How Sex Is Different, Part I

I've got time to kill while waiting in LAX, so I might as well try to clarify my position on prostitution by saying how I think sex is different from other kinds of human activity. Obviously, sex is central to reproduction, and reproduction is central to natural selection, and natural selection is central to why we have the kind of minds and the kinds of sentiments we have. In particular, it looks like sex has an important attachment function for humans, helping to cement pair-bond relationships. Partly because of this function, sex turns out to be a lot of fun for humans, and we do it recreationally in a way that most primates don't.

People fixated on discreditably vulgar versions of evolutionary psychology (in addition to making the naturalistic fallacy as if making the naturalistic fallacy is a path to riches) tend to miss the cultural variety in sexual norms within the uniformity of evolutionary logic. You don't need Margaret Mead blank slate-ism to show that there is a fair amount of play in human sexual norms and sexual psychology. Even incest taboos are more variable than most are inclined to think. That said, it is true that there are regularities in male and female sexual psychology. Men will generally tend to be more indiscriminate in partner choice and women will tend be more concerned with screening. And it is also true that lack of paternity confidence will tend to make men extremely jealous and disposed to coordinate to control the sexual behavior of women. Concerted slut-shaming is a classic male strategy to raise the cost of female extra-pair coupling. Shaming norms and even articulate ideologies that reinforce the shared belief that women's sexual liberty is hugely dangerous to the social order, and to women themselves, are very common and I think are largely explained by a mix of paternity confidence issues and male dominance of social and cultural institutions, which may also have a partly biological explanation.

To reify or essentialize this pattern, and to unthinkingly endorse it, is to compound mistake upon mistake. These kinds of patriarchal sexual mores have relaxed immensely in the West in the last half century and the result is that people–especially women–are doing much better, not worse, in the places where sexual liberalization has occurred. The specialness of sexual psychology mostly helps us to understand the panic about and strenuous resistance to liberalizing norms of female sexual autonomy. And the history of moral panic contrasted with the good results of actual recent sexual liberalization  gives us reason to be especially skeptical about the special damage that will come of deregulating women's sexual behavior.

I want to say something more about what's special about sexual experience itself, but I have to catch a plane.  

Selling Sex Is OK and Child Abuse Isn't

I wanted to reply to Ross's post on the so-called Wilkinson-Howley worldview, but I had to go to L.A. for a little political theory conference at UCLA, where I am now. Let's see if I can clarify a few things. Ross writes:

Given the premises of the pro-prostitution worldview, what’s so abusive and damaging about incest and molestation in the first place? If there’s no moral distinction between giving a handjob in exchange for twenty dollars and getting paid twenty bucks to wash dishes or mow lawns, then why is there a moral distinction between a father who teaches his daughter how to pound nails and one who teaches his daughter to do something more intimate and (to go all wisdom-of-repugnance on you) disgusting? I understand that the kids involved aren’t “consenting adults,” but if selling sex is just like selling labor, and adults force kids to perform all kinds of menial tasks as part of their education, why can’t adults force kids to have intercourse too – especially if they’re safe about it? If selling sex is no big deal because sex itself is no big deal, what’s the big deal about incest?

I found this comment … vexing, to say the least. I think Andrew's reply to Ross's previous post suggests the obvious response Simply reformulate Ross's question to see how immensely tendentious and confused it is:

If there's no moral distinction between one man giving a handjob to another man and a woman giving a handjob to a man, then why is there a moral distinction between a man giving a handjob to small boy?

I think we can all grasp that it possible to reject some moral distinctions and accept others. In this case, it would seem that Ross understands the answer perfectly well. Children are not consenting adults. So there you have it.

Since he had the answer, I do wonder why he asked the question. Ross's subsequent chain of reasoning is a disaster that does very little to help him out. I think it is fair to reconstruct the argument like this.

(1) Selling sex is a form of work. (By stipulation)
(2) It is permissible for parents to make their children labor as part of their education. (By convention)

Therefore, (3) It is permissible for parents to make their children do sex work as part of there education. (By fallacious inference)

But (4) Obviously (3) is repulsively absurd.

So, (5) What?… Selling sex is not a form of work? (Reductio!)

Forgive me if I do not understand this argument. In order to derive (3), Ross would need (2) to say that parents may make their kids do any kind of work as part of their education, which is obviously false. We all know that there are many things it is not OK for kids to do, or for adults to do to kids, that it is OK for adults to do, and to do to each other. Sex is one of those things. This needn't be difficult. And, since no one was previously talking about children, again I have to wonder why Ross brought it up. I mean, I don't think he'd stoop so low as to insinuate that people who think adults are capable of making rational decisions about their own welfare, and should not be subject to paternalistic interference, cannot see what's wrong with fucking their own children. So what was that about?

Sex work is work. It is not always pleasant work. It is very emotionally complicated and requires some degree of emotional compartmentalization and the selective hardening of certain natural human sentimental dispositions. Surgeons, hospice workers, police officers, lots of people, must learn how to cabin off certain sentiments and to develop a bit of a callous in order to do their jobs. This takes some degree of emotional maturity, which is one reason why we encourage kids to sell lemonade, but not to perform surgery on people gushing blood from a gunshot wound, or practice their sexual technique with Uncle Ralph.

Justifying the Prohibition of Markets in Sexual Services

I liked Ross Douthat's first post on prostitution. He identifies the real question at issue, which is the truth or falsity of this claim:

[R]enting out your body to satisfy another person's sexual needs is a form of self-inflicted violence serious enough to merit legal sanction …

The whole case for banning trade in sexual services stands or falls on the defense of this claim and the assumption behind it. Even granting the assumption that paternalistic efforts to protect adults from the consequences of their own choices are justified, which I certainly don't, the claim that prostitution is, by its nature, a kind of self-harm is pretty clearly false.

Again, it bears emphasizing that absolutely every form of labor involves renting out your body. The language of “selling your body” is generally intended to elicit a “wisdom of repugnance” disgust response, but it just doesn't when you consider that folks like Ross and me get paid for things we do with our bodies — thinking, typing. Surgeons rent out their brains, and steady hands, to meet people's health needs. Construction workers rent out their arms, legs, backs, brains. Etc. I sell my body for a living. So do you.

I think the real claim is not about bodies, but about vaginas and penises in particular. These should not be rentable. (Do note, however, that it is legal to rent a uterus and vagina for the purposes of surrogate gestation and childbirth, but no one really enjoys that and a lot of conservatives don't like it anyway. And there is always porn, which is nothing without genital rental.) But bracket your intuitions about the commercial use of genitalia for a moment and consider that a good volume of trade in sexual services involves renting an expert hand. Could using your hand to give another person an orgasm possibly be a form of self-inflicted violence? Delivering manual relief is a great kindness, a sweet thing to do … unless you do it for money! At this level, Ross's claim is evidently ludicrous. Sweet charity cannot be transformed into self-inflicted violence by a twenty dollar bill.

Does Ross think that loaning out your body, for free, to satisfy another person's sexual needs is a form of self-inflicted violence? Should all sex outside of marriage, or outside a serious relationship, be subject to legal sanctions? If not, then using your body to satisfy another person sexually is not the problem. It is renting it. Again, bringing sex inside the cash nexus is thought to work some kind of profound psychological alchemy, which is plain nonsense.

There is a huge amount of question-begging going on in this debate. The degree to which sex work may be reasonably seen as self-inflicted violence is mainly due to the immense legal and social stigma attached to it. An honest inquirer cannot take the humiliation and loss of esteem connected to the status quo legal and social sanctions as evidence of the necessity of those sanctions. That is the purest logical shenanigans.

Moreover, the effects of this paternalism, enacted specifically to protect women from making the “wrong” choices about how they will use their bodies, inevitably bleed into broader cultural attitudes toward women and women's sexuality. I can't possible do better than Kerry when she says:

Just as the drug war contributes to the broadly held assumption that young black men are inherently violent and must be restrained, the criminalization of sex work reinforces the idea that sexually active women are damaged and deranged. In both cases, the activities themselves are surrounded by all manner of tragedy, abuse, and violence. In neither case is the liberal humanitarian policy response: Ban it harder, further reinforcing our worst assumptions about entire classes of people.

Get Your Laws Off My Body!

If You Own It, You Can Sell It

Kerry's brilliant take on the post-Client 9 discussion of prostitution is spot on. Apparently a number of people think the basic libertarian view of prostitution is facile. Well, the view that the basic libertarian view is facile is facile. The idea of self-ownership is profound. Every form of labor involves “selling your body,” one way or another. I see no interesting intrinsic moral distinction between brick- and other forms of laying. There is simply nothing wrong with selling or buying sexual services. There is no bright moral line between a good massage and a really good massage. The entire issue is generated by backward prudishness, a precious, misogynistic attitude toward female sexuality, and run-of-the-mill patriarchal paternalism. (Do we ever see handwringing about the degradation of male prostitution? Why not?)

Yes, some women turn to the sale of sexual services out of a lack of better alternatives. Indeed, some women turn to the sale of lettuce-picking services out of a lack of better alternatives. And bricklayers shouldn't be permitted to individually negotiate labor contracts because they will be exploited by capital. Show me the difference. Whether orgasm delivery, lettuce picking, or bricklaying is degrading depends on the attitude of the worker toward that kind of work and her ability to sell her services with dignity on her own terms. More importantly, it depends on the attitude of people at large toward that kind of work. Honest work that we legally and culturally marginalize is degrading. But that's because we marginalize it. Time was that champions of the moral order claimed that money smelled like shit and you could smell it on loanshark Shylocks. Very degrading. But now everybody charges interest all the time, and look what happened to us!

Happiness and Personality: Indviduality Matters

A recent study by psychologists at the University of Edinburgh tracking 973 pairs of twins shows that the heritable differences in self-reported happiness are entirely accounted for by the genes that determine the Big Five personality traits. That is to say, differences of personality account for all the heritable difference in happiness. In particular, low neuroticism and high extraversion are strongly correlated with higher levels of happiness, high conscientiousness is a bit less strongly correlated, and high agreeableness and openness to experience are positive but not so important. Non-neurotic, conscientious extraverts are the winners in the genetic happiness lottery.

This is important stuff. It tells us that individual variability matters. Individual-level strategies for improving happiness depend a great deal on the art of self-management given the constraints of personality. For example, I am very low in neuroticism and mildly extraverted, which bodes very well for my baseline level of happiness, but I am also extremely low in conscientiousness (not unlike a lot of homeless people and inmates), which ends up creating a lot of internal struggle and anxiety. For me, the key to higher levels of happiness is the conscious development of the habits of self-discipline and time management that don't come naturally. The highly introverted or neurotic face challenges unique to their types. I look forward to future work that pushes deeper into happiness strategies for various combinations of personality traits.

And at a more general theoretical level, it is crucial to understand there are differences in the degree to which people revert to their baseline levels of happiness after good or bad changes in circumstances, and in difference in the rate of reversion. That will prevent us from making silly, sweeping generalizations about the insignificance of new cars or a lost limbs. When there is a lot of non-random variation, averages can lie. Regarding my previous post, I think it is important to recognize that not everyone compares themselves strongly to other people. Much of Robert Frank's body of work is based, I think, on assuming a false uniformity in people's disposition to compare themselves to others. We can avoid that kind of mistake if we attend more closely to the way individual happiness is mediated by personality.

Robert Frank on Happiness and GDP

The fussy, hedged, inconclusive complexity of Robert Frank's latest NYT column about income and happiness shows just how hard it is for an intellectually honest guy to make a strong case against the income-happiness link, given the complexion of the evidence. In order to get as far as he does, which is not very far, Frank seems to me to nonetheless rely on a tendentious and, one would think, outdated interpretation of the happiness data:

This assumption [“that absolute income levels are the primary determinant of individual well-being”] is contradicted by consistent survey findings that when everyone’s income grows at about the same rate, average levels of happiness remain the same. Yet at any given moment, the pattern is that wealthy people are happier, on average, than poor people. Together, these findings suggest that relative income is a much better predictor of well-being than absolute income.

The first finding, the flat trend, is contested. Veenhoven and Hagerty argue it is not flat at all. In any case, there is plenty of reason to think that (1) the subjective criterion people use to report how happy they are changes somewhat as their expectations change, and so objective gains in real welfare are likely to be underestimated by survey methods. That is to say, the phrase “pretty happy” may not tracking the exact same feeling over five decades; “pretty happy” may refer to something a bit happier than it did 50 years ago, just like “pretty tall” refers to something a bit taller than it did 50 years ago. And there is plenty of reason to think that (2) comparing the bounded life satisfaction survey scale against the unbounded income scale likely leads objective gains in real welfare to be underestimated by survey methods. So, scale renorming plus a kind of methodological error leaves us with the conclusion that the extent of the absolute gains are likely concealed by the measurement method.

The second finding, that wealthier people tend to say they are happier than poorer people, on its face suggests that it feels better to be rich than to be poor. Part of this is surely absolute. Having a bit more money increases your sense of control and decreases your sense of anxiety. Have you ever had bill collectors calling you constantly? I have. It helps a lot to have enough money to pay your bills. And it's not just about avoiding poverty. If you've ever had the good fortune to move up one quintile from the middle, the reduction in economic anxiety is palpable. That's the effect of an absolute gain. Which is not to say that relative concerns are unimportant. It's nice to be doing better than the people you compare yourself to. But there is no evidence that people are uniformly comparative. That is, some people have a weaker or stronger “social comparison orientation” than others. And there is no evidence that, when people do compare, the relevant comparison class is the set of U.S. residents. The claim that the very strong within-society relationship between income and happiness is due primarily to a preference for higher relative income (within the U.S. distribution) is mainly bluff. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't.

So how is it that these two finding taken together suggest relative income is a better predictor of well-being than absolute income? They don't.

Maybe Frank would like to explain the Deaton result. All the evidence for strong comparative effects are very local. It matters how I'm doing relative to friends, neighbors, and co-workers. As far as I know there is no evidence that the comparison class is global. I suppose you could try to take the fact that average national income is a strong predictor of average national happiness as evidence that the relevant comparison class is global, but that would just beg the question in the worst way while showing a weird determination to avoid the obvious importance of absolute income. Why not say something along the lines of happiness guru Ruut Veenhoven:

Another reason to doubt the Easterlin Paradox is the theory behind it, which assumes that happiness is “calculated” cognitively by comparing one’s condition with local standards of the good life. According to this theory, one can be happy in Hell if one does not know any better — or if one’s companions are in an even hotter spot. The available data fit better with the theory that happiness is “inferred” from the quality of affective experience, which reflects the gratification of basic needs. This “needs theory” of happiness fits a wider functional perspective on affective guidance in higher animals, and predicts that we will live happily in conditions that suit human nature well.

Now, I don't think this has to be an either/or thing (and I criticized Veenhoven for assuming happiness is necessarily evidence of “natural” environmental fit). But Frank here is overselling the evidence for the unimportance of absolute wealth, even though he knows too much not to hedge lot.

I was going to say something about GDP, but this blog post is long enough.

George Kateb vs. Patriotism

I've recently become a big fan of the eminent political theorist George Kateb (I'm actually pretty baffled about how it could be that I didn't know of him until late last year), so I'm pretty thrilled he agreed to write the lead essay for this month's Cato Unbound on the value of patriotism. A thoroughgoing individualist, he doesn't find much value in it. Here is an especially fine passage:

The brute fact of patriotism is made brute by the inveterate inclination in men to associate virility with the exertion involved in killing and risking death. No theory can ever defeat or discredit this inclination, which helps to engender the fantasy that the competition of political units is the highest kind of team sports. Men love teams, love to live in a world where they are called on to back or play for their team against other teams, even though the sport of war is soaked in blood. Socratic notions of gratitude or Jamesian notions of infinite indebtedness are not necessary for this love. In the sport, where aristocrats used to play their games, elites now mobilize groups or masses to slaughter each other. Men can become peace-loving for a while, but not forever. The women who love them encourage their inclination to see team sports as the essence of their masculinity, and to call patriotic this inclination when it is projected into politics. The pity is that men lend their energies to a state that sooner or later embarks on an inherently unjust imperialist career and thus gets constantly engaged in policies that are deliberated in secrecy, and sustained by secrecy and propaganda, and removed from meaningful public deliberation. Patriotism is indispensable for sustaining this career of anti-democracy.

Now, I know a lot of folks think there is a kind of benign patriotism that is centered on the celebration of the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution and the culture that values them. Maybe. But go to GOPAC and tell me that the patriotism of liberal principles, and not the vulgar “highest kind of team sports” eagles and bunting and wiretaps version, is the most salient incarnation of patriotism in America.