As abortion discussions tend to do, our debate had spiraled a little out of control. My friend was usually an even-tempered fellow, not one to judge. However, upon my devil’s-advocate defense of anti-abortion legislation, he had become enflamed.
“How can you even pretend to defend that?” he asked me. “Anti-abortion legislation is the single greatest threat to a woman’s bodily autonomy.”
I arched my eyebrow, as I could think of a string of more pressing violations of bodily autonomy. I selected one that I thought would have the most lasting impact. “Oh?” I replied. “What do you think about anti-prostitution laws, then?”
He pursed his lips, spluttered for a few seconds, and then changed the subject.
Legalizing prostitution is so outside any political conversation that even bringing it up among libertarians will elicit a momentary hesitation. Not that libertarians don’t want to legalize prostitution, they do. It’s more that the answer is so obvious to us that it barely warrants discussion. Should someone be able to sell a particular use of his or her body? Of course. How is this any different than selling one’s labor or one’s mental products?
Unfortunately, our friends in government do not always see it this way, and women are the ones who often suffer. There are generally two “branches” of thought that come together to support anti-prostitution legislation. Both are wrong.
From conservatives, the prohibition typically comes from thinly-veiled moral imperatives. Sex = bad. Sex outside a state-sanctioned marriage = worse. Buying sex for pleasure = straight to hell.
Despite this dubious moral claim, we do not live in an era in which a group of people can force their moral or religious values onto others. Whom does prostitution hurt? Perhaps the moral soul of the prostitute, or the person who uses her services, but, even if you believe that, it is that person’s soul to damn if they so choose. It is not for the state to decide, and it never should be.
However, pretty much everyone but conservatives think that it’s not okay to force your morals on someone else. At least, this is what they say out loud. With this in mind, liberals should be at the head of the game lobbying for a woman’s right to do with her body what she wants. This is the prime motivation behind “pro choice” advocates, right?
Well, it turns out that “pro choice” advocates are not always as pro choice when it comes to this issue. Citing the “wellbeing of the woman” and a desire to not let people be “forced into a bad situation” because they are poor or otherwise cannot work, it is not uncommon for the same people who advocate for a woman’s right to an abortion to simultaneously say that she cannot sell her body for sex.
To these reasons, I cannot help but shake my head. People who lean liberal support same-sex relations, abortion legislation, and a host of other legal and social reforms, all in the name of allowing people to do what they choose with their bodies. This is, of course, correct. But to not apply that to all kinds of choices borders on hypocrisy. It is, in effect, to say, “You can make some choices, but not others, and we get to decide what is good for you.” In reality, there is no difference between that and the person who wants to save us from our own “immoral” deeds.
Meanwhile, while prostitution remains illegal, sex workers determined to pursue that oldest of professions face even more dangers than if they were able to practice their work in the open. When brothels were legalized in Nevada, the subsequent safety requirements meant that virtually no instances of HIV were recorded. In addition, brothels are legally liable for any customer who contracts HIV from using their services. Condoms and other safe sex practices are required. I guarantee you that having sex in a brothel in Nevada is probably safer than picking up some guy/girl in a bar.
Prostitutes working outside of the law do not have these protections. When hiding from police officers because of their work, prostitutes cannot report rape, theft, or refusal to pay for services. When included in the realm of legitimate business transactions, sex workers have the full protection of the law, which they desperately need.
In reality, passing laws against prostitution harm the very people so-called “pro-choice” advocates seek to help. There is no real justification for anti-prostitution legislation that supposedly “helps” those it keeps from earning a living.
All of this, of course, leaves out the fact that sex work can and should be something that women pursue because they enjoy that work and find fulfillment in it, just as many people do with “normal” jobs. Given that well-run brothels and independent workers with full protection under the law can protect themselves and their workers both mentally and physically (and have the incentive to do so!), there is no reason to deny sex workers this choice.
To keep the choice of whether or not to prostitute from a woman is an insult to her intelligence, her autonomy, and her dignity. People who fight for a woman’s right to choose should seek to truly be pro-choice.