Evaluating a Debate on the Proposition: It Is Wrong to Pay for Sex

Intelligence Squared is an organization dedicated to putting on high-minded debates on controversial topics. They bring together intellectuals to New York to debate; the audience votes before and after, and whichever side gains most votes wins. I’ve been watching some as part of my job, and naturally decided to provide commentary over a series of posts. In this post, I’ll cover the resolution: “It’s Wrong to Pay for Sex.”

For the motion were Wendy Shalit (representing the right) Catharine MacKinnon (representing the Catharine MacKinnon (representing the Catharine MacKinnon wing of feminism) and Melissa Farley, a sex trafficking activist (she’s against it.)

Against the motion were Sydney Biddle Barrows (a former madam who got arrested, wrote a book and therefore is considered to have worthwhile things to say); Tyler Cowen (Tyler Cowen) and Lionel Tiger (some sort of anthropologist who looks to primitive communities and primates as moral models and thinks civilization is repressing men.)

Resolutional Analysis
Robert Rosenkranz’s role in these debates is to outline framers’ intent or preview likely arguments. He acknowledged ambiguity in the proposition: “as I thought about the language of today’s resolution, it seemed to me that it was not quite the clear proposition that we usually try to put forth.” [You do? Could’ve fooled me. He says “wrong” can have different meanings, relating to public morality, private morality, and whether something should be illegal. Prostitution is clearly wrong by “public morality” (it violates social consensus,) but, he suggests, debaters may interpret the resolution as being about whether buying sex should be illegal, or may interpret it to be about whether paying for sex is consistent with the principles of a well-lived life.
Wendy Shalit argues that paying for sex is wrong because it uses someone as a means to an end. It is different from ordinary transactions because it involves “the deepest, most personal aspects of ourselves.”
She hedges her intrinsic morality bets for some consequential arguments. Buying sex drives demand, and demand, supporting an industry in which the average age of entry is 13-14. Moreover, the buyer doesn’t really know the age of the prostitute. However, she also offers a mindset critique that the mindset behind buying sex is the same as that behind rape, child molestation and the like.
Lionel Tiger the anthropologist argues that everyone pays for sex- marriage is an economic arrangement, and women spend all sorts of money to make themselves enticing to men. His argument is either “if these things are okay, prostitution should be okay,” or “marriage is good, marriage is paying for sex, therefore, the resolution is false.” He says male primates trade meat to women for sex but enter into emotional relationships.
Melissa Farley argues that prostitution leads to bad consequences. At times, her rhetoric suggests a Shalit-like idea that paying for sex is intrinsically wrong, but the arguments themselves end up being consequentialist (“When women are turned into objects…it causes immense psychological harm.”)
Tyler Cowen makes a case for situational ethics based on “the diversity of the human condition,” as a rejection to reject the proposition, which is a universal condemnation of paying for sex. First, he cites cases where we are likely to sympathize with the man paying for sex: a boy drafted to fight the Nazis who has never done it before and goes to a French prostitute before battle, a severely disabled man who can’t get women to have sex with him without going to a prostitute. He then cites a book by one Nils Ringdahl on the history of prostitution worldwide. Outcomes have been good in some societies and bad in others- so again, vote diversity of human condition rather than a universal moral claim. He applies this argument against the claims that prostitution leads to abuse. Badly regulated prostitution, not prostitution itself, is the problem. He cites New Zealand as a contemporary example of well-regulated prostitution. After all, moreover, there’s abuse in marriage, and you wouldn’t say marriage is wrong.
He does not directly address the arguments that paying for sex is intrinsically wrong. Probably he sees the proposition as really relying on its consequentialist claims. Yet his sympathetic examples are sympathetic precisely because the purchaser of sex in these cases seems not to be cheapening sex- perhaps we can flow them under intrinsic morality.
Catherine MacKinnon then says some stuff, and Sydney Biddle Barrows says the prostitutes who worked for her all loved their jobs.
Analysis of the Debate
Cowen’s argument distinguishing well-regulated from badly regulated prostitution was about the diversity of the human condition and so forth, but in practice, debate surrounding this argument focused on contemporary regulatory regimes in Western countries, with regulation defined narrowly as legal regimes rather than cultural customs, and he basically accepted this framing. Had Cowen been able to pull the debate toward Renaissance courtesans or some exotic culture, he could have created a more interesting debate.
If the proposition had forced the opp to deal with intrinsic moral arguments, it would have also been a more interesting debate. MacKinnon argued that a prostitute isn’t really consenting, because she’s having sex with men she wouldn’t otherwise, so the money and her need for the money acts as an instrument of coercion. Clearly, she is assuming that sex is in some way different from other things people do out of need for money, rather than intrinsic enjoyment. An audience member made this point and said basically “look, you people are making utilitarian arguments hidden behind an emotional reaction of disgust,” and Melissa Farley quickly distanced herself from any such thing: “We’re talking about the evidence of harm here, not a moral or emotional reaction.” For whatever reason, Shalit, who had made the moral case, didn’t get involved here.
In closing remarks, Cowen goes all in on mood affiliation. Because the proposition has not made an exception for the sympathetic cases he cited, they are moral absolutists like the Iranians and the American religious right. Enlightened Western Europe allows prostitution, whereas Iran and the religious right are against it. (Save gay marriage, vote opp!) Whereas the opposition team had spent the rest of the debate arguing against excessive generalization (don’t equate prostitution with abuse), Cowen here wants the audience to reject distinctions and lump together all restrictive beliefs about sex.
Vote Results
The New York audience was very socially liberal, with 50% rejecting the motion (it is wrong to pay for sex) to just 20% supporting. After the debate, 45% supported the motion, 46% opposed. The audience did not accept Cowen’s invitation to engage in mood affiliation. Rather, they appear to have moved in the opposite direction, away from crude mental short cuts, as more information or arguments enabled them to think about the matter more precisely.
It is unlikely that those who changed their minds changed their views of intrinsic sexual morality. The affirmative team repeatedly fell back on the abuse argument. Though the negative team claimed at times to see this argument as illegitimate, in practice it was the only one they recognized as legitimate, as they focused all their energies on combating it. The quarter of the audience that changed its mind was apparently persuaded that prostitution, legal or illegal, leads to abuse.
Sydney Biddle Barrows, who presents herself as a benevolent madam who contradicts the narrative of abuse in prostitution, was asked about STDs. She said the following: “Back when I was in business, there was no such thing as AIDS. Well, there was in the gay community but no one really heard about it yet, because I was out of business in 1984. The way that…the upscale call girl business ran back then is, the young
ladies did not wear condoms. If…the men didn’t wear condoms…young ladies couldn’t insist on it. If they did not agree to that, then they didn’t have to work for us. But…there was pretty much nobody they could have worked for in the city, because that’s the way everybody did it. I do have to say that…once, we had a problem with gonorrhea, I paid for all my young ladies to go to the doctor, and I also called up all the other agencies that I knew were sort of…and told them that…everybody should insist that the clients wear condoms.
“And you know what these other women said to me, what do you care about these girls? They, you know, they wouldn’t care this much about you. And I was absolutely horrified. So you know, there… It’s true that
there are a lot of bad people out there who are running businesses like this, but there are also a lot of people out there, because I’m not the only one, who genuinely care about the girls who work for us, and would never, ever, ever put them knowingly in harm’s way.” A comforting thought.


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