December 1997

Prostitution and morality




It is not news to most people that public opinion on prostitution is polarised between two opposing views. The more common view is that it is an immorality of some degree, perhaps one that should be aggressively stamped out, but more often grudgingly conceded as not entirely eradicable. Nevertheless, it should be contained, and public disapproval and relegation to the shadows of shame are essential to this end. The laws enacted against soliciting and prostitution are expressions of the community's values; in fact this sense of shame and disgust is rooted in all societies' cultural traditions and moral teachings, which only goes to show how fundamental this assessment is in human society.

For convenience I shall call this the "Moralist" position.

At the other end, the view is that it has nothing to do with morality. It is a willing buyer willing seller transaction. It is a private affair between two persons, and even if the law may criminalise it, it is a victimless crime. It is no business of society and the State to treat prostitutes and their customers as outlaws and outcasts.

Let's call this the "Libertarian" position.

This rest of this essay is in two parts. In the first part, I shall show that both positions are value-equivalent. Despite its pretensions, the Moralist position is not more moral than the other.

The second part of this essay will go further. It will argue that in fact the Moralist position is immoral.

Part 1

Morality ultimately reduces to a question of values. If we attach value to life, then killing for pleasure, like fox-hunting, may be very strongly argued as immoral. If we value honesty, then to cheat and to lie may be construed as immoral behaviour.

The funny thing about "morals", is that sexual transgressions tend to come foremost to mind when we engage this subject. Mention morals and we are likely to get an earful about adultery, "living in sin", pornography and paid sex. To me that is the surest sign that sexual values are in dispute. It is precisely when something is in contention or uncertain that it becomes comment-worthy. It's like Richard Nixon asserting, "I am not a crook".

To the Moralists, sex is an extremely special activity that should not be loosely engaged in. It is central to the bonding between a couple; it is the starting point for a family. Paid sex debases this, it vitiates a person's respect for the intimate and it impairs his ability to bond with another, in the present or in the future.

Some Moralists would add that sex should be given freely, like a gift from one to another. The money aspect of prostitution is another stain on this already sullied affair.

Look carefully and you will see that this view presupposes other values. It presupposes that the pair-bond is valuable and that sexual fidelity is critical to this. It also makes the assumption that casual sex and paid sex (non-relationship sex) somehow desensitises a person to the specialness of sex within a pair-bond. And as for the money thing, it's not explainable unless the person also holds the unstated view that money in itself is dirty (think about how in many traditional Asian cultures, the merchant class was somehow less than respectable) and therefore to add money to sex is to compound the disgrace.

It may be extremely iconoclastic to do so, but every one of these presuppositions can be disputed. A person can quite validly hold the view that sex is no more special than any bodily function; it is only special when one subscribes to a cultural view that it is special. He can also quite validly hold the view that the value we attach to the pair bond, and to the importance of sexual fidelity in support of it, are social constructs. Our modern culture, drawing a lot from its Judeo-Christian roots, puts the pair-bond on a pedestal and generally does not allow any questioning of it. This same culture is extremely embarrassed about sex, and only in reproduction is sex vindicated. Sex in any other context is dirty to a moderate or severe degree. Even nudity is dirty.

Someone can come along and say, no, in my value-system, nudity is not dirty, sex is not embarrassing, and there is nothing in my scheme that says sex should be reserved for the pair-bond. He may even say the pair- bond is overrated. It is unreal to expect as a norm that two persons can mature over the years and not evolve their thinking and tastes in different directions. The divorce rates, and even the extent of unhappiness in marriages that do not get to divorce, are a truer indication of the "facts of life" than any theoretical model. One can have love and obligations to various forms of extended families, siblings, housemates, nephews, even amiable ex-partners, and offspring from various pairings, without making sex and fidelity the precondition for all such relationships. And once sex is downgraded from the pedestal, the specialness evaporates.

Needless to say, he may hold a different, less condescending, view of money.

The Libertarian not only rejects the Moralist views, he holds dear some other values. Primarily there is the ideal of individual autonomy, that each person has a right to seek his own happiness, subject only to not hurting others. This requires the virtue of tolerance and forbearance, and individuals in a community should restrain themselves from interference in others' autonomy and in coercive judgment about others' lifestyles. A willing buyer and willing seller situation, even if the transaction is money for sex, should be no more interfered with than a transaction of money for a haircut.

You don't have to agree with the Libertarian's views. All you need to do is to recognise that these are valid opinions. No doubt one needs to step out of our majority culture to see them as valid, but since culture is a construct, the alternative construction, so long as it is internally coherent, is no less defensible than the conventional view.

Hence, whether we view prostitution with disgust or with equanimity, is ultimately traceable to our ideas as to how our society should be. It becomes a difference in opinion, in conceptual approach. It is not a difference between good and evil. The views are value-equivalent.

Part 2

But are the views effect-equivalent? In other words, does one position cause more ill-effects than the other?

The Moralist will say that the Libertarian's anything-goes will lead to a breakdown of family and society as we know it. The release of pent-up demand will cause a boom in vice syndicates, the further oppression of vulnerable women, and bastard children all over the place.

Examine each of these alarmist predictions and you will see them as facile and conjectural. More interestingly, the "evils" that are feared are only "evils" by the reckoning of the Moralist's value system. Family is good and legitimate children is good. Paid sex, leading to the demise of family (does it?) and to illegitimate children (does it in this day and age of contraception?) is therefore bad. And as for the fear of vice syndicates, I will mention again further on.

While the ill-effects of the Libertarian position, as warned to us by the Moralists, are conjectural, the ill-effects of the Moralist's position are real, and here with us today. These ill-effects spring from the social stigmatisation and the criminalisation of prostitution. They make an underclass of those who do sell sex in spite of the prevailing climate. The whole business tends to become structured with layers of frontmen (doing the marketing) and protectors (guarding against threats). It is no wonder then that pimps and organised crime are often a part of the industry. (As a parallel, any country that has experienced prohibition -- of alcohol, that is -- would also have seen a boom in bootleggers, moonshiners and protection rackets). The pimps and protectors need to make money from their involvement, and it is all too easy for the sex workers to end up at their mercy.

When the sex workers want to get out from this profession, it can be even more difficult than staying in. Her quitting is against the interest of the pimp and racketeer, and her past makes it difficult for her to go into other kinds of employment. And these impediments of pimp and gangster -- vice syndicates, if you remember -- and an illicit past, are ultimately creations of the judgmental climate produced by the Moralist position.

Two other ill-effects should also be mentioned. Health services for the sex workers are more difficult to deliver to them the more adverse the climate. The sex workers may not want to have to deal with official or institutional bodies. They may fear exposure.

On the other side, the client risks blackmail, and the opportunity for profit will attract all sorts of unscrupulous persons. A moralistic climate creates the conditions for blackmail. The climate is corrupting.

In short, the Moralist position produces some real, demonstrable ill-effects. People are hurt, people are victimised as a consequence of the stigmatisation and criminalisation of prostitution. To persist in holding fast to such an injurious policy, to be insensitive to the suffering, is very simply, immoral.

Yawning Bread 


The Long Preamble 

I'm quite surprised myself that it has taken me so long to talk about prostitution. Dwelling as much as I do on the subject of sexual behaviour and public attitudes, prostitution should be an unavoidable part of this whole field.

I guess what has held me back is simply the knowledge that I really have nothing even remotely new to say about this subject. On the other hand, there have been days when I thought, Yawning Bread's visitors are very varied, and even if I am just repeating some long-argued points, they might still be thought-provoking to those who haven't previously thought about this issue. But that has not been motivation enough to overcome procrastination, so I never got started.

Then four little things happened within a month and tipped the balance.

There was, in late November 1997 a well-reported murder trial of a male prostitute, who was found guilty of killing his brothel-owner. Many gay Singaporeans would have been simultaneously titillated with the details, horrified by the exposure of this underside of gay life, and extremely uncomfortable about the public association of homosexuality with prostitution.

Just a week or so before that, a friend had lent me a book, "Hustling" by John Preston, which far from being an academic treatise, was a how-to manual, giving practical advice on advertising for business, handling incoming calls, providing a satisfactory experience to clients, managing money, and so on. It was so fascinating I finished it in two sittings.

Thirdly, in the week leading up to World Aids Day, there was an exchange of correspondence in the press about the efficacy of condoms. Among the many things said, was that sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, were very rare among sex workers in Singapore, and this can be attributed to intensive education in order to get the sex workers to insist on universal use of condoms.

Then I saw Chay Yew's play "Half Lives" put up by Theatreworks, and a character there who ran away from home ended up as a rentboy and porn actor.

The coincidence of these four got me to organise my thoughts... so here they are.