Prostitution and Employment

Written on July 21, 2008. Written by .


Strip Club
Some moral considerations.
Photo courtesy of Thomas Hawk

Once when I was at a strip club in Mexico, I accidentally smiled at one of the strippers after she caught me looking at her. She walked over and sat down next to me thinking that I was interested in her services. I didn’t turn her away immediately because I was interested in observing her seduction behavior directly. Everything was fairly predictable until she somehow found a whole in the crotch area of my pants and made me scream in surprise! At this point my friend leaned over and whispered to me, “If you want to have sex with her it is only $60.” Ignoring the stripper, I told my friend that I would only do it if it was free. He sounded disappointed and said, “Why would you say that? If it was free then it wouldn’t be a win-win.” Up to that point I had never articulated my aversion to prostitution, but that conversation gave me a reason to figure it out.

There are two reasons why I don’t personally prefer prostitution. One is that a big part of the pleasure of sex is the thought that your partner is enjoying it. Knowing that your partner requires an additional financial incentive doesn’t help your ego. The second reason is that I partially disagree with how win-win situations should be determined. Transactions always involve a win and a loss. A win-win transaction occurs when the wins are more valuable than the losses on each side. However, this is usually a result of the fact that financial wins exactly offset financial losses. When it comes to prostitution, it is not as clear that a financial gain can exactly offset a loss in sexual self-determination. I certainly don’t believe that prostitution should be illegal, but I would hope that very few people would choose to be prostitutes unless they are the type of person who would do it for free. While prostitutes may consent to the transaction, who knows what circumstances brought them to that point.

Voluntary consent is not the end of the story when it comes to morality. Just because you aren’t holding a gun to someone’s head doesn’t mean that nobody else is. Imagine that you are walking down the street and you pass by a man who is trying to rape a woman. What if you said to the woman, “I’ll kick his ass if you give me your wallet.” You are just offering her a choice, which means that she can only be better off due to it. But I personally would not feel like I was making a moral contribution by doing that. The point is that you are taking advantage of the existence of some violent force even though you aren’t the initiator of that force.

Being forced to work to avoid starvation is effectively the same as having a gun to your head. The only difference is that when you have a gun to your head, there is some person who put it there, whereas when it comes to starvation, only nature can be blamed. This changes how much you can reasonably complain about the situation, but it doesn’t change the outcome. So employment turns out to have essentially the same moral issues as prostitution. Employers are often taking advantage of the fact that nature is holding a metaphorical gun to the employee’s head.

Some will argue that employees can choose where they want to work which makes the situation a lot better. That may be true, but a choice betweeen working at Burger King or McDonalds is not really a choice… either way you are flipping burgers. That choice is not really buying you much unless one of your options happens to be a good option.

We can’t hope to live in a world where nobody is forced to do anything. Some might even argue that it is good that we are forced to do some things. Who knows what the modern world would be like if parents never forced their children to go to school. But in general it seems better when people get to do what they want.

I would like to see everyone start their own business. Some people think this is unrealistic because nobody would do the hard work. But at this point we can probably divide it up between robots and high school students. Ideally all parents would be wealthy enough to fund their children’s education expenses and be the angel investors for their first businesses.

Why is being a business owner so much better, isn’t it a lot like being an employee? There certainly are a lot of similarities in terms of doing a lot of work, some of which may not be that enjoyable. But the fundamental difference is that as a business owner you interact directly with the market. An employee allows one entity to monopolize their income sources. As always, monopolies open the door for exploitation. In the economy, monopolies are rarely harmful because competition dismantles them. But many employees choose to not take advantage of the competition in the job market and sit in their jobs for long periods of time. When enough people do that, employers are not forced to raise their wage rates, which allows the market rate to remain low and permits exploitation to persist.

Of course this is all a fairly abstract perspective. I am not entirely agaist either prostitution or employment. In fact, there are probably many jobs that would be more beneficial to certain individuals than running most businesses. But as an idealist I try to envision a more perfect world and allieviating individuals from force-based scenarios sounds like a noble ideal.

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