My wife and two children physically recoiled when I floated this idea at the dinner table. My son quickly recovered and calmly stated that, sure, I could write a column on this topic, but only after he left Olympia to go to college. He’s in eighth grade.
As we have become an increasingly secular society, many previously prohibited sexual behaviors have become socially acceptable. Fifty years ago, Fifty Shades of Grey would not have played at the mainstream cinema in Olympia. As yet undisturbed by this liberalization is the sanction against trading sex for money.
Some legitimate sex has a transactional character. A young woman who marries a wealthy and very much older man may raise eyebrows, but we don’t interfere. The underlying principle is that, as far as the law is concerned, adults can reach any agreement about sex they wish as long as both parties are mentally competent and uncoerced.
Exchanging sex for cold hard cash, however, does not get the benefit of the doubt.
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One reason to drop the prohibition of commercial sex is that it doesn’t work to suppress commercial sex. Another is that prohibition does considerable harm. As it did with alcohol, gambling, and marijuana, the prohibition of commercial sex creates a lucrative opportunity for criminals, and it discourages sex workers from calling the police when there’s a problem.
Prohibition clearly does work for some undesirable behaviors. Excepting a small number of deviants, everyone agrees we should prevent and punish the abuse of children and animals. Because these prohibitions enjoy support from virtually everyone in society, responsible citizens will go out of their way, even take personal risk, to help enforce these prohibitions.
This consensus does not exist for alcohol, marijuana, gambling and prostitution. It was different in the past. A majority of the population once supported laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol, the use of marijuana and all forms of gambling. Now a majority of voters in Washington favors allowing adults to make their own decisions about alcohol, marijuana and gambling.
Lifting prohibition has been unambiguously successful in the cases of gambling and alcohol. It’s early days for legalized marijuana, but the outlook is positive. No more will people get their weed from a dealer who also offers other illegal drugs. Now we can openly discuss what level of marijuana consumption impairs a user’s ability to drive.
Wait a minute, you might say, commercial sex is morally wrong, even if it is difficult to stop. As a moral person, you will be inclined to empathize with women victimized by pimps or clients. At this point, an image of an emaciated, crack-addicted woman turning tricks in cars may come to mind. Or maybe it’s an undocumented Southeast Asian woman. But here we run into a significant barrier to reasoned analysis, because we don’t know how well the drug-addicted or undocumented sex worker represents the full population of sex workers. I sense that these stereotypes are just the most visible tip of a large, heterogeneous iceberg.
Many readers are likely unaware of the dramatic transformation wrought by the Internet on the business of sex. One website in particular, backpage.com, has become the Amazon of commercial sex. You can select the Olympia area with a single click. Sex-oriented websites have made it much easier to sell sex without the help of a procuring pimp or madam.
Even if you accept that many of those selling sex are acting of their own free will, you may still find moral grounds for prohibiting commercial sex. After all, women should not have to have to sell their bodies.
I certainly agree, but what if most sex workers don’t “have to” sell sex, but instead freely chose to sell sex as the best option available for making money?
I don’t yet have an answer for myself about legalizing commercial sex. Seattle’s Sex Workers Outreach Project, for instance, advocates for decriminalization rather than the more regulated system implied by legalization. And SWOP reasonably insists that any discussion of changing the laws that govern commercial sex should include sex workers speaking for themselves about their work.
Paul Elwood, an amateur philosopher and professional investment analyst for state government, is a member of The Olympian’s 2015 Board of Contributors. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.