May 23, 2003

Prostitution discussion raises ethical questions

The practice of prostitution often solicits cries of indignation and outrage, but two of the three panelists assembled in Harper Hall to discuss the topic Wednesday insisted that prostitutes are unfairly stigmatized.

The discussion, titled "What's Wrong with Prostitution?" and organized by Lyn Lewis of the Chicago Society, sought to assess common views on exchanging money for sex.

Martha Nussbaum, professor in the Law School, asserted that the primary reasons for the ignominy and danger associated with prostitution relate to a history of arcane, prejudicial views and its current illegal status.

"All of us take money for the use of our bodies," Nussbaum said. "Some are socially stigmatized and some are not."

To test if the stigma associated with prostitution is based on reason or prejudice, Nussbaum compared the profession with others.

She listed a philosophy professor, a Purdue chicken factory worker and a colonoscopy demonstrator in her discussion.

According to Nussbaum, both chicken-plucking factory work and prostitution are low-paying jobs accompanied by health risks. And in some cases, factory work is inherently more dangerous and limiting than prostitution.

The factory worker puts her hands at risk for nerve damage as a result of prolonged plucking, while a prostitute is at risk by putting herself in the path of violent customers who are dangerous--mainly because they are unaccountable to the police, Nussbaum said.

Nussbaum then contended that the problem would be solved by the legalization and regulation of prostitution.

Nussbaum drew a comparison between the prostitute and the previously introduced philosophy professor to underscore the idea that prostitution is not the only profession that limits expressiveness and intimacy.

"It is not the intimacy of the activity itself that causes it to be a problem to take wages because what I get paid for is equally intimate and representative of self-hood," Nussbaum said.

Her thoughts culminated in the idea that prostitution is a problem of poverty and employment options, and criminalizing it endangers prostitutes and further reduces the options of poor women.

Nussbaum's comments were followed by the critical perspective of Scott Anderson, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia. He advocated legal reform and reduced penalties for prostitutes but stressed the distinctiveness of the job.

Anderson pointed to the strongly gendered nature of the practice, explaining that most prostitutes are either women or men dressed as women, and most customers, he added, are men.

Anderson drew on the words of feminist Andrea Dworkin to account for the discrepancy.

"It is a dirty job, where the dirt is intrinsically linked to the man's desire to use the female body," Anderson said, adding that sexual autonomy is something that most people would loathe losing.

Anderson took the classic example of taking a woman out on a fancy date and expecting sex in return as exemplary of this.

If the woman does not want to have sex with him after the date, "we would not say that the man is owed something further, but that he is simply out of luck," he said. "We strongly object, for example, to the enforcement of sexual contracts," he said, concluding that sexual autonomy would be threatened by the legalization of prostitution.

"Most people, if they engage in even limited reflection, discover they want protection for their own sexual autonomy," Anderson said.

The legalization of prostitution, Anderson finished, will threaten the existence of sexual autonomy as a social good.

"That's a sort of hysterical thought," responded Sibyl Schwarzenbach, associate professor of philosophy and visiting fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center.

Midwifery and dancing, she argued, used to be activities that women only performed in the home, but the legalization of midwifery and the social acceptance of dancing did not put pressure on women to dance and be midwives in the workplace.

"The appearance of domestic tasks in the professional sphere has made job distinctions clearer," Schwarzenbach said. "Because of the existence of waitresses, some young women who are asked to make coffee by male bosses are now able to shoot back with responses like 'get a waitress.'"

Schwarzenbach proceeded to pretend to write on a notepad while describing a future scenario of a woman advising her boss to seek a prostitute after making an unwanted advance at her.

"You are really out of line, I'm not your sex therapist," she said while addressing her imaginary boss, "but here is the number of a friend of mine who is."

A question and answer session moderated by Lewis followed.

When Schwarzenbach was asked about her opinion regarding the position of some radical feminists' recommendations of strict prohibition of prostitution and pornography, she replied by saying, "If you are a feminist who finds yourself in bed with the Christian Right, maybe you should revaluate the position you are holding."

Lewis decided to organize the lecture after she stumbled into a Chicago Society meeting early in the school year. She said she became turned on to the topic after working on a speech about it for debate class.

"I wrote a research paper about the topic and became really interested in seeing a debate about it. It's a topic that should be discussed," Lewis said.