It is often claimed by a certain flavor of social progressive that “sex work is work” and that “sex work is just as legitimate as any other kind of work”. The implication, among other things, is that both buying and selling sex should be legalized. However, feminist philosopher Lori Watson(who disagrees with me on many important issues) has extensively argued against such claims. In particular, Watson agues that workers safety, protections against sexual harassment, and civil rights protections are inherently incompatible with the legalization of prostitution. This post will focus on the last of these three points, highlighting Watson’s argument that the legalization of prostitution is incompatible with civil rights protections.
Watson’s central argument can be summarized as follows:
- (1) If sex work is just as legitimate as any other kind of work, then the civil rights of clients should be protected by law
- (2) If the civil rights of clients should be protected by law, then sex workers do not have the right to refuse sex to anyone, at any time, for any reason
- (3) But everyone has the right to refuse sex to anyone, at any time, for any reason
- (4) Therefore, sex work is not just as legitimate as any other kind of work
This post will offer a defense of each premise, starting with (1)
Sex Work and Public Accommodations
Premise 1 is an inescapable consequence of treating sex work like any other kind of job. If sex is to be regulated on the market, then businesses and companies offering sexual services must accommodate the whole public. At a minimum, this means that such businesses cannot deny service to customers(read: sex buyers) on the basis of protected characteristics such as religion, race, national origin, age, and disability. To do so would be to violate the civil rights of clients and thus violate federal law. Civil rights protections exist to ensure that marginalized individuals are treated equally in the public sphere and receive equal public accommodation.
To exempt businesses that offer sexual services from obeying civil rights law would be to treat sex work as being fundamentally different than other kinds of work. If you’re not allowed to turn down a dentistry patient because he’s black, why should you be allowed to turn down a sex buyer? The interest in ensuring equal treatment under the law for all citizens is just as strong in both cases. Hence, if sex work is just as legitimate as other forms of work, then the civil rights of sex buyers must be legally recognized.
The Inability to Refuse Sex in Sex Work
Unfortunately, defenders of the sex trade immediately run into a problem. If sex buyers have a legal right to be free from discrimination on the basis of protected characteristics, then that logically entails that sex workers do not have the right to refuse them sex on the basis of those characteristics. That is, a sex worker would be violating the law if she refuses to have sex with a client on the basis that the client is old(and thus physically unattractive). Moreover, a sex worker who refuses to have sex with a client on the basis that the client is black would likewise be violating the law. In other words, Premise 2 is affirmed. Sex workers would not have the right to refuse sex to anyone, at any time, for any reason.
The Right to Refuse Sex
But such an implication is flagrantly at odds with the most basic moral principles of sexual autonomy. Sexual relationships are one of the most intimate types of human relationships. Sexual relationships, of necessity, involve a unique kind of interpersonal venerability regardless of how long they last. Consequently, sexual relationships must be freely and enthusiastically entered into, meaning that the right to refuse sex is fundamental and absolute. This single fact makes sex work completely and categorically disanalogous to all other kinds of work. As Watson herself put it, “Refusing to give someone a manicure on grounds of their race, age, sex, etc. is a gross refusal to treat them as an equal person. It is, in fact, to treat them unequally and to deny their basic civil rights. Refusing to have sex with someone, on any grounds, is simply not parallel. Refusing to have sex with someone does not make them unequal, civilly or otherwise”
Stated succinctly, refusing to have sex with someone does not represent a social or material harm to them. You are not harmed by virtue of someone refusing to have sex with you. You are not made worse off by someone refusing to have sex with you. However, you are harmed, as a citizen, if you are refused equal goods and services with respect to any other public accommodation(dentistry, nail salons, restaurants, etc). That is what differentiates sex work from other forms of work.
So it appears that Premise 1, 2, and 3 all have very strong support. There is no way to square the circle of affirming both absolute sexual autonomy and that sex work is just like any other kind of work. As I see it, Watson’s argument against the legalization of prostitution is sound.