Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Prostitution, Biology, Morality, and the Law

Eliot Spitzer's resigned the office of Governor of New York.

I'll no doubt be posting on the political implications of the decline and fall of the "
Enforcer," but for now I'm increasingly intrigued by the partisan and gender-based splits on the ethics and legality of sex-for-trade (recall last night's rebuke of Jane Hamsher for refusing to call for Spitzer's resignation and endorsing prostitution).

At today's Los Angeles Times, David Barash, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Washington, essentially justified Spitzer's ethical behavior on biological grounds:

One of the most important insights of modern evolutionary biology has been an enhanced understanding of male-female differences, deriving especially from the production of sperm versus eggs. Because sperm are produced in vast numbers, with little if any required parental follow-through, males of most species are aggressive sexual adventurers, inclined to engage in sex with multiple partners when they can. Males who succeed in doing so leave more descendants....

Around the world, high-ranking men have long enjoyed sexual access to comparatively large numbers of women, typically young and attractive. Moreover, women have by and large found such men appealing beyond what may be predicted from their immediate physical traits. "Power," wrote Henry Kissinger, "is the ultimate aphrodisiac"....

Part of being successful, moreover, is a tendency to feel entitled and often to be uninhibited -- in part because one outcome of our species-wide polygamous history is that successful men have been those who took risks, which paid off....

Some readers may bridle at this characterization ... but the evidence is overwhelming. That doesn't justify adultery, by either sex, especially because human beings -- even those burdened by a Y chromosome and suffering from testosterone poisoning -- are presumed capable of exercising control over their impulses....

But even a smidgen of evolutionary insight suggests that maleness plus money plus political power isn't likely to add up to the kind of sexual restraint that the public expects.
Well, despite the obligatory nod to human will, Barash appears to give Spitzer a pass: Genetics and power overdetermined his promiscuity.

I'm not buying it, sorry. Man is not enslaved to his biological needs, and as Spitzer was married - to
a fabulously beautiful woman, no less - the ethical impropriety of his own sexual wanderings are all the more inexcusable.

Now, to continue along a slightly different avenue, if we accept that men have a physical need to spread their essence, should this incline us to make distinctions (gender-based, for example) on the propriety and legality of prostitution?

what Megan McArdle's talking about on the politcal libertarianism of sex-trading:
Revulsion against sex work isn't unique to female prostitutes. We're also repulsed by men who sell themselves to women, even though there's a general cultural assumption that a healthy man wants to have sex with nearly every female he sees. Something about sex work violates a deep belief--whether cultural or hard wired I don't know--that sex should only be traded for affection.

But if the only prostitutes were men selling themselves to women, no one would want to make it illegal. Supporting yourself that way might bring social opprobrium, like becoming a Morris dancer or eating live chickens--can't you find something better to do? But we wouldn't criminalize it in the name of protecting them from violence, criminals, or the untold horrors of multiple anonymous sexual encounters. A bizarre "We must destroy the village in order to save it" mentality permeates the discussions about legalization on both left and right.
Ross Douthat responds:

Um ... I would still want to make it illegal. I wouldn't want to make it illegal in the name of protecting gigolos from violence or unprotected sex, but then again, that's not fundamentally why I think female prostitution should be illegal either. I think the "protecting vulnerable women" case against legalizing sex work is a perfectly reasonable supplemental argument for keeping the ban in place, but ultimately the case for the ban stands or falls on one's view of morals legislation: First, whether it's appropriate for the law to restrain people from activities that are freely chosen but ultimately self-abusive and morally degrading, and second, whether prostitution, female and male alike, is sufficiently self-abusive and degrading to warrant legal sanction.
You'll have to read the rest of Douthat's post.

I frankly haven't thought about the ethics and legality of prostitution from such a deeply philosophical perspective. I can appreciate a libertarian regime of legalized prostitution, from the point of view of consenting adults entering into rational exchange to satisfy some set of mutually agreed interests.

The problem is that life doesn't follow a strictly non-personal logic of idealized rational decision-making. Power, venality, immaturity, poverty - among just a few factors - intrude into the mutual choice transaction framework surrounding prostitution. The unpredictability of life messes up the model.

Frankly, prostitution's not something that seems clean and respectabe. Even if it was legal, I'd guess most self-esteeming people would have qualms about sex-trading simply on the basis of Judeo-Christain ethics.

The morality of right is what allows us to overcome the biological urges that Barash uses to excuse the polygamous behavior of men in power. That morality doesn't disappear if society - on libertarian grounds - legalizes an activity likely to reflect inequalities of power in income, gender, race, and social status.

In any case, as promised, I'll have more on the fall of Spitzer as things develop.

Memeorandum in the meanwhile.


J said...

I know this is an old post, but I believe you've confused Barash's comments. Evolutionary psychology explains what "is," not what "should be." Just because we now understand where these urges come from doesn't give anyone a free ethical pass--and Barash isn't claiming that it does. Humans have evolved to love Twinkies, too--this is a natural desire, for fat and sugar--but I think most people agree this is a desire that worked much better in our evolutionary past than it does now.