Prostitution: Reply to Susan Williams

Susan Williams should have read my March 15 Speakout (“Should prostitution be legal?”) prior to criticizing it in her March 20 letter (“Degradation is why prostitution illegal”). Rather than consider my arguments and respond to them, Williams insulted both me and my wife by wondering “if… Ari Armstrong thinks he is purchasing his wife’s favors when he pays for groceries or dinner out.” Williams’s insinuation about our marriage is vicious and dishonest.

In the Speakout, I argued that prostitution is a moral vice, along with infidelity and indiscriminate sex. Furthermore, I wrote, “[S]ex properly involves a connection of consciousness as well as bodies between two people who genuinely admire one another. Purely physical sex undermines the distinctly human dimension of it…” Williams ignored all of this.

Williams instead misrepresented my observation that paying indirectly for sex via expensive dinners or trips is legal, while paying directly for sex is a crime. I made this point in the context of discussing various other vices, such as infidelity, that are legal. My point was that, while we should condemn and discourage vices involving consensual behavior, we ought not criminalize them. For example, while Eliot Spitzer fully deserved the public censure he got, neither he nor the prostitutes he hired deserve to go to prison.

Williams wrote, “The reason we don’t legalize prostitution in the United States is that it is wrong and degrading to buy and sell women…” I quite agree that it is wrong and degrading to hire prostitutes, and I argued as much in my Speakout. However, prostitution is not akin to slavery, as Williams suggests. Prostitutes, along with those who hire them, agree to the arrangement. (I noted in the Speakout that “involuntary prostitution and sexual abuse of children must be outlawed.”)

Williams asked how I would react if my (hypothetical) daughter decided to take up prostitution. I would react the same way I would if she decided to take up indiscriminate sex, infidelity, or any other serious vice. If she were a minor (for whom prostitution would properly remain illegal), I would prevent it. If she were an adult, I would passionately plead with her to make wiser choices.

I’ve answered Williams’s question; now it is only fair that she answer mine. Does Williams think that people should be sent to prison for infidelity or indiscriminate sex? If not, doesn’t she still grant that those things are “wrong and degrading?” How can she justify criminalizing some vices but not others? Finally, assuming that there are any vices that Williams thinks should remain legal, would she appreciate it if I insinuated that she therefore participates in those vices?

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I have asked that the Rocky Mountain News publish the first three paragraphs of the reply above.

While the point is a minor one, I did find it humorous that Williams assumed that I’m the one buying groceries and dinner out. My wife makes way more money than I do.

My previous notes on the matter are also available.

Finally, I do agree with Williams’s statement, “Men who think that all exchanges between them and women are negotiations for the price of sex are doomed to loneliness in the midst of company,” though there is a sense in which the “price of sex” is properly one’s character. And Williams’s paragraph about Spitzer makes a good point.

2 thoughts on “Prostitution: Reply to Susan Williams”

  1. I think I have to disagree with one point here. It may be wrong to buy and sell women if they are not consenting, but I do not believe that there is anything wrong with a woman consenting to sex for any reason they chose (even money). Sex is not always done for love and I believe that is okay.

    Another point I think should be made is that prostitutes are often performing sexual acts that are not actually sex, then it becomes even less clear where the moral division should be. For instance if a woman touches a man’s penis with her hands for money, is that as “wrong and degrading” to the woman as if she had sex with the man? It seems odd to me that some women still cannot fathom the idea that other women might actually want to be prostitutes and in fact prefer this option to the other options available to them.

  2. People’s preferences are not the standard of morality.

    And the fact that prostitution is consensual does not make it moral. To take another example, people who choose to sit around shooting up heroin day after day are acting immorally.

    In criminal law, the initiation of force (and fraud) should be banned, and otherwise consenting adults should be left free to make their own decisions. But what is properly legal is in many cases contrary to what is moral.

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