Prostitution, Puritanism, Commodification and Wage Labour

A little while ago the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada’s anti-prostitution laws as unconstitutional. While this act by the Supreme Court never suggested that prostitution should be legal, it did argue that Canada’s current laws needed to be replaced as the current laws endangered the health and safety of sex trade workers. As a result of this the whole issue of prostitution’s status under the law has become a topic for public discussion.

The interesting element of these discussions of prostitution is the earnest piety with which both left leaning and right leaning politicians condemn prostitution as necessarily exploitative and immoral. I have a lot of sympathy with the argument that currently sex trade workers are exploited, victims of violence and subject to being connected with human trafficking, and I am not sure if the connection between these criminal activities and prostitution can easily be cut. But, the fact that currently sex trade workers tend to be subject to these dangers, does not necessarily show that prostitution is exploitative, but only that prostitution is exploitative under the particular conditions under which it exists within the contemporary Canadian context. And yet the partisans of both left and right seem to act as if the current state of prostitution in Canada means that sex trade work is necessarily exploitative and needs to be condemned by means of law. There are of course some contrasting voices that want to reform the sex trade industry such that it becomes a legitimate form of economic activity, but these are a very small minority. Thus, the Canadian public discussion of this issue is dominated by a very broad condemnation of prostitution.

I suspect that this condemnation of prostitution is due to the idea that there is something particularly degrading about prostitution such that even under the most perfect egalitarian conditions engaging in prostitution would be a sign that someone was mentally ill or depraved. This idea is rarely expressed clearly, but it seems to fit with the fact that we are the heirs to a tradition of thought and practise in which sexual purity was a central element of morality, and the fact that many people will say that they cannot see any reasons for engaging in prostitution other than poverty, desperation or mental illness. Consequently, it seems plausible to think that there is a strand of thought in Canada about prostitution which sees prostitution as necessarily degrading. Let us call this perspective `Pious Puritanism.` For the remainder of this entry I will argue that the ideas underlying pious puritanism are valid, but that they imply a broader critique of commodification and wage labour itself.

Pious Puritanism suggests that prostitution is deeply degrading under any condition. This raises the question of why prostitution is degrading, One reason to think that prostitution is degrading is that it represents the infiltration of norms of economic activity into a sphere in which norms of romantic affection ought to dominate, and economic norms should be barred entry. Just as it would be absurd and degrading for someone to treat their romantic partner as someone who they exchange goods and services with on the basis of a binding commercial contract, so too it is absurd and degrading to sell sex to another. Underlying this thought process is the idea that our sexual and romantic capacities should not be rendered into commodities that can be traded for money. Let us call this objection to prostitution the romantic criticism.

One other reason why someone might object to prostitution in principle is that prostitution treats a person merely as a sexual object to be bought and paid for. The problem with this form of objectification is that it renders the sex trade worker into an instrument of another`s pleasure, to be used. Even though this form of objectification does not actively coerce the sex trade worker it fails to positively appreciate that the sex trade worker is more than somebody to be paid and used. Let us call this objection the sexual objectification criticism.

While I find both of these criticisms compelling they point beyond the target of prostitution. In the case of the romantic critique it might seem as though prostitution is unique in that it commodifies aspects of us that should not be commodified. But it seems equally degrading to commodify one`s character traits such as loyalty, leadership or amicability, and yet when people apply for jobs they typically have a list of traits on their resume that they intend to sell to their prospective employer in order to get a job. In this way those who apply for jobs and work in the mainstream post-industrial economy are not merely selling their labour, they are selling themselves. Consequently, just as the sexual aspect of persons should not be commodified, so too it seems that the virtues that people have should not be commodified. It seems deeply demeaning to have to sell traits that are fundamental to who you are in order to get a job. As a result, the romantic critique seems to point to powerful reasons to be suspicious of prostitution, but it also point to the fact that there are other problematic forms of commodification within post-industrial societies like Canada.

The sexual objectification critique also properly sheds light on some of the problematic aspects of prostitution, but it doing so it also points to a broader critique of wage labour. If there is a problem with failing to positively appreciate that sex trade workers are more than sexual objects, than isn`t it also problematic for employers to fail to properly appreciate that their employees are more than a mere paid resource with particular capacities? This latter case seems to be a case of objectification as much as the former case does, and thus it is hard to see why objectifying someone as a sexual object is problematic, while objectifying them as a technical IT resource for instance would not be. We tend to be more comfortable with the latter form of objectification as we actively participate in it, simply by calling someone for IT support, but that does not render it any less of a form of objectification unless we treat the IT worker as more than just a resource that we have to pay. Thus, it seems that the sexual objectification critique points to the fact that wage labour itself is problematic. Thus, it seems that the romantic critique and sexual objectification critique of prostitution actually point towards a broader critique of practises of commodification and wage labour.

If the two critiques elaborated above point towards a broader critique of commodification and wage labour this means that anyone who finds prostitution problematic for the reasons associated with these critiques should also find certain elements of the economic systems of post-industrial society deeply problematic. I am certainly someone who finds both prostitution and many elements of the economic systems of post-industrial societies problematic, but it seems that within our culture there is a general tendency to have disdain for prostitution, while ignoring the fact that many of the reasons behind people’s condemnation of prostitution point to a broader critique of commodification and wage labour. It is important for us to recognize that this perspective is deeply in tension, if not contradictory, and thus problematic.


3 thoughts on “Prostitution, Puritanism, Commodification and Wage Labour

  1. Always an interesting and timely subject of discussion, and all the more so far your ability to see the macro-economic implications of our sentiments.

    Insofar as sex work is the selling of sexual talents and services, I think you are exactly right that prostitution is just like any other job where one uses ones talents for a wage. But might that show us that our intuitions about the wrongness of sex work are wrong, not that the commodification of labor in general is objectionable?

    Of course, I don’t actually disagree with your view, there is something inhumane about the exploitation of persons for their abilities without proper payment given for the enrichment of their person. My point is that our revision should go both ways, in a sort of dialectic of thought that leads us to see the commonalities between prostitution and wage labor in general as revealing the unconsidered vileness of wage labor and the unconsidered acceptability of prostitution given the vileness of wage labor in general. This is not to say that we conclude that there is nothing undesirable about prostitution (it does put persons in a dangerous position no matter what, that is the danger of having sex with many, many people), but I think there is something positive to seeing prostitution as another form of labor, even if wage labor in general is despicable. At least then, in time, prostitutes won’t be marginalized, such that they can be active participants in discussions and demonstrations for the reformation of the wage structure; if they become integrated into the norm, it will only help to overthrow the norm.

    (On a different note, I just want to say that elsewhere, in response to the ruling by the Canadian supreme court ruling you mentioned, I argued that a Kantian prohibition of never treating persons as mere means allows for prostitution, in a way that is consistent with our disagreement on the matter in the comments in your entry on facebook and recognition. So we are each consistent! lol)

    • Thanks for the comment. Your analysis is incisive as always.

      I don’t disagree with anything you have said. In fact part of the initial thought process around this entry was the idea that sex trade workers are unduly denigrated by society, and that we need to show that the typical critiques of prostitution are critiques of the average lives of most citizens, such that the self-righteousness that people display towards sex trade workers is unjustified. While it might not have come out in this entry, which is my fault, I was strongly implying that prostitution is as acceptable as many other forms of wage labour, and I agree that from a purely strategic, political perspective that if this idea was accepted then it would help to combat the marginalization that sex trade workers face.

      Also, I hope I did not come off as suggesting that prostitution ought to remain illegal; you did not suggest this, but I could see how someone could think this given that I seemed to be taking a critical stance towards it. I find elements of prostitution objectionable, mainly because of the reasons espoused in this entry, but if we accept that wage labour should be legal (even if it is objectionable) then it seems that prostitution should be legal.

      • Excellent, I think we are on the same page then; admittedly, as you recognize, I wasn’t quite sure what your overall stance on the permissibility of prostitution was, so I’m glad that this point came out in these comments.

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