The Differences That Aren’t

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

We think we know what we’re doin’
We don’t pull the strings
It’s all in the past now
Money changes everything.
  –  Tom Gray

Several of the comments on last Tuesday’s “What’s the Difference?” made the very valid point that sex is an extremely strong drive, as strong as hunger, and that makes it different from other human activities that aren’t attached to such strong drives.  Others pointed  out (again, quite correctly) that sex is often associated with powerful emotions, and that sexual activity has powerful neurological effects and releases hormones which promote bonding.  If I were a less honest person I might pretend that I was trying to elicit those responses in order to make my point, but the truth is that I wasn’t; however, I should have included them in the essay in the first place, because they really do make my point.

Prostitution is, when all the mystery, romanticism (positive and negative) and emotional hoo-ha is removed, a simple business transaction:  Party A (the seller) has something she is willing to sell, while party B (the buyer) has money he’s willing to spend.  Each values what the other has, so an exchange is made and, assuming neither tries to cheat the other, everyone is happy.  So what happens during the transaction?  Party A gives party B sex (a completely legal action), while Party B gives Party A money (also a completely legal action).  Yet somehow, we pretend that the juxtaposition of these two events makes them both wrong, which is arrant nonsense.  Arguments about the emotional and/or hormonal effects of sex are irrelevant, because it is completely legal to give sex to strangers for nothing, or in exchange for food and entertainment, or in exchange for some favor, or even in exchange for cold, hard cash as long as the transactions don’t happen together.  If we lived in a theocracy which banned all extramarital sex, a ban on prostitution would at least be consistent…but we don’t.  Furthermore, extramarital love affairs – which violate legal contracts and arguably endanger children – are also legal; in other words sexual arrangements in which those hormones are demonstrably in effect are legal, but those in which they are not are prohibited.  This is like legalizing the act of driving by a person who is clearly inebriated, while criminalizing it for people who are demonstrably sober, yet have an open container of liquor in the car.

Furthermore, we don’t ban other activities with powerful neurological effects unless a taboo substance is involved; one of the comments mentioned that oxytocin is released during sex, and that’s absolutely true…but it’s also released in nursing, yet wet-nursing is legal.  So is surrogate motherhood, despite the indisputable fact that pregnancy generates far more powerful emotions in the typical woman than sex does (N.B.: in Australia, prostitution is legal but surrogate motherhood is not.  So much for consistency in paternalistic laws.)  And though people of both sexes (but especially women) sometimes develop very strong attachments for children under their care, we don’t ban day care centers, nannies and schools.  As for the sex drive being as strong as hunger, isn’t that an argument for prostitution rather than against it?  If something is vital to health and happiness, what kind of sadistic monster would try to stop someone from gaining access to that thing in any fair and non-forcible way he can?  We rightly prohibit both rape and theft even if they arise from strong urges, yet criminalize the purchase of even badly-needed sex while celebrating the sale of food, even if the latter is consumed purely for enjoyment and has no nutritional value whatsoever.

But what about those brain studies?  I’m in favor of total drug decriminalization, but playing devil’s advocate for a moment:  surely, if sex affects the brain in the same way heroin does we’re certainly justified in regulating it in the same way, aren’t we?  Well, no.  Dr. Marty Klein explains:

…when so-called sex addicts are involved in sex (for example, when watching pornography), the part of their brain that lights up (the mesolimbic pathway) is the same part that lights up when a heroin addict has injected heroin.  Compelling proof of sex addiction?  Not even close.  That’s the same part of the brain that lights up when we see a sunset, the Golden Gate Bridge, the perfect donut, a gorgeous touchdown pass, or our grandchild’s smile.  Our brain, our blood, and our hormones always react to pleasure—including sexual pleasure.  The last 150,000 years of evolution at least accomplished that much with us poor humans…[anti-sex activists are only concerned] about how people become addicted to their own body chemicals when those chemicals are related to sex rather than, say, a walk through the park or a production of King Lear

In other words, while I might be taken to task for saying that sex is no different from any other human activity, I think most reasonable people will agree that sex is no different from lots of other activities that most people aren’t so uptight about, and that it’s pure mysticism to argue that the mere addition of a symbol of exchange (rather than the thing itself) can magically turn a moral action into an immoral one.

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35 Responses to “The Differences That Aren’t”

  1. #1 |  Rick H. | 

    Well said, Maggie. As someone who typically agrees with 99.7% of what you write (that’s why I rarely comment), I too felt this was a statement that needed some clarification.

  2. #2 |  Or gone | 

    Party A pours gasoline on his carpeting (a completely legal action), while Party B lights a match and drops it (also a completely legal action).  Yet somehow, we pretend that the juxtaposition of these two events makes them both wrong, which is arrant nonsense.

  3. #3 |  Dave | 

    “As for the sex drive being as strong as hunger, isn’t that an argument for prostitution rather than against it? If something is vital to health and happiness, what kind of sadistic monster would try to stop someone from gaining access to that thing in any fair and non-forcible way he can?”
    Try every single person working in the prison industry. But that’s a whole different can of worms.

  4. #4 |  Pi Guy | 

    Next up on the DEA Schedule I: Oxytocin.

    I mean, if herion addicts, kleptomaniacs, bulimics, pyros, and promiscuious people are really just all hopped up on oxytocin, banning it fixes that – right?

    The obvious next question is, if there’s no external/chemical basis for sex addiction (or stealing, lighting fires, etc.) then doesn’t that make it more difficult to assert that drugs have addictive properties unto themselves?

  5. #5 |  Other Sean | 

    I’ve always found it interesting that sex for money is one of the only types of sex where both parties can be absolutely sure of what they’re getting, and even more important, what they’re not getting. If you once removed the legal threat, there’d be no reason to feel much worry for sex workers or clients.

    By contrast, I find myself sick with pity whenever I meet one of the following:

    1) The guy who is paying for sex, but doesn’t know it (see: just about any rich man whose second or third wife is roughly the same age as his eldest child).

    2) The girl who trades sex in a vain attempt to gain social approval (see: just about any college campus the night after freshman dorms open).

    The danger is not in mixing sex with money, but in mixing it with lies.

  6. #6 |  jesse | 

    Don’t confuse “legal” with “moral”. My morality would proscribe all extramarital sex, but that doesn’t mean I think governments should have the power to step in and stop it whether money is involved or not, just as I don’t believe government should use police powers to stop people from using or abusing any substance.

    When it comes down to it, this is because I believe aggression (force, coercion, police power) is immoral when used against peaceful people engaging in consensual activity.

  7. #7 |  Robert | 

    Party A pours gasoline on his carpeting (a completely legal action), while Party B lights a match and drops it (also a completely legal action). Yet somehow, we pretend that the juxtaposition of these two events makes them both wrong, which is arrant nonsense.

    Except B isn’t always a legal action, just like sex isn’t (in the case of rape, etc…). There ARE times when sex is not legal, just like there are times you can’t throw a lit match on the ground. In fact MOST of the time throwing lit matches on people’s carpet is illegal, I’m not sure in what place you live that this is considered to be acceptable and legal behavior.

  8. #8 |  Randy | 

    One factor that helped prostitution gain its reputation as bad or evil was STDs. Once the ancients recognized the correlation between virgins mating and no STDs versus indiscriminate coupling and higher disease rates, the latter had to be condemned. And because they believed God caused the diseases as punishment, the behavior had to be condemned in no uncertain terms.

    I wonder what our sexual mores would be today if STD’s never existed. Church would be a LOT different I would think! LOL

  9. #9 |  MH | 

    Yeah, the arson analogy is weak. A more challenging case is the blackmail paradox: it is generally legal to publish embarrassing information about someone, and legal to ask for money in exchange for doing (or not doing) something, but put together, it is a crime to ask for money to keep quiet about something embarrassing. (Google blackmail paradox to see Eugene Volokh’s lengthier explanation). Would be interested if Maggie also supports the legality of blackmail or is able to differentiate them.

  10. #10 |  David C | 

    >If we lived in a theocracy which banned all extramarital sex, a ban on prostitution would at least be consistent…but we don’t.

    But we did, right? Don’t prostitution bans date from times when extramarital sex in general was scandalous-to-illegal as well?

  11. #11 |  Laida | 

    its seems that always sex brings all the drama. many people condemn sex work because they say”it commodificates sexuality”.there are people who dont agree with the commodification of sports,because they feel it strips them of the values that they are supposed to promote.i have yet to see anyone protesting outside the stadiums that the modern Olympic games take place,because of all the sponsors and none of them shows hatred against highly priced athletes,like Lionel Messi.but those who protest sex work or sexy commercials are highly influential.
    i also agree that there are activities, which are even more intimate and can create a stronger bond than sex can.as i said at your own blog hugging and cuddling with my mother has been a far more intimate experience for me than sex,yet every time i rushed to hug a teammate who scored when playing soccer i didnt get ”ew,thats reserved for people you have deep feelings for”.i got this a lot for my one night stands.every experience is what you make of it and depends on the person you do it with.
    same with the drama that nudity in movies create,while there is very little protest about violence,which in hollywood films is often glorified.

  12. #12 |  crazybob | 

    There is of course one acceptable reason to ban what should otherwise be legal activity: the ban prevents some ancillary evil that significantly outweighs the good otherwise provided by the activity.

    In this case that would be the exploitation of some classes of society, specifically women and children. Prostitution has always been associated with exploitation, and it is my understanding that in places were prostitution is legal exploitation is still a problem. Now you can argue that the ban doesn’t help (or worsens) exploitation, but it is the one significant argument that needs to be addressed. The rest doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.

  13. #13 |  MH | 

    “the ban prevents…”

    It does?

  14. #14 |  En Passant | 

    #9 | wrote July 31st, 2012 at 11:14 am:

    (Google blackmail paradox to see Eugene Volokh’s lengthier explanation). Would be interested if Maggie also supports the legality of blackmail or is able to differentiate them.

    Blackmail is distinguishable from prostitution on at least two accounts:

    1. Blackmail is a unilateral act. In legal terms, it is an offer for a contract. Blackmailer says “If you don’t gimme the money, I’ll publish the dirt.”

    Offering sex for money, or offering money for sex is not prostitution. Either one is an offer for an act of prostitution.

    Prostitution is a bilateral act, in fulfillment of a contract. Client offers money for sex, or whore offers sex for money. Actual prostitution occurs when offer is accepted and contract is executory, ie: when they do the horizontal mambo.

    So, blackmail is analogous to offering or requesting an act of prostitution, but it is not analogous to an act of prostitution.

    2. Payment of blackmail is not an execution of a contract between willing buyer and seller; the buyer (who pays the blackmailer to refrain from doing something) is not a willing buyer, he is under duress of exposure. Payment of blackmail is analogous to giving your wallet to someone who says “give me your money or I’ll kill you.” Prostitution is an act fulfilling a contract between a willing buyer and a willing seller.

  15. #15 |  Steamed McQueen | 

    To paraphrase the late George Carlin:

    Selling is legal. Fucking is legal. Selling fucking is illegal. Why?

  16. #16 |  qwints | 

    The parallel that comes to my mind is organ markets. You can give a kidney away, but you can’t sell one.

  17. #17 |  yonemoto | 

    It’s also legal to give away sex for nefarious reasons, like to fuck with them emotionally.

  18. #18 |  smurfy | 

    Still glib.

    This whole discussion comes off like an effort to reduce that magical sunset behind the Golden Gate to 8 bit RGB values that we can compute. Somethings are just mystical and we’ll spend our whole lives, no thousands of years of humanity, understanding and sorting them out. I personally don’t have a problem with different pursuits of understanding in this realm so I’ll leave it to others to explain the wisdom of a ban on prostitution but I will say this: The reason I don’t choose that route is that I need to be laid once about as much as I need one hit of heroin. (at the rates I think a lay goes for, I’d be getting it about quarterly).

  19. #19 |  Sean L. | 

    qwints:

    It goes beyond that — every single person in the the organ transplant process profits. Just not the donor.

  20. #20 |  Deoxy | 

    Don’t confuse “legal” with “moral”. My morality would proscribe all extramarital sex, but that doesn’t mean I think governments should have the power to step in and stop it whether money is involved or not, just as I don’t believe government should use police powers to stop people from using or abusing any substance.

    This. Exactly, perfectly THIS.

    I like a lot of your stuff, Maggie, but on this one, your argument continues to ignore inconvenient facts.

  21. #21 |  crazybob | 

    #12 | MH | July 31st, 2012 at 12:33 pm
    “the ban prevents…”
    It does?

    I don’t know, but if it did, then that would be a justification for it.

    There’s no constitutional difference between a handgun, a 100 round magazine on an assault rifle and a surface to air missile, at least by the modern interpretation of the 2nd amendment. Yet only the last one is banned. Why? to prevent a greater evil – the periodic loss of an airliner full of people.

  22. #22 |  jesse | 

    I’d have to also dispute the notion of sex as a “need”. A desire, a drive, sure. But humans can survive perfectly well without engaging in sex of any kind.

    Stealing food when starving may still be theft but most people would look on that situation with sympathy.

    Rape, no matter how horny someone is, would not elicit the same response. No one has ever died due to lack of orgasm.

  23. #23 |  ClubMedSux | 

    “But humans can survive perfectly well without engaging in sex of any kind.”

    Speak for yourself.

  24. #24 |  EH | 

    Other Sean:
    I’ve always found it interesting that sex for money is one of the only types of sex where both parties can be absolutely sure of what they’re getting, and even more important, what they’re not getting. If you once removed the legal threat, there’d be no reason to feel much worry for sex workers or clients.

    I once had an acquaintance who did tech work for porn sites. The further irony to what you describe is that, at least in California, while it’s illegal to pay someone to have sex with you, it’s perfectly legal to pay other people to have sex with each other.

  25. #25 |  The Late Andy Rooney | 

    #24

    That’s a good point. I believe the distinction, legally, is that a porn actor or actress is paid for a performance, not for sex. An explicit agreement to perform particular sex acts is never made.The star could dance a jig or do card tricks in front of a camera, and would still be fulfilling the terms of the contract.

  26. #26 |  Mattocracy | 

    “the periodic loss of an airliner full of people”

    Banning missiles has stopped this from happening, seeing as how the last time someone wanted to crash an airliner used much different means.

    Same goes for exploitation and your argument in comment 11. Everyone has the potential do be exploited. To say that we need to address the significant argument of possible exploitation of women and children makes it sound like we don’t already do that now. It’s not like prostitution becomes legal and now rape is suddenly ok or becomes more likely to occur. It was wrong before and would still be wrong if we had legalized sex workers. We do we need to address a crime that has already been addressed?

  27. #27 |  Mattocracy | 

    Sorry, HASN’T stopped…

  28. #28 |  Dan | 

    Obviously

  29. #29 |  StrangeOne | 

    I’ve never understood the impulse behind prohibiting things to help people:

    Ban prostitution to stop women exploitation.
    Ban drugs to stop addicts.
    Ban weapons to stop violence.
    Ban trans fats to stop people from getting fat.

    Well we banned all those things. Are female exploitation, drug addiction, violence, and fat people still around? Yep, as a matter of fact getting arrested, jailed, and generally treated like second class citizens seems to have made them rather worse off than before.

    Well the only thing to fix that is more prohibitions!

    You can’t control bad behaviors by destroying legal goods and services. You can’t control peoples behavior in a general sense, for that matter. The prohibitionist believes he has a right and a duty to control other people, for their own good of course. It becomes all the more obvious that their only real concern is power over others when the data and common sense illustrate the failure of their policies and yet they go on supporting them. Anyone with the slightest bit of empathy would not jail an addict and call it treatment.

    (Yes I realize we have yet to start jailing people for being fat, but please be patient. Bloomberg and his cronies need time to work through the details)

  30. #30 |  RSDavis | 

    Hey, where did you get the 1.5% number? You say you estimated it, but based on what?

  31. #31 |  Maggie McNeill | 

    #6 & #20 – Guys, I definitely understand that legal & moral are NOT the same thing; in fact my recent “Godwin’s Law” essay hinged on the difference. There are lots of things I think are immoral and would never do, but I still don’t think should be illegal; as you said, Jesse, the government using force to stop it is worse. However, I suspect the reason y’all thought was equating the two is that I phrased something carelessly or badly; can one of y’all point out the passage where I did it so I can avoid that kind of phrasing in future? Thank you!

    #10 – Weirdly, no. For most of human history prostitution was viewed as a way to AVOID adultery; as Cato the Younger expressed it, “Blessed be they as virtuous, who when they feel their virile members swollen with lust, visit a brothel rather than grind at some husband’s private mill.” Prostitution laws first started to appear (as #8 pointed out) during the syphilis scare of the 16th century, but they didn’t really catch on and died away again until the late 19th, when they were sold as part of the same “social purity” package which gave us laws against alcohol, drugs, masturbation, homosexuality, etc.

    #12 – No. Exploitation is driven by illegality; the greater (and more arbitrary) the illegality, the greater the opportunity for exploitation. Prohibitionists are fond of claiming that exploitation increases under decriminalization, but mounds of data from New Zealand, New South Wales and (to a far lesser extent) Germany prove they are lying.

    #30 – I calculated it in my first column on pimps; it’s derived from American, English & French figures but a recent survey of Cambodian sex workers gave a similar figure, 2%. Nutshell version: Pimps are largely unknown outside of streetwalking, and streetwalkers are no more than 15% of all whores. Fewer than 50% of streetwalkers have pimps, and more than half of those who do control the pimp rather than the other way around. So, roughly 20% of all streetwalkers work for a pimp (rather than him working for her), and only about half of those relationships are abusive. 10% of 15% = 1.5%.

  32. #32 |  crzyb0b | 

    That’s all well and good, but that is the argument (in fact the ONLY argument) you need to make.

    Can you lay out the evidence in more detail?

  33. #33 |  RSDavis | 

    Thanks, Maggie, I have been enjoying your blog and your point-of-view. Have you ever seen the Bullshit! episode on prostitution? It was great.

    I asked about that 1.5% number for a friend who doubted it. I gave him your response, and he replied, “Please point out to Maggie for me that the study she cites regarding child prostitutes in the US says 16% have dealt with pimps (not just “heard of pimps” as she repeatedly and falsely claims) and nearly all of them reported the pimps were in some way violent. So I’d say her 1.5% figure is closer to the approx. 50% of streetwalkers who have pimps, which mean 7% of prostitutes overall.

    Yes, this makes pimps a much less significant force in the overall sex trade than the popular imagination would have it, but pimps are apparently still common in the streetwalking subculture, and so hardly the mythical beast she claims (in fact, that study has many anecdotes of pimps every bit as bad as they were in the Pam Grier movies).”

    Thanks for your activism on behalf of women. I’ve always enjoyed that riot grrrl brand of feminism that rejects the de-sexualization of 2nd wave feminism. I love that rather than deny differences between men and women, these girls embrace the differences, and rejoice in the power of their sexuality.

  34. #34 |  Belle Waring | 

    I absolutely support the legalization of prostitution because I think people should be free to do as they wish with their own bodies, because I’m a feminist. But I don’t think the case is helped by minimizing cases of abuse by pimps or the tragedy of underage prostitution. Well, no: there is a hyperbolic fear of both those things in the US often seen on cop shows like CSI:Miami in which nubile white 10th graders are getting beaten up till they start streetwalking in New York. This is bullshit.

    But, when women are stripping and they use the strip joint to arrange dates, does the management take a cut? Yes, IME. Will they beat the crap out of you if you try to arrange dates and cheat them out of their cut? Also yes. In third world countries do people sell their underage children into sex slavery at brothels? Yes. They also sell them into sex slavery into the institution of marriage. Both these things suck, but the first is way worse. Are prostitutes and strippers all formerly sexually abused kids? Uh, only all the ones I’ve ever known. I think of a good friend who would come home from the strip club, do up a bag of heroin, and take a 2 hour long bath, scrubbing in there so hard she came out pink as a sour cherry. That did not look good, psychologically, despite her protestations that she was a ‘strong woman,’ and it was ‘her body,’ and shit like that.

    So, probably this is a fine job for some people, and it doesn’t upset them. But a lot of other people do it despite serious qualms. Here what is needed, perhaps, is societal approval of their choice, so that they are not shamed and feel validated in their work, and police who care about the prostitutes and their rights (yeah, dreamin’ here). Honestly, although I am too old for it now, if I had to support myself back in my 20s, to either work on some assembly line or sell my sexy body, I would have gone for the making money on my back. Let’s not talk about my childhood history, OK?

  35. #35 |  Ghost of the Agitator « The Honest Courtesan | 

    [...] only published one new column over there this week, “The Differences That Aren’t”; it’s an answer to those who feel I’m being disingenuous when I say that sex is no different [...]

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