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The Last Taboo

Society's strange condemnation of sex-for-money.

by James Leroy Wilson
December 10, 2009

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The Last Taboo

Should adultery be criminal?

Many of us would laugh at the question. We would say that it's not the government's job to control our sex lives. Sex between consenting adults, in whatever its forms, should be legal.

I certainly agree. But it's amazing how few people, on the Left or the Right, won't take this to the logical conclusion. Adultery is legal, but prostitution and blackmail are not. Why is that?

Indeed, the case for criminalizing adultery is stronger than for these victimless crimes. Consider:

  • the risk of spreading STD's - much greater in casual encounters than it would be in a legal prostitution service that can advertise cleanliness and safety
  • the risk of unwanted pregnancy - ditto
  • there is an aggrieved party when adultery takes place - a violation of covenant or contract
  • if adultery leads to divorce, the children are usually adversely affected

These points do not make a compelling case for criminalizing adultery, but there is a case.

Contrast that with laws against prostitution. It's okay to get paid to have sex with other people watching (porn), but it's not okay to be paid to have sex in private.

Excuse me?

And then there are laws against blackmail. It is legal for a woman to sleep with a married man. It is also legal for the woman to sell her story to the media and embarrass the man. But it is criminal for her to sell her silence to the married man. If she even suggests it, he's a "victim."

At the same time, it is perfectly legal for the man to buy her silence - so long as it is his idea, not hers.

So, we live in society where it's legal for "consenting adults" to have sex in loving or lustful relationships, and it's none of the government's business. But if money exchanges hands, well, that ought to be illegal!

This irrational taboo against sex-for-money seeks to be "enlightened" by allowing free sex between consenting adults. It allows pornography on account of freedom of expression. But then it cracks down on prostitution and blackmail as if they are uniquely vulgar or degrading.

But if it's okay for consenting adults to have sex, it is also okay for money to change hands.

Indeed, it's a fantasy to pretend that economics does not drive most sexual relationships.

I believe it was sports commentator Stephen A. Smith who said that his Dad told him that when it comes to sex, you're going to pay a little, or you're going to pay a lot, but you're going to pay.

Why do we often assume that a promiscuous woman must have low self-esteem? Because men pay too little to have sex with her. They don't have to make the big and small sacrifices for her (financial or otherwise), for which sex is their reward.

This may not be a fair assessment - perhaps the promiscuous woman just enjoys sex - but the assumption about her underscores the point. It is assumed that the man is expected to give something in exchange for sex. If the woman is "easy" and just "gives it away" she is often resented by other women. She's lowering the bar for men.

So the assumption is already there - men pay for sex. But outright financial transactions remain illegal.

It is hard to retain respect for the government if its laws don't make any sense.

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Jonathan Wilson from Chicago writes:
December 10, 2009
Well stated. The laws are illogical.
This is an example not of bureacrats inventing contradictions, however. This is the outcome of democratic politics in which "compromise" plays a role. Consistently religious people, for example, will agree that adultery should be illegal in addition to divorce except on the grounds of adultery, and that pornography is no more a legitimate exercise of freedom of expression than would be the planning and performance of an actual murder on film. What has happened is that the polarizing tensions has produced these social hypocrisies. Pornography yes, prostitution no. It's stupid, but most people don't want to give up even more ground to the other side on these issues, so it has become a relatively stable contradiction. For example, I personally would rather see the contradictions resolved in the direction of pornography being regulated out of existence, than of prostitution getting liberalized.

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