Social Problems, Moral Foghorns

Glen Newey

Last month, Amnesty International’s decision-making body meeting in Dublin voted ‘to adopt a policy that seeks attainment of the highest possible protection of the human rights of sex workers, through measures that include the decriminalisation of sex work’. The policy rests ‘on the human rights principle that consensual sexual conduct between adults is entitled to protection from state interference’.

All the following statements are true. Some women are trafficked into prostitution and have no say in it. Others become prostitutes because of material need or childhood trauma. Most but not all prostitution is offered by women and girls to male customers. Many female prostitutes are under the control of violent or otherwise coercive pimps. Collateral problems, including drug abuse and HIV infection, can result from it or (in the case of drug addiction) promote it. Some people, including some women, prostitute themselves because they prefer it to other ways of earning money. There is no reason to think that any measure, whether for producers, consumers or both, including outlawing or criminalising it, will put an end to it, and even the balance of probabilities is disputed.

In response to Amnesty’s proposal, a battery of moral big guns, from the pope, Jimmy Carter and the Guardian to Meryl Streep and others on the red carpet, urged that matters are very simple: ban it, and criminalise the punters but not the prostitutes, as Sweden has done. Others strongly oppose the paternalism this might be thought to license. Liberal feminists argue that since each person owns her body, she may decide what to do with it, whether that means evicting unwanted foetuses or renting it for sex. The pope presumably accepts the moral continuity between abortion and prostitution but infers the opposite, by denying the strong ownership premise or by holding that these practices abuse the God-given gift of reproduction. Others invoke strong ownership rights when it comes to abortion, but hit the override button with prostitution: women who engage in it clearly can’t have freely chosen to do so. This is true of some Kantians, who identify freedom with autonomy but (in version two of the categorical imperative) say that you shouldn’t use your own person as a mere means, which prostitution may be thought to do: hence prostitutes are not acting autonomously. Maybe banning it amounts to unwarranted restraint of trade. A wants sex, B wants A’s cash, and – bingo! – the market has worked its magic, though few people think that burglary or crack-pushing, say, are callings that the state must protect. Or, simplest of all, there’s the view that prostitution is just bad, so anything that stops it is (at least to that extent) good.

In the public arena, moral certitude tends to gerrymander supposedly factual claims. Does outlawing prostitution curb sexual violence by pimps and punters, or encourage it? The English Collective of Prostitutes supports Amnesty’s stance, one argument being that customers are more likely to act violently towards prostitutes if they are already engaged in criminal activity. Many feminists say that prostitution either is in itself, or sanctions, sexual violence against women. Others claim that the Swedish law makes prostitutes liable to eviction by landlords fearful of pimping charges, though that could equally go for the English regime which bans living off ‘immoral earnings’. Germany, where brothels are legal, is alternately held up as a magnet for sex tourism and human trafficking, or a liberal oasis where sex workers (even the term is contested) enjoy standing similar to other employees.

Part of Amnesty’s problem is that it deals in human rights, whose strong suit is moral clarity. Tackling fiddly social problems with rights-talk can be like trying to undo a knot with boxing gloves on. This all-or-nothing stance tends to get echoed in the justice-based theorising that dominates political philosophy, where either renting oneself for sex is demanded by justice, and hence a right, or proscribed by it, and so the object of a negative duty. In this setting Amnesty risks getting beaten to the punch by big names with strong opinions for export to social media. Human beings are complicated beasts who perform their animal functions in diverse ways. Dealing with their ramifications is, accordingly, a complex political business. It calls for various things – careful research rather than a priori sociology, an awareness of complexity, a willingness to weigh the prophylactic and other interests involved, and an ability to keep one’s nerve in the face of distraction. But moral foghorns aren’t among them.


  • 5 September 2015 at 2:05am
    Bob Beck says:
    The Canadian government recently brought in a new law on prostitution (the old one having been struck down by the Supreme Court, on the grounds that it made prostitutes'/sex workers' lives unsafe, or more so than they might otherwise be).

    The "debate", such as it was, was over-supplied with moral foghorns: notably lacking in careful research, an awareness of complexity, or simple compassion. With the clumsiness and mean-spiritednes typical of the Conservative government that's afflicted the country these nine years, the new law combined aspects of the "Nordic model" with some scarcely-altered features of the nineteenth- or early-twentieth century law it was replacing.

    The new law probably won't survive another constitutional challenge: but then Prime Minister Harper has always detested the Trudeau-era Charter of Rights and Freedoms and, in effect, campaigned against it.

    Any challenge will take years to work its way through the courts; meanwhile, there's no reason to think that fewer women will be trafficked into prostitution, escape the control of violent or coercive pimps, avoid drug abuse or HIV infection, or simply work in better and more dignified conditions. Whatever its intentions, this government simply can't countenance, for ideological and electoral reasons, any measures that would en

  • 5 September 2015 at 2:06am
    Bob Beck says:
    courage any such things. (Managed to post before I finished).

  • 6 September 2015 at 1:56am
    philip proust says:
    Glen Newey writes that:" Dealing with their ramifications is, accordingly, a complex political business. It calls for various things – careful research rather than a priori sociology, an awareness of complexity, a willingness to weigh the prophylactic and other interests involved, and an ability to keep one’s nerve in the face of distraction. But moral foghorns aren’t among them."

    However, "moral foghorns" are a crucial part of "political business", whereas sitting on the fence, as Newey does in his article, is not. He goes on to imply that the issue can be resolved technocratically - that is, outside of a consideration of rights and morality; however, once all the complex facts have been assembled, one or more ordering principles need to be mobilised if the research is to be converted into public policy and then legislation. An ethical commitment is inescapable in this context.

    Disappointingly, Glen Newey's article lacks the usual personal anecdotes that are often a feature of his writing. It is true that this is a tricky topic for a male theorist to take on; however, the reader has a right to expect an unequivocal point of view. What is your opinion, Glen?

    • 6 September 2015 at 9:17am
      Glen Newey says: @ philip proust
      Since you ask, my opinion is that a strongly moralised view on either side – that prostitution should be banned as a moral requirement, or that it must be protected as a matter of right – are both too crude. I take that to mean that particular polities may and can regulate the practice as they see fit. If the question is what I would do if I were dictator, I hope I'd consult widely and would take as a starting-point the overriding aim of protecting sex workers. I am inclined to think that the German model is more likely to achieve this than the Swedish one. I also don't think that the aim of policy should be (as some supporters of the Swedish regime seem to think) to wreak vengeance on the punters, who are a rather heterogeneous bunch of people.

      On the absence of personal anecdote: it's interesting that you mention this, since there were a couple of them in the original version of the piece, both put in to suggest that reality is more complex than Streepesque moral grandstanding permits. I know quite well someone who works in the extended sex industry (in Germany), in a 'hostess' bar. When I've discussed it with her she has said that she does it because sitting talking to half-cut businessmen who are chatting her up in the hope of sexual favours is a quicker earner than the alternatives open to her. The other case involved a charity I work for whose beneficiaries are severely mentally handicapped. The parents of one, a young woman of eighteen, are currently considering whether to buy in sexual services for her (as she is not physically handicapped). I respect the judgement of my editors at the LRB, who (I imagine) felt that anecdote of this sort was out of place in an article largely focussed on public policy.

  • 8 September 2015 at 5:08am
    philip proust says:
    "I respect the judgement of my editors at the LRB, who (I imagine) felt that anecdote of this sort was out of place in an article largely focussed on public policy."

    Public policy would generally draw on empirical research to assist in the formulation of policy; and in the social sciences research is not entirely of a quantitative kind; it includes qualitative research that examines numerous case studies like the valuable examples that Glen Newey outlines in his reply.

    I would assume that editors at the LRB are hesitant about publishing any article - or component of any article - that could spark cries of outrage from those who wield the foghorns.

    The request for moral foghorns to be turned off thus seems doomed when they appear to be so effective in drowning out the views of potential opponents, even on a site as liberal as the LRB's.

  • 8 September 2015 at 1:14pm
    BillTuckerUS says:
    Everybody here, including me, appears to be male. This is an issue where female voices should count more than male ones. For example, in a recent NYTimes article, "Buying Sex Should Not Be Legal," by an Irish former prostitute, Rachel Moran (

    Ms Moran's essay contains important information that is missing from most of the others I have read, in that it describes how she got into this business in the first place.

    Men, pipe down; this is mainly a women's issue. Only women's opinions are worth much and if it comes to a vote, only their votes should count.

    • 8 September 2015 at 4:30pm
      MajorBarbara says: @ BillTuckerUS
      I'm female. (In fact, I read, and commented on, the NYT article when it appeared.) I must note that gay men have a longstanding subculture of sex for pay. I think we need to consider why we assume automatically that heterosexual prostitution involving men purchasing sex from women (assuming consenting adults) cannot possibly fit any simulation of this model, but must invariably be degrading and exploitative. Perhaps the key element is the general absence of pimps in contemporary gay hustling - the men involved are usually free agents.
      There is a woman's opinion, though I suspect it isn't the one you expected or wanted to get.

    • 8 September 2015 at 5:18pm
      John Cowan says: @ MajorBarbara
      It's hard to hold adult males in slavery, particularly if they have to be sexually functional too, and pimps are essentially slave owners whose customary practices match historic slave codes rather well: in particular, whatever the prostitute earns belongs to the pimp absolutely.

      I'm happy to see any woman's opinion here, whatever its content.

  • 9 September 2015 at 10:38am
    Lisl says:
    Another female p.o.v.:

    We are all good and thoughtful people here, with wives, mothers and daughters. The issue fast becomes personal when we imagine the fraught topic of The World's Oldest Profession. While we ourselves might not choose to be in, or be sucked into, the ranks of the sex workers, it would be fatuous to imagine we could fashion a world without them.

    To paraphrase Hemingway, it's pretty to think so for any number of reasons: Have we not evolved far enough in our conception of personhood that women could not access their deep well of creativity and compassion to create something meritorious for her world? Worse, as we struggle to make true connection in this ever-virtualised world, it is a painful thought that the Other in our most personal relationship is also simply an object to be bought and sold. Perhaps she herself even thinks it. It is the core fear of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and this must leave men quite uneasy.

    But to answer the question Amnesty asks empirically, one must access a business model, for rights and justice are sought by accessing the ideal, which is then applied to the actual in order to right it. Prostitution is a business, therefore, how to protect the worker and the fruits of his or her labours? Obviously, legislation the answer. Questions of morality do not even enter this discussion. (Human trafficking and slavery is a sad fact of life in so many realms; criminalizing one of them does not remove the actuality of the occurrence.)

    Historically, we know that legislating morality does not work (ref. the U.S. Abolition movement and strictures upon abortion.) People want what they want. So, how to ensure the woman has a safe environment for all of her health needs (body, mind, situation)? How to determine a fair rate of pay? This must be determined and legislated by the state. Perhaps just as the factory owner sets the remuneration of his employees, so the madam would set the rules of the house.

    This is neither romantic nor perhaps overly Enlightened behviour (save in the sense of those who perform sexual surrogacy), but it IS work, and the person should be allowed to profit from the fruits of his labours. As an aside, the nature of the job entails a separation of emotion from act. Like all work, one’s love is not a requirement; professionalism is. Not only the employee but the consumer has a right to clearly delineated expectations.
    That’s about it.

  • 11 September 2015 at 11:22am
    Frej Klem Thomsen says:
    Some might find the following interesting:

    It contains brief comments on the issue from most of the prominent contemporary philosophers who have worked on the topic. As a moral philosopher myself, I think its safe to say that ethics and morality clearly do enter into it. The problem is, as Newey points out, that attempts on both sides to reduce ethical analysis of the issue to a clearcut and easily communicable soundbite inevitably miss the mark. There is far too much going on for that to work.

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