Prostitution & Consent: Answering a Critique of the Nordic Model

Of the many people I follow on twitter, one of the is Megan Murphy, a contributor to Feminist Current who’s work provides a very interesting mix of feminist commentary and activism. In the last couple of weeks, I have noticed that every time some one talks about prostitution or the ‘Nordic Model’ (here’s an explainer for those unfamiliar with the term), someone asks but ‘what if the woman consents?’ ‘What about women’s freedom to choose what she does with her body?’ ‘Why should the government stop consenting adults from engaging in a orgasm-economic exchange?’ Or some variation of that theme.

My thought piece for the month is a little ambitious, but bear with me: I will attempt to demonstrate that criminalising the purchase of sex (as opposed to the selling of sex) gives women (and men) greater human dignity and rights than any other approach we have had to dealing with prostitution.

What I am not going to do is get into the nitty-gritty comparative legal stuff. I’m not qualified to do so and I really can’t procrastinate from my PhD THAT much. This is going to take a broader philosophical approach. And it is going to examine criminalising the buying of sex, rather than the social aspect that accompanies the legal part. This examination won’t be perfect, as it is based primarily from my amateur philosophy knowledge, and I really appreciate thoughtful feedback to improve the thought.

The most important thing that needs to be established to make this argument is this: Human beings are an ends in themselves, not a means to an end.

In other words, the greatest offence against another human being you can commit is to use them as a means to a self-serving end. The way you use a human being is many and varied… killing a spouse for a life insurance policy is using them as a means to an end. To construct a Ponzi scheme is to use naïve people as a means to an end of enriching yourself. To rape someone is to use them as a means to giving yourself power, control and an orgasm. To engage the services of a prostitute is to use her as a means to an orgasm.

Using people is objectively wrong. We can intuit this from the horrible feelings we experience when we realise we have been used, usually in much more minor incidents involving social climbing, for example. No one likes being used, and being repeatedly treated like an object or as a means to an end, induces a number reactions, it makes us cynical and withdrawn emotionally, it makes us angry and pushes other people away from fear of hurt, it can also wear us down to the point we don’t even notice the fact we are being used anymore, or we say ‘screw it, I’m gonna give as good as I take’.

Getting back around to prostitution, it is wrong to use someone as a means to achieve an orgasm, regardless of whether they give consent for you to do so. I might consent to sparring in a boxing ring, knowing that I could suffer serious injury, but it would still be an objective wrong for my sparring partner to intentionally hit me to maim, even though I ‘consented’ to the possibility of such an injury.

This is what the (loosely) called ‘Nordic Model’ acknowledges: just because a woman says you can use her to achieve an orgasm and pay her for the ‘privilege’, does NOT mean that what you are doing is a good thing. By making it illegal to purchase sex, it’s raising the ‘moral floor’ of society by insisting that it’s not in the interests of the common good to permit men to use women for orgasms.

I do not see why this part is controversial. It is fairly commonsensical concept that using people is wrong. Do we still do it? Yes we do. Are some types of people usury worse than others that warrant legal action? Absolutely. Prostitution, I would argue is one of those worse types. Criminalising prostitution, doesn’t make it go away. (“Thanks Captian Obvious!” I hear you say). Decriminalising it doesn’t necessarily help either. So you need to target the fundamental offence being committed, which is using women for male pleasure. Reducing demand for prostitution, does lead to a reduction in supply (although by how much is contested).

The ‘Nordic Model’ is not perfect, but at it’s foundation, it does address the fundamental offence of prostitution is the fact that men use women as a means to an orgasm, regardless of whether or not consent is given or if the woman ‘benefits’ from it. It is not in the interest of the common good to allow men to use women in such a degrading fashion. The goal of the Nordic Model is indeed to be a step effecting a social change by making it illegal to use women in such a fashion. Call me a feminist, I would love to see a world where men wouldn’t even think of ever doing something so degrading to another human being.

Using “consenting adults” as a criticism of the Nordic Model is a red herring, because the presence of consent does not change the fact that the action being done is objectively a violation of that woman’s dignity that you cannot simply ‘give permission’ for someone to do to make it morally acceptable. Prostitution reinforces the sexist idea that women exist for men’s use as they please by actually allowing them to do so. Just because the women get paid, doesn’t make it empowering. You can’t put a price on a human being’s inalienable dignity.

If you are going to critique the Nordic Model, I suggest you start with something a little more intelligent that ‘consent’. If you have any ideas on that front, tell me in the comments below.

Photo Credit: Public Domain Pictures

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