Since our good blogmaster has expressed an interest in using sex to sell blog hits, it’s time for a post that I promised a month ago, and haven’t gotten around to yet. Last month, I asked you all what you thought the difference was between “fuck me or you’re fired” and prostitution, and also said
I have some thoughts of my own (which relate to three different possible rationales for legalizing or decriminalizing prostitution, and the implications of each rationale)
So, here are those three different arguments for legalizing or decriminalizing prostitution, and what difference each implies between prostitution and “fuck me or you’re fired” style sexual harrassment.
First argument for legalizing or decriminalizing prostitution: Harm reduction. Karen Street set forth this rationale in the comments to my post last month:
The only reason I’ve heard for legalizing prostitution that makes sense to me is an improved ability to regulate it, require regular health tests, etc. I don’t know the legal status of Thai sex workers, but Thailand effected a huge decrease in the rate of AIDS spread after experienced sex workers taught classes on how to insist that customers uses a condom.
The harm reduction argument for legalization can include AIDS prevention, better recourse for prostitutes who are victims of crime, etc.
What this implies about the difference between prostitution laws and laws against “fuck me or you’re fired” is that laws against “fuck me or you’re fired” empower the person so harrassed to stop the harrassment, while anti-prostitution laws make it less possible for a prostitute who is being victimized to take action, since she herself risks jail if it comes out that she’s a prostitute.
Second argument for legalizing or decriminalizing prostitution: It’s possible for prostitution to be an acceptable transaction between free agents. What this implies about the difference between prostitution and “fuck me or you’re fired” is set forth by Wired Sisters in the comments to my earlier post.
Assuming prostitution to be a transaction between a willing buyer and a willing seller, “fuck me or you’re fired” would be the equivalent of “give me your used car or you’re fired.” Theft of services, maybe? Or extortion?
Where I see the distinction as getting more blurry is when we come to the third argument about legalization of prostitution. It’s actually a counter argument to an anti-prostitution argument. The steps go something like this:
A) Someone makes a version of the second argument I’ve listed for legalizing prostitution, perhaps a strong one, in which prostitution should be not just legal, but destigmatized, because it’s just fine for people to choose to make whatever sexual exchanges they darn well please.
B) Someone counters that argument with an argument that prostitutes, in general, are deeply unhappy with their work, and economically coerced into it, when they aren’t outright trafficked or otherwise forced into it by their pimps. This is what I think of as the desperate Fantine argument against prostitution. Fantine, if you remember the story from Les Miserables, became a prostitute because she essentially had to, after all respectable businesses refused to hire her once it was revealed that she had a child out of wedlock, and she needed to do something to get medicine for that sick child. She didn’t choose prostitution from an array of possible employment options; she chose it as the only possible way to keep the wolf from the door. The anti-prostitution argument I have in mind holds that prostitution is, in general, so unpleasant a fate that practically no one will choose it other than under duress.
C) Someone counters argument B with a cheerful “Hey, we’re all exploited at work, and we all have to do something or other that we don’t like to make a living.” It’s at this point that the distinction between “fuck me or you’re fired” and prostitution gets blurred. The reason that “fuck me or you’re fired” is legally actionable, while many other things that bosses can require of you, that you might not like, aren’t, is that, first, “fuck me or you’re fired” is something that some managers will in fact do, if not prevented, and, second, most of us dislike being coerced into sex far more strongly than we like being made to do other things that we may not have expected as part of our job (such as, say, finding that a job involves more bureaucracy and less creativity than you anticipated from the job description). Obviously, there are other things that we’d similarly hate: “be artificially inseminated with my sperm and carry my baby or you’re fired” or “give me your kidney or you’re fired” wouldn’t be an improvement over “fuck me or you’re fired.” But, if unwilling sex isn’t the single worst thing in the world, it’s considerably worse than unwilling most other things. So argument C, the one that says that unhappy and unwilling prostitution (the kind, after all, that got described in argument B) is just like any other kind of work, seems to me to leave no basis for laws against “fuck me or you’re fired.” The prostitute in argument B, after all, has been posited as no freer than the woman submitting to sexual harrassment. Why, then, would someone make argument C? Here, again, I see three possibilities.
1) The person making argument C really is that absolute about allowing anything whatsoever in an employment contract. There’s nothing wrong with prostitution, and neither is there anything wrong with “fuck me or you’re fired”. If you don’t like it, just get another job.
Some people may fit in this category, but most people making argument C do seem to believe “fuck me or you’re fired” should be out. They probably go with one of the other two possibilities.
2) I get the sense that some people feel that the only way to destigmatize sex is to get rid of the notion that sex is special. Sex is just another thing like just about anything else; thus, people can be free to do it any way you please. The problem is, sex is special. Whatever the other ways in which sex may or may not be special, it’s special in that it’s especially intrusive if you don’t want it. So “sex isn’t all that special” arguments don’t work all that well if they’re countering an argument in which the woman has been described as unwilling.
3) Finally, the people making argument C may not be thinking of desperate Fantine, but of something far milder. Many years ago, Dorothy Sayers countered a particular argument against women working outside the home with:
As human beings! I am always entertained – and also irritated – by the newsmongers who inform us, with a bright air of discovery, that they have questioned a number of female workers and been told by one and all that they are “sick of the office and would love to get out of it.” In the name of God, what human being is not, from time to time, heartily sick of the office and would not love to get out of it? The time of female office-workers is daily wasted in sympathising with disgruntled male colleagues who yearn to get out of the office. No human being likes work – not day in and day out. Work is notoriously a curse – and if women liked everlasting work they would not be human beings at all. Being human beings, they like work just as much and just as little as anybody else. They dislike perpetual washing and cooking just as much as perpetual typing and standing behind shop counters. Some of them prefer typing to scrubbing – but that does not mean that they are not, as human beings, entitled to damn and blast the typewriter when they feel that way. The number of men who daily damn and blast typewriters is incalculable; but that does not mean that they would be happier doing a little plain sewing. Nor would the women.
Perhaps they are picturing, not desperate Fantine, but a woman who willingly becomes a prostitute, in the sense in which many of us willingly choose our work: she prefers it to her available job alternatives. Nevertheless, like many other people, she doesn’t like her job day in and day out. She’s entitled to choose it, and entitled to damn and blast it from time to time, like anyone else. (I doubt Dorothy Sayers would have made this argument, since she’d be coming from a religious perspective that would make prostitution unacceptable, but then, the people making argument C probably have different sexual ethics from what Sayers’ would likely have been.)
But if that’s the argument they’re making, then they really need to be explicit about making the second argument about legalizing prostitution: that this is a job that some people are actually willing to do, an exchange that can actually be acceptable. Most of us are not desperate Fantine in our work, most of us did pick our job among other choices (whether abundant or slim) and so an “everyone is economically coerced to do her job” argument doesn’t seem to me to fly against a “prostitution is a job no one takes except out of economic duress and desperation” argument. At least not if you agree that “fuck me or you’re fired” is out.
The difference between “fuck me or you’re fired” and prostitution is, of course, that you didn’t get to agree to “fuck me or you’re fired” up front. But the reason that makes a difference is that, when you’re looking for word, you have more choice of what jobs to apply for, while once you have a job, if “fuck me or you’re fired” were a permitted transaction, you could have a metaphorical gun to your head. Leave the job, and you can’t pay your mortgage. Even if you’re prudent, and have a few months saved, it may well not be as many as you’d need to find another job. You can’t get unemployment, because (in the world where “fuck me or you’re fired” is acceptable), you chose to leave, or were fired for cause. Your employer supplied health insurance is gone, and you can’t pay medical bills for your sick child. If, on the other hand, you already don’t have a job, you have already made whatever accomodation you had to (perhaps you didn’t take out that mortgage, and are still living with your parents), and you’re as free to apply for a non-prostitute job as a prostitute one.
In other words, the whole reason the degree to which the transaction is clear up front would matter is that it’s a difference in freedom. If, for whatever reason, you have a set of women who are obliged to be prostitutes (perhaps, like Fantine, they can’t get other work once they’ve been shown to have had sex outside the norms, or perhaps you have an economic system in which some are born to prostitution because of what their parents did), then prostitution is no freer than “fuck me or you’re fired,” and therefore wrong for the same reasons. (If it’s free on both sides, then you can still give other reasons why it’s bad and wrong, but not ones that would resemble the reason that “fuck me or you’re fired” is wrong, and therefore reasons that may not oblige the same legal response.)
In other words, it seems to me that the argument for legalizing prostitution has to be either harm mitigation (which can apply however happy or unhappy the prostitute) or one that assumes that both buyer and seller are actually willing. An argument that accepts the “desperate Fantine” argument against prostitution and then suggests that there’s really nothing particularly wrong with being desperate Fantine makes no sense to me.