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The hard sell on selling sex


Nicole Fritz was Political and Legal Counsel at Change Starts Now. She is the former executive director of the Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF).

The debate around the ethics of prostitution might be nearly as old as the profession itself, but it’s still drawing all the same irrational piety. Is it really so bad to sell the body as a commodity, or is it just that we’re overprotective, gender-biased, and still can’t bear to put the decision in the hands of adult women?

Should consenting adults be allowed to pay, and be paid for, sex? That was the question up for debate at the Wits Centre for Ethics last week. To style it a debate, though, is probably to misrepresent the conversation. 

Lucy Allais of the Wits Philosophy Department, Mickey Meji of the Africa Sex Worker Alliance, Anneke Meerkotter of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre and media personality Eusebius McKaiser all appeared to answer the proposition unequivocally in the affirmative. It was left to Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge to act as antagonist, but with her organisation, Embrace Dignity, professing that prostitution “is not the oldest profession, it is the oldest oppression” she’s more comfortable advocating for strict measures against those paying for sex than against those receiving payment.

Much of the conversation hinged on whether there was something distinctively taboo about sex work. Meji, as entertainingly incendiary as the homonymous Nicky Minaj, insisted there wasn’t much to distinguish ‘pre-paid’ from ‘pay-as-you-go’ contracts in the world of sexual transactions: ‘pre-paid’ being sex workers; ‘pay-as-you-go’ being an average woman in the still-average relationship.

But it was a question to Madlala-Routledge – regarding what, assuming away the potential for sexual exploitation, would have her continue to oppose sex work – that resulted in a disquisition on the ills of objectification. This, at least, brought some structure and clarity to a debate often overloaded by confused piety.

The question and answer tracked some of the key thinking in legal philosopher Michael Sandel’s new book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. There are two core arguments for why certain goods should not be sold in the market. The first, the fairness objection, is concerned for the inequality that may be exploited in a commercial transaction; the second, the corruption objection, looks to the values and norms that may be impaired and compromised. In the context of sex work, the fairness argument holds that poorer, vulnerable women will, effectively, be coerced; the corruption objection says that even if choice is entirely voluntary, sex work promotes a diminished view of women, it devalues their inherent worth.

These arguments, if advanced from concern for women’s well-being, lead to some fairly peculiar remedies. Even in fairly desperate circumstances, women can be said to choose prostitution to the extent that they dismiss other, albeit limited, alternatives. Selling sex is less objectionable to these women than, say, work as a domestic, on an assembly-line or in the service industry. Without large-scale societal restructuring – a substantial welfare net or massive redistribution – it seems an odd concern for women that would endorse criminalisation of sex work when that work appears less burdensome to the women themselves than other forms they might choose.

But it’s the corruption complaint – what Madlala-Routledge decries as objectification – that really has the well-intentioned confusing morality with reason. In a Constitutional Court judgment now a decade old, still breath-taking for its sanctimony, Judges O’Regan and Sachs noted that “the very nature of prostitution is the commodification of the body” and that “in using their bodies in the marketplace, they undermine their status and become vulnerable”.

The discomfort with commodification would be warranted, were it established that commodification – market valuation – necessarily cheapens and devalues these women and their lives. But it is not. 

As an example, it is worth comparing two different trades, said to be the world’s oldest – soldiering and sex work – to demonstrate that this isn’t inevitably so. Not all soldiers are men nor are all sex workers women, but most soldiers are men just as most sex-workers are women. Soldiering, like sex work, entails commodification of the person. Granted, soldiering has been subject to regulation – states often seek to exercise a monopoly as to force by prohibiting mercenarism and to freely acquire rather than purchase fighting power by enforcing a national draft. And patriotism has been used to police the selling of soldiering. Yet even in the face of such regulation, soldiering outside these bounds has never attracted the stigma of sex work. Far from it.

The question, then, is whether the issue is with the commodification of the body per se, or whether it is an issue of gender equality. Through this frame of reference, the comparison might be drawn in more detail, but even sparely sketched, it suggests that commodification doesn’t itself devalue or cheapen human function. Rather with sex work, it’s that it is a largely female function or service that is commodified that cheapens its value. 

How peculiar, then, that most powerful contemporary lobby for continued criminalisation of prostitution are those supposedly concerned for the exploitation of women. DM


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