Nussbaum on Sex Work

In all the dust of last month's prostitution debate, I somehow missed philosopher Martha Nussbaum's excellent op-ed, in which she espouses a view almost identical to the Howley-Wilkinson line.

Why are there laws against prostitution? All of us, with the exception of the independently wealthy and the unemployed, take money for the use of our body. Professors, factory workers, opera singers, sex workers, doctors, legislators — all do things with parts of their bodies for which others offer them a fee. Some people get good wages and some do not; some have a relatively high degree of control over their working conditions and some have little control; some have many employment options and some have very few. And some are socially stigmatized and some are not. However, the difference between the sex worker and the professor — who takes money for the use of a particularly intimate part of her body, namely her mind — is not the difference between a “good woman” and a “bad woman.” It is, usually, the difference between a prosperous well-educated woman and a poor woman with few employment options.


What should trouble us [about prostitution] are things like this: The working conditions for most women in sex work are extremely unhealthy. They are exploited by pimps, and they enjoy little control over which clients they will accept. Police harass them and extort sexual favors from them. Some of these bad features (unhealthiness, little control) sex work shares with other job options for low-income women, such as factory work of many kinds. Other bad features (police extortion) are the natural result of illegality itself.

In general we should be worried about poverty and lack of education. We should be worried that women have too few decent employment options and too little health and safety regulation in those that they do have. And we should be worried if men force women to do things sexually that they do not want to do. All these things are worth worrying about, and it is these things that sensible nations do worry about. But the idea that we ought to penalize women with few choices by removing one of the ones they do have is grotesque, the unmistakable fruit of the all-too-American thought that women who choose to have sex with many men are tainted, vile things who must be punished.

It's great to see one of the world's most important public intellectuals getting it right.