Denying the free will of prostitutes

When Dave Krueger of the currently-dormant Sex Hysteria blog first suggested Maggie McNeill as a contributor to Nobody’s Business, I was a bit hesitant. I was concerned that bringing aboard an ex-prostitute blogger would seem like a trashy stunt to boost our traffic stats. I’d read enough of Maggie’s Honest Courtesan blog to know that she brought real substance to the subject, but I was worried about appearances. So far, however, no one has complained. (It would have been nice to get that boost to our traffic stats, but that hasn’t happened either.)

The main reason I wanted her to write for us is that we libertarian bloggers tend to be obsessed with the war on drugs — because that’s where most of the action is — and consequently we don’t pay enough attention to other classes of consensual crimes, such as those covering prostitution and other kinds of sex work. I figured Maggie would help remedy that.

I had an ulterior motive as well. I don’t tell Maggie what to write about, but one of the things I was hoping she would do for us is bring some legitimacy to the libertarian position on prostitution. The problem is that most libertarian groups are overwhelmingly male, which makes it pretty easy to launch an ad hominem attack on our views of  prostitution.

You see, I’ve written about the subject before, and there’s a certain response that I have trouble dealing with. A few years ago I wrote a series of posts in response to an opinion piece by Melissa Farley and Norma Ramos which argued that Eliot Spitzer should have been prosecuted. I have no love for Spitzer, but I thought Farley and Ramos’s reasons for wanting him prosecuted were dead wrong, mostly because they seemed unable to understand the difference between choice and coercion when it came to prostitution.

The last post in the series drew a comment which included this:

Libertarianism is an ideology devised by and for white, heterosexual, middle-class (or higher) males (and I’m guessing you’re one of them too, Mr Draughn) to justify their reluctance to get off their asses and help those, who are underprivileged, under the guise of ‘freedom of choice’…

This kind of accusation is hard to respond to. The commenter was arguing that my libertarianism was just a self-serving guise for my secret real motives. How do you refute that? Heck, why do my motives even matter? I took a shot at a response, but I’ve always known that it was kind of futile, because even if I somehow prove I’m not lying, the fallback argument is almost certain to be that, as a privileged white male, I just don’t “get it.”

So I was kind of hoping that by having Maggie aboard, it would bring some credibility to the libertarian position on sex work. After all, Maggie is a woman, and she’s been a prostitute, so I’m pretty sure she “gets it.”

I should have known better. As Maggie points out on her other blog in a post about migrant prostitutes:

Not to be outdone, the fanatics are now trying to claim that the reason migrants deny being enslaved is not because it’s the truth, but rather because they’re suffering from “Stockholm Syndrome”!  They simply cannot accept that some people really do prefer doing sex work to being virtual slaves in a sweatshop, and that they migrate not because they’re passively “trafficked” but because they’re actively looking for a better life than they could find in their own countries.

And in the comments, Maggie talks about the response to people like herself:

You may notice that a lot of prohibitionists now (not so much the sincere trafficking believers, but rather the cops, politicians and neofeminists who use it as an excuse for war on whores) feel compelled to call us liars and claim that voluntary adult prostitutes are “rare” when actually we’re the vast majority.

Brainwashing and Stockholm syndrome may seem a little far fetched, but when you advocate prohibiting prostitution on the grounds that it exploits women, then prostitutes who freely consented to sex work are kind of a problem for your argument. Thus, in hope of invalidating and marginalizing such women, prohibitionists try to take the traditional exceptions to consent and apply them to prostitutes.

Arguably the most general purpose tool for denying the validity of consent is claiming that children are involved, and the anti-prostitution argument has been using it forever. Many anti-prostitution laws are justified in the name of protecting children from sex slavery, even though no one argues that children should be allowed to prostitute themselves, and the laws apply to consenting adults as well.

So we’ve seen prostitution prohibitionists claim that women are coerced and brainwashed, and we’ve seen them claim it’s all “for the children.” What else is there? What other conditions that traditionally invalidate informed consent could be pulled into the argument?

Oh yeah, mental illness. Here’s Maggie again:

The general consensus among Victorian “scholars” was that normal women had no sex drive whatsoever, so it was therefore impossible for any normal woman to choose to be a prostitute.  Some argued that all whores were driven to the trade by extreme privation or forced into it by pimps, while others claimed it was due to “laziness” and a desire to avoid “real work”.  But the most popular view of all was that whores were atavisms, throwbacks to a more primitive human type, and many a 19th-century researcher (especially in Germany, Italy and Russia) eagerly sought prostitutes (always streetwalkers, of course) who would allow themselves to be studied and measured; Cesare Lombruso of Italy claimed that all prostitutes, without exception, had receding foreheads and large jaws, and that some had “exaggerated” growth of the labia or clitoris.  He and his cronies claimed that this cherry-picked “evidence” proved that “primitive” African and American Indian women shared these same features, thus demonstrating that whores were more like “savages” than like highly-evolved Europeans.  And since prostitutes were primitive they were also stupid, and thus incompetent to make their own decisions; this of course was used to excuse tyranny like the Contagious Disease Acts discussed in yesterday’s column, because the government could claim it was forced to arrest, incarcerate and “rehabilitate” prostitutes “for their own good.”

I’m too lazy to look, but I’m sure somebody has already revitalized the mental illness argument for the new prohibition — what Maggie refers to as the neofeminist anti-prostitution movement — arguing that prostitutes are often mentally disturbed, probably because of abuse as children, no doubt.

Sigh. There’s no winning this argument, is there? I’m wrong about prostitution being a victimless crime because I’m a privileged white male. And Maggie is wrong about prostitution being a victimless crime because she’s been brainwashed by people like me. Or lying. Or mentally ill. The proof that she’s brainwashed, lying, or mentally ill is that she believes prostitution is a victimless crime

This is the same quality of evidence and argument that you get from a 9/11 truther: If you disagree, you’re either part of the conspiracy, too stupid to understand, or being duped by the conspiracy. The content of your argument doesn’t matter. It’s a difficult argument to dispute, not because it’s so good, but because it’s so vacuous.

About Mark:
Mark is a computer programmer, website builder, photographer, and sometimes journalist in Chicago, where he also writes the long-running Windypundit blog.
This entry was posted in libertarianism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Marty
    Posted July 3, 2011 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    the nannies do a lot for us… I don’t know why you’re so critical- they protect us from using drugs, protect us from paying for sex, protect us from 3rd world terrorists, protect us from too many immigrants… I sleep well knowing that they’re tirelessly protecting me from myself.

    Maggie’s a great addition to the blog!

  2. Posted July 7, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Mark, thanks for both the invitation and the kind words! You probably won’t be surprised when I tell you that the majority of educated whores I know are either libertarian or libertarian-leaning.

    Thank you, too, Marty!

    • Posted July 7, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      Well, thank God somebody in the real world is libertarian. I’ve been reading Brian Doherty’s history of modern American libertarianism, and for a philosophy that emphasizes freedom, we sure don’t seem to attract many people.

  3. Steve in Clearwater
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    Great to see your new (to me at least) blog layout. Surfed over from Balko’s place today.

    *The proof that she’s brainwashed, lying, or mentally ill is that she believes prostitution is a victimless crime*

    heh….And don’t forget that the reason you or I think there is no Devil is because Satan got into our heads and planted that notion.

    cheerio from Clearwater FL