed the Supreme Court’s warning that the right to privacy can only be interpreted in a very narrow sense: “…prior decisions recognizing a right to privacy…included only personal rights that can be deemed ‘fundamental’ or ‘implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.’ This privacy right encompasses and protects the personal intimacies of the home, the family, marriage, motherhood, procreation, and child rearing.”

The right to privacy, ruled U.S. District Judge Gonzalez, exists in order to further the state’s “rational interest” in protecting “the sanctity and strength of family and marital relationships.”4 The court did not delineate why families are necessary to good governance, except to comment that the Supreme Court believes the “institution of the family is deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” Of course, prostitution itself is deeply rooted in mankind’s own “history,” so it is difficult to understand how the longevity of a thing is any guarantee of its goodness. The court also concluded prostitution “would have a disastrous effect on most marriages” because most of Roe II’s “clients” were married men.

Quoting Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia, the district court reminded its petitioners, “there is no basis for thinking that our society has ever shared that Thoreauvian ‘you-may-do-what-you-like-so-long-as-it-does-not-injure-someone-else’ beau ideal—much less for thinking that it was written into the Constitution…. Our society prohibits…certain activities not because they harm others but because they are considered, in the traditional phrase, ‘contra bonos mores,’ i.e., immoral. In American society, such prohibitions have included, for example, sadomasochism, cockfighting, bestiality, suicide, drug use, prostitution, and sodomy.”

The court, again, failed to explain just why crimes such as suicide and prostitution are wrong. Current jurisprudence seemingly refuses to look beyond tradition in determining moral standards. The court’s reasoning in Roe II is thus unsatisfactory.5 We do not have space here to remedy the court’s deficiencies. Instead, we will suggest why, even on utilitarian grounds, prostitution should be illegal.

Prostitution as Slavery

The Supreme Court has ruled, in Paris Adult Theatre I v. Slaton, that while “most exercises of individual free choice…are explicitly protected by the Constitution…[t]otally unlimited play for free will…is not allowed in our or any other society.” Some laws exist precisely “to protect the weak, the uninformed, the unsuspecting, and the gullible from the exercise of their own volition.” The question, then, is whether a person can freely choose to have consensual sex for money, or whether such an act deprives “the weak and the uninformed” of their liberties.6

The court’s decision in Roe II hints at the possibility that prostitution can never be consensual. “This case differs greatly from the abortion and contraception cases,” notes Judge Gonzalez, “in that, unlike here, the exercise of the right asserted in those cases depends upon the purchase of the services or products of another….The right asserted in this case is more analogous to the fundamental rights to marry and raise children; one could hardly imagine a penal law prohibiting the purchase of a spouse or child being declared unconstitutional.” In other words, some activities are of such a nature that one cannot consent to them, even if only for the sake of money. It is against the law, for example, to voluntarily sell oneself into slavery because doing so violates a person’s “inalienable” right to liberty. If prostitution is equivalent to slavery, then it cannot be rationalized even on utilitarian grounds.

The “right to privacy” is based upon the assumption that sex and marriage are very personal matters. That the law distinguishes rape from theft indicates sex is not simply a commodity. If a woman were capable of disassociating herself from her sexual acts as easily as say a garbage man distances himself from his duties, rape would be no more serious than shop-lifting. Rather, sex entails a mutual sharing that permanently shapes the persons involved. For this reason, the courts have defined sex as one of the primary means by which a person determines her self-identity.7 In a truly free society, self-identity is not up for sale.

Experiential evidence confirms why prostitution was once condemned as “white slavery.” According to a report by the Congressional Research Service released on 10 May 2000, “The trafficking of people for prostitution and forced labor…is now considered the third largest source of profits for organized crime.” Continued the report, “Sometimes women are kidnapped outright in one country and taken forcibly to another. In other cases, victims are lured with job offers….[A] majority of trafficked women are under the age of 25, with many in their mid to late teens. The fear among customers of infection with HIV and AIDS has driven traffickers to recruit younger women and girls, some as young as seven, erroneously perceived by customers to be too young to have been infected.

“Trafficking victims are often subjected to cruel mental and physical abuse in order to keep them in servitude, including beating, rape, starvation, forced drug use, confinement, and seclusion. Once victims are brought into destination countries, their passports are often confiscated. Victims are forced to have sex, often unprotected, with large numbers of partners, and to work unsustainably long hours. Many victims suffer mental break-downs and are exposed to sexually-transmitted diseases, including HIV and AIDS. They are often denied medical care and those who become sick are sometimes even killed.”

In the United States, the average age of entry into prostitution is 14 years old. In Vancouver, Canada, where prostitution is legal, the average “prostitute” is 16 years old and 75 percent of the girls forced into prostitution are runaways. Sociological evidence and anecdotal reports suggest between 65 to 90 percent of prostituted women are victims of child sexual abuse. While still young, these women ran away from home only to end up in the hands of a pimp. Such pimps are said to control between 80 and 95 percent of the sex-slave traffic. Some women, Christine Stark of The Prostitution Prevention Project, for instance, even report to having been born into “familial run” prostitution rings.8

Pimps often exert almost total power over the girls under their orbit. These children and women are kept virtually penniless, encouraged to form drug addictions and rapidly moved through different parts of the sex-slave industry: from strip clubs into the porn industry to escort services and onto street-corners. Men who frequent prostitutes often claim prostitution is a “victimless” crime. These men and their apologists fail to perceive the invisible coercion that makes prostitution possible. “The john,” explains author Joe Parker, “performs the sex act with the unwilling victim, but subcontracts the intimidation and violence to another man, the pimp. The john would like to believe he is paying for sex, but the person he has sex with gets little or none of the money. The money goes to the pimp to pay for the force needed to keep prostituted women and children working.”

Who Benefits?

Studies by Dr. Melissa Farley suggest even prostituted women do not believe “legalizing prostitution would make them physically safer.” “In fact,” concluded Dr. Farley, “legalization made their [the women’s] lives worse. Legalization of prostitution puts the state in the role of the pimp, and in the role of ensuring that customers are provided with people who are HIV- and STD-free.” Commenting on the situation in Australia, Dr. David Phillips similarly found, “legalizing brothels has resulted in more, not less, exploitation of prostitutes.”

It is doubtful legalization would even reduce the spread of STDs. Testifying before the Constitutional Court of South Africa, Dr. Albertus van Eeden acknowledged “…there is little good research evidence to indicate condoms provide significant protection from any STI’s expect AIDS [for which they have a 20 percent failure rate]….Prostitutes are notorious for not using condoms or practising safe sex…. Decriminalizing prostitution does nothing to help the situation. Experience in Australian states where prostitution has been decriminalized shows…the competition for clients gets more intense. Consequently, in order to get an edge above their competitors, prostitutes are more likely to offer sex without condoms.… Legalising prostitution creates a ‘buyer’s market’ rather than a ‘seller’s market.’”

Traditionally, legal authorities have sought to discourage prostitution by prosecuting the true victims of the sex-slave industry: those women forced into prostitution by physical and sexual abuse or economic necessity. By contrast, the men—pimps and johns—who most benefit from the rape and manipulation of these children and women are rarely held accountable for their crimes. We moderns are improving upon the deception by trying to convince ourselves that such women are actually empowered by their prostitution. Nothing could be more wretched—or more useful—than slaves who cannot be freed because they do not know they are enslaved.

This article appears courtesy of HLI Reports, a publication of Human Life International. HLI supports St. Joseph’s Charity Institute, whose works include the rescue and rehabilitation of women and children enslaved by prostitution. St. Joseph’s can be contacted directly at 856-983-0077.


1 Mill’s influence is discernible in the opinions of a number of Supreme Court Justices, most notably, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis Brandeis, Harry Blackmun and Thurgood Marshall. [Back]

2 Only three Republican Senators voted against Ginsburg’s confirmation. Bob Dole called Ginsburg a “good choice…that inspires both respect and confidence.” Orrin Hath (R-Utah) similarly commented that Ginsburg would be “a very excellent justice.” [Back]

3 Roe v. Butterworth (1997) U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida. [Back]

4 Given these criteria, a strong case could be made that the legalization of abortion and contraception actually violate the family’s right to privacy. [Back]

5 Ironically, some liberals seem to intuit the natural law basis of the U.S. Constitution better than most conservatives. See Robert George’s lecture, “Natural Law and the Constitution.” [Back]

6 Does not abortion entail a similar preying upon the weak and the uninformed? [Back]

7 For example, Planned Parenthood v. Casey argues the right to privacy concerns “personal decisions that profoundly affect bodily integrity, identity, and destiny.” [Back]

8 Sources: “Fact Sheet”; “System of Prostitution”; womensenews: “Victims Ignored in Two Serial Murder Cases.” The Prostitutes’ Education Network, which generally favors legalization, gives variant figures regarding pimp-controlled prostitution. [Back]