Monday, April 4, 2011

An argument against prostitution… and an argument for it

Although most people assume that prostitution is generally a bad thing, and that its participants are victims of some sort, there are some convincing arguments to the contrary. Instead of expressing my personal opinion or arguing for what I believe here, I want to briefly outline both cases and then pose some questions that relate this issue to our study of human rights.

AGAINST PROSTITUTION: Prostitution is not about women enjoying rights over their own bodies; on the contrary, it is an expression of men's control over women's sexuality. It is about gendered, ethnic, age, racial and class power relations. By no means can there be "consent of two adults", when one party is the buyer and the other the seller, especially when the buying party happens to be socially constructed as the better sex, race, or class. Prostitution is not a choice made by free will, but rather by social and financial pressures and desperation, and it is a violation of human rights.

FOR PROSTITUTION: Prostitution is the voluntary sale of a labor service. Individuals own their own bodies and their own labor services and have the absolute right to decide how those labor services should be used. As long as the prostitution transaction is voluntary, there is no justification for interference. Such interference would be an infringement of the privacy and personal liberty of the individuals involved. Everyone has the human right to work and freely choose their employment. Prostitution clearly does not constitute a violation of human rights.

So what do you think— Is prostitution a violation of human rights? If it is a human's choice to participate in activities that "violate" their human rights, are there human rights still violated? Are we morally obligated to respect their decisions as rational, free actors, or the UNHDR?

Thinking about this makes me also consider the obligations (if any) of the rights-enforcer. If a woman is "rescued" from human rights violations enacted against her while she is a prostitute, is her liberator responsible for remedying the social and financial situation which lead the woman to become a prostitute in the first place? Clearly, the UNDHR and international law suggests that a rights-enforcer's duty is to address the violated right, not the situation which breeds it.

Let's think of another example: Say you feel strongly that a baby's life begins in the womb, and that by aborting it, you are robbing it of its right to life. Because of this, you feel it is your moral duty to protect the human rights of the unborn, so you "intervene" by voting for Pro-Life legislation in your state. Say the law is passed. Is now also your moral duty to help provide for all of the children that would have otherwise been aborted—buying them formula and changing their diapers? Most people do not see "human rights enforcement" in this way.

It seems to me that herein lies one of the biggest problems with human rights and their enforcement. Human rights violations don't often appear out of thin air; they arise from circumstance that encourage and instigate them. Although we may feel it's our moral duty to intervene when human rights are violated, we rarely feel such conviction to respond to the circumstances themselves. What do you think? Do we have a duty to expand our notion human rights enforcement? To what extent? What if that infringes upon the will of the "victim"? Do we have a greater duty to respect the decisions of the individual?


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  2. You can see the significance of this divide in Nevada. Under current Nevada state law, any county with a population under 400,000 is allowed to license brothels if it so chooses. The towns and cities in counties that allow prostitution may regulate the trade further or prohibit it altogether. In order to legally become a prostitute in the counties where prostitution is permitted, an individual must receive a license and register with the state. As of 2009, 12 of the 16 counties in Nevada allow prostitution (only 8 of the 12 have active brothels). I imagine that the state allows prostitution because they feel that "individuals own their own bodies and their own labor services and have the absolute right to decide how those labor services should be used." They may also feel that it would be much easier to regulate prostitution in these smaller counties. If brothels were active in the the counties that contain the largest cities in Nevada (Las Vegas and Reno for example), it would be harder for the state to keep track of brothels and their prostitutes. However, the citizens in the larger counties may argue in support of the other side of the argument: prostitution is "the expression of man's control over a woman's sexuality."

  3. The arguments for and against legalized prostitution are well-presented here, but I'm somewhat skeptical of the effort to ground all moral or political claims in the terms of universal human rights in the abstract. While there's something to be said for the onerous conditions that would lead most prostitutes to resort to their profession, I don't think one has to conceive of prostitution as unfree or a result of particular oppressive power relations to oppose it. Simply put, prostitution is degrading and despicable in of itself, and a civilized society should not allow humanity to be treated as a commodity. We don't allow individuals to sell their organs either, however free the choice may be.

    Sometimes value judgments simply have to be made about these issues, whether or not they can be construed in terms of human rights. Not all (probably not many) moral and political questions can be resolved by an appeal to universal humanity.

    "Men have no right to what is not reasonable and what is not for their benefit."

    - Burke

  4. Sarah you're post is really intriguing. I think you are right in saying that "we may feel it's our moral duty to intervene when human rights are violated, we rarely feel such conviction to respond to the circumstances themselves." I think this is an important point. The fact that we are often so reluctant to respond and act on the circumstances that are involved in human rights violations says a lot about the society we live in. Why are we so quick to point out when human rights are being violated yet we don't act on the circumstances? In the case of prostitution, I think Patrick is right in saying that prostitution is degrading in itself even though you do present plausible reasoning for justifying it.

  5. Sarah, I really like that you presented both sides to the argument rather than giving your opinion. The act of prostitution is a violation of human rights in the sense that the women are force to participate in such acts through the manipulation of their minds. The women do have a choice but they are made to feel as though they are forced to take part in prostitution. So as for the claim that the women are in charge of their own mind and body, that is not completely true because the women are in a sense “brainwashed” to think that they actions are the only option. Thus, the women’s mind and body are essentially controlled by the enforcer. So the argument for prostitution does not make too much sense to me but it is a good attempt to be for prostitution itself. The women are not in control of their mind so they should be helped in terms of gaining their human rights as their human rights are being violated simply through being manipulate into participating in the “job” of prostitution.

  6. One thing that I find interesting in the argument against prostitution is that it automatically assumes that there are only female prostitutes and that men are ALWAYS objectifying women and not vice versa. By doing this, you make the argument about oppression and the fight for equality. I am not sure if I buy that completely though, although the majority of prostitutes are women, there are such things as male prostitutes, which makes me lean more toward the side of seeing the body as being treated as a business tool rather than an oppressive gender related strife. I dunno.

  7. I think that Colin raises a good point, one that many of us (including myself) probably do not think about when talking about prostitution. I also tend to think that prostitution, when legalized, is more of a business transaction than a human rights violation. If it is between consenting adults, and there are rules and boundaries surrounding the act, then I do not necessarily see the act of sex in that situation as a violation just because someone is getting paid to do it. I still think that it is degrading in some ways, and can be a detrimental lifestyle choice, but overall I do not think it necessarily infringes upon a man or woman's personal human rights.


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