Analyzing Martha Nussbaums Argument on Prostitution

Prostitution should never be legalized as it undermines human dignity, leads to numerous health risks and offers a platform for an upsurge in organized crime. Prostitution is inherently harmful to women. Since sexuality is an integral part of the human existence, selling sex is like selling ones identity. Moreover, prostitution makes women prone to harassment, stereotyping and social stigma while aiding in the spread of HIVAIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. The government would never be able to control a legal prostitution industry and the industry would soon flood with criminals exploiting vulnerable women and trafficking in children and illegal drugs.

Some commentators have called for the legalization of prostitution, terming it as the only effective way of protecting women from the perils of working in an unregulated commercial sex industry. In particular, a group named Sex Workers Present has been vocal attributing the genesis of all ills plaguing prostitution to its criminalization, arguing that criminalization has pushed prostitution from the controllable places like brothels into the heart of society, consequently increasing the likelihood of prostitution harming the society and vice-versa. Sex Workers Present attributes the persecution, marginalization and stigmatization prostitutes experience to governments reluctance to legalize prostitution and to grant prostitutes rights like other workers in mainstream vocations.

Martha Nussbaum is arguably one of the most notable modern day philosophers who have fuelled much debate on this issue by fronting her argument that selling sex is not in any way different to any other services people render using their bodies to generate an income. In arriving at that conclusion, she argues that qualitatively, every single person who engages in an income generating activity is a body seller. All activities are undertaken using a part or parts of the body regardless of the wages each person earns or the degree of control he or she has in their occupations. Disregarding how many employment options different people have or the gains they draws from their trade, the bottom line is that they are using parts of their bodies to earn a wage. Nussbaum compares sex to any personal talent which is socially and ethically agreeable while offered for free but which society quickly frowns upon once the bearer charges a fee to express it to an audience. She proceeds to compare artistic talent to commercial sex work. She argues that an artist who does not charge for his or her art is not ethically purer than another one who does and since all human beings engage in sexual activities, it would be pretentious to stigmatize commercial sex workers since they are engaging their physical attributes to earn a living. Commercial sex workers should not be criticized and stigmatized people opposed to the legalization of prostitution should perceive it along the same dimensions as other jobs women do and view the challenges commercial sex workers as the challenges women face in other mainstream income generating activities.

To strengthen her argument, Nussbaum outlines similarities and differences between a prostitute and six other female workers a factory worker in a chicken factory, a domestic worker, nightclub singer, a professor of philosophy, masseuse and a woman who gets paid for letting her body be used to test the latest instruments for colon examination. Concerning the factory worker, Nussbaum points out that both are lowly-paid and face health risks, but the health risks in prostitution can be greatly reduced if the profession is legalized. The prostitute however has more control in that she can choose which clients she accepts and which ones she declines but the factory work will have to pluck feathers from cold chicken at the times the factory management places her in shift. Whereas the factory worker is not a victim of invasion of her intimate privacy, such an invasion is consensual for the prostitute. The prostitute is more prone to violence, stigmatization and stereotyping attributes which Nussbaum argues can be eliminated if prostitution was legalized.

Similarities between a domestic servant and a commercial sex work are that both are hired by a client to perform a specific task on the latters terms and conditions and both tasks require the application of explicit bodily skills. Both professionals are stigmatized and may be forced to endure bad behavior and barbarism from their client. Domestic servants are mainly female, so the industry is coded by gender just like is the case for prostitution. The prostitute is likely to earn a higher wage but is more prone to violence. The nightclub singer, just like the prostitute, uses her body to give pleasure to their clients using art and personal skill. Nussbaum points out an interesting similarity between the prostitute and the female professor of philosophy both professionals use their bodies in areas that are socially regarded as intimate and definitive of the self. The prostitute accepts wages for sex which is an intimate way of self-expression while the professor earns from thinking and writing her thoughts about morality, emotion and all other spheres on mans intimate search a better understanding of the self and his environment. The professor thus transforms her mind and conscience into a tradable commodity just like the prostitute transforms her body into an object for sale.

Nussbaum advocates for a liberal approach by the society and feminists towards prostitution pointing out that sex hierarchy is the cause of stigmatization targeting commercial sex workers. She declares that the society has chosen assign contentious meanings to social phenomena meanings that should be questioned if women are to get any justice and parity. According to her analysis, social stigma targeted at prostitutes originates from the notion that feminists have good reason to connect with unjust background conditions and to decry as both unequal and irrational, based on a hysterical fear of womens unfettered sexuality. Therefore, the more prostitutes are subjected to stigmatization, the more they are hurt and it is becomes serious social problem when a person cannot have her dignity and respect for herself in the community she is living in. Feminists should thus be on the frontline in fighting discrimination against prostitutes and in the formulation of mechanisms to promote their dignity provisions incessant legal restrictions will be unable to provide.

There is no doubt that an illegal and uncontrolled sex trade promotes violence targeting prostitutes while at the same time increasing the risk of spread of HIVAIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. There is opinion that if prostitution was legalized, many commercial workers would finally get an avenue to report any form of harassment to the authorities, reducing the risk of HIV infections and putting some sanity in the prostitution (Canadian HIVAIDS Legal Network, 1996). However, the risk of contracting such diseases is almost equal in consensual sex as in commercial sex. The point is that prostitution compromises the moral vitality that people must be treated as rational and autonomous entities. Women should not therefore, through their sexuality, be subjected to the master-slave relationship with their male counterparts in the society.

Even though Nussbaum advances a strong argument by drawing an analogy between a prostitute and several other professionals, she fails to observe that not all actions that an individual can do to earn a wage are necessarily ethical or moral a feature common in most assertive arguments. For example, an assassin uses his hands to kill for money. According to her argument, there are no criteria for not equating killing for money to prostitution. What equates existences and actions is not the end but the means. Her argument therefore should have been based on what determines whether an action or a profession is just or unjust Nussbaum does not discuss these criteria for justice in her argument and apply them to support the legalization of prostitution. Moreover, prostitution amounts to misuse of sex. If integrity and self respect is to be ensured for all women, the society has a moral responsibility of treating its members as autonomous and rational individuals. Any desire for sexual activity with an individual should be reciprocated unlike what happens in prostitution a person is treated like an object for fulfilling the desires of another, eliminating any prospect of parity. Prostitution should not be legalized as it is a form of bondage. Both man and woman have sexual desires and when either of them is subjected to a situation when his or her desires are not recognized, this is slavery.

Commercial sex work is therefore not similar to other forms of bodily service as it is an expression of social and political inferiority of the woman. The body of a woman and its sexual aptitude is an integral element of her identity as a woman therefore selling is like selling the self. The domestic worker, factory worker and exotic dancer Nussbaum mentions while drawing analogies between a prostitute and other types of jobs get reciprocated for their efforts in a way a prostitute can never be. Prostitution exposes women to wanton violation of their private space, violence, social isolation and stigmatization and avoidable health risks. Furthermore, sexuality is divine can only be well-expressed when all advances and acts of intimacy are reciprocated between two partners in kind and with authenticity a situation only possible when a woman offers her sexuality as an offering of herself while receiving the same from her partner.


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