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Prostitution has long been called the oldest profession in the world, and there is probably good justification for that. It seems likely that humans have always traded whatever they had in exchange for something they needed - and the one thing that a human always has is his or her own body. Everyone trades something about their body for the necessities of living, so why not sexual activity as well?

Although prostitution may have existed in every human culture throughout history, it hasn't always been tolerated, either from a legal or a moral perspective. Prostitution has been criminalized, repressed, and fought against in many different societies and for many different reasons. It has been argued that prostitution brings the spread of disease, that it encourages the spread of vice and crime, or that it is simply contrary to God's will.

Such reasons don't generally work very well as arguments for criminalizing prostitution; either they can be shown to be consequences of illegal and repressed prostitution (and hence would not exist if it were legal and regulated), or they are incompatible with a free and democratic society not ruled by any one religious tradition. None effectively counters the notion that if people are allowed to sell their bodies in so many other ways in order to earn money, then they should be allowed to sell their bodies sexually in order to earn money.

Recently a more interesting and perhaps more fruitful argument against the legalization of prostitution has been raised. According to Scott A. Anderson, prostitution should be considered a violation of one's sexual autonomy. In direct response to the argument that sexual activity should be treated like any other commercial activity, Anderson argues that sexual relations are so important, so personal, and so private that no one under any circumstances should feel that they have to sell such relations simply to earn enough money to eat and survive.

It may seem odd that restricting people's ability to do things (like selling sex) would actually protect their autonomy, and Anderson grants this. However, there are many restrictions on the sorts of things people can and cannot do commercially in order to protect their autonomy. For example, no one can readily argue that it infringes upon our autonomy that we cannot sell ourselves into slavery. In the process of such a transaction, my autonomy is fundamentally altered - but is the same really true of a transaction which exchanges sex for money or other favors?

Anderson believes there are parallels and offers some possible negative consequences of treating sex like any other commercial service. If such consequences make us feel uncomfortable, he seems to believe, then that points to the fact that there is something unique and special about sexuality which the law should defend by segregating sexual activity from commercial activity. Unfortunately for Anderson's case, the consequences either don't follow necessarily from the legalization of prostitution or already have followed where prostitution is legal without it being a problem. A couple of examples should suffice to show why.

Anderson points out that the legalization of prostitution might create unwelcome pressures on society's sexual attitudes. If prostitution were legal, large companies can become involved with offering sexual services and market them aggressively to the public, "developing brand loyalty, establishing tie-ins to other consumer/entertainment goods, and creating niche markets of under-served sexual needs." However, if enough of the public believes that a legal practice should nevertheless be restricted in how it is marketed, that's easy enough to do - witness the growing restrictions on tobacco advertising.

An entirely justifiable point which Anderson brings up is that, if legal, prostitution would have to be regulated - and that means that the actions of prostitutes themselves would have be be regulated. Internal regulation might include "closely monitoring a prostitute's health, rigorously training the prostitute, imposing strict standards for conduct while at work, and monitoring client contact to assure quality and efficiency of service." That, however, already occurs to one degree or another where prostitution is legal - and no one has established that it is in any way harmful to the women's sexual autonomy. If Anderson could do so, he would provide good empirical support for such an important argument.

Finally, and perhaps more interestingly, Anderson argues that prostitution could change the way sex is perceived generally in the marketplace, not just where sex is the primary product being sold. Thus, large companies might require sexual services from employees as a matter of course and welfare agencies might require that the unemployed take sexual work where available or risk losing benefits. Of all the possible problems with legalized prostitution, these provide the most food for thought - but there is also no reason to think that they should happen.

Acting in pornographic movies is legal and many people currently unemployed might be accepted for roles if they applied - but are they required to apply and to accept if offered a job? Of course not. Smoking and drinking alcohol are legal, but can companies require employees to engage in such activities? Can large companies require employees to pose nude for company magazines? Again, none of that happens. Evidently, there has been no serious loss to people's sexual autonomy due to the fact that people can be paid for having sex in front of a camera.

Anderson's scenarios may be very unlikely, but they are also very interesting. Although Anderson's basic purpose is to "maintain a barrier between sex and commerce," the reason why he thinks such a barrier should exist is largely the same as the reason behind all of the more traditional arguments against prostitution: there is something different and special about sex which requires us to treat it with more deference and dignity; thus, we are required to provide it with more protection. Although his examples seem highly implausible, if they are disturbing to us, then they reveal that perhaps we agree with his premise about the nature of sex.

But does this premise lead us to his conclusion? I don't believe so. I am very sympathetic to his argument that a normalization of prostitution would require us to justify allowing exchanges of sex for money in some commercial situations but not others - and that we might not be successful. However, as the counter-examples above prove, we have already managed to do this. Legalizing prostitution would require us to do it more explicitly and more formally because prostitution could become more widespread than the production of pornographic movies and magazines - but I don't see why it can't be readily accomplished.

I am also sympathetic to Anderson's argument that sex is important enough that people shouldn't have to exchange it for vital goods that they should otherwise be entitled to. Once again, however, the above counter-examples prove that legalized sex in exchange for money in front of a camera isn't a problem, but Anderson doesn't explain why it would become a problem once hidden behind closed doors. If anything, Anderson's argument should prefer legal prostitution to legal pornography precisely because unwanted influences on how we view sex might be largely hidden from view. The fact that prostitution has been protected by law in the Netherlands for almost 200 years, but Anderson doesn't cite evidence from that country to support his arguments, is also very telling.

Moreover, it is arguable that there are many possible jobs which no one should have to do merely to survive. Should a person have to join the military and risk dying in a war simply to escape unemployment? Should a person be forced to choose between being able to eat and donating sperm or blood? None of this sounds very appealing, yet no one is prevented from such actions.

Ultimately, Anderson's ideas do not give us a good reason to conclude that it would be unethical for prostitution to be legal. They do, however, give us very good reasons to carefully consider how prostitution should be treated and regulated if it were made legal. Anderson's arguments make it clear that sex isn't exactly like every other commodity, and that we should treat it with some care and earnestness if we want all involved to maintain some dignity.

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