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The Parliamentarian and the Prostitute

The Parliamentarian and the Prostitute - Prostitution Law Raises Emotions and Questions

By Jim Peron

The reform of prostitution laws raises emotions and raises questions. And that means the issues must be thought through. That requires that fundamental principles have to be considered. ACT Member of Parliament Deborah Coddington raised some valid issues but, in my opinion, missed some important principles along the way.

Ms. Coddington asks who among us would want their daughter working as a prostitute. Who indeed? Chances are that very few of us would make that choice for our children. But this is not a matter of parents making choices for immature children. It is about adults making choices for themselves. And her analogy is faulty because those involved are not children and the State is not our mother, father or even our nanny.

Contrary to Ms. Coddington’s basic premises her question implies that adults are the same as children and the State is the same a child’s parents.. This implies that the State is endowed with a superior ability to make decisions on our behalf because we are either too stupid, too lazy, too incompetent or too immoral to make them for ourselves. It equally implies that bureaucrats are on some higher plane of intelligence, morality, or competency.

No, I wouldn’t want a child of mine making a living selling sexual favours. I wouldn’t want a son to become a priest or a daughter to take up race car driving or parachute jumping as a hobby. I wouldn’t want them to eat nothing but pastries and become obscenely obese either. But what I want is not relevant when adults are involved. A grown son or daughter is presumably capable of making decisions regarding their own life. What I want, or what Ms. Coddington wants, is not relevant to the issue. Each adult owns their life and the wants and desires of others is not a rational justification for using the coercive powers of Big Government to force them into living according to our wishes.

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I share many of Ms. Coddington’s sentiments. Sex is not the same thing as love. Prostitution is a poor substitute for a relationship. But morality itself means that I can never be in the position of over riding the decisions others make regarding their own lives—even when they are clearly settling for second best.

Ms. Coddington notes that a survey shows that a high percentage of prostitutes were allegedly abused sexually as children. Even if true this is not a relevant factor. Abuse as a child does not strip one of either the right to make choices or responsibility for the choices they make. Many of us suffered very real abuse but we are still entitled to make our own decisions according to our own values even when the values are wrong and the choices self destructive.

Many on the Left argue that abuse as a child relieves one of responsibility for actions as an adult. The Right rejects that idea and rightfully so. But equally false is the belief that abuse as a child strips one of the right to make choices as an adult. To deny adults their rights based on childhood abuse is not a road upon which ACT should wish to travel. That road leads to conclusions totally contrary to their self-identified beliefs.

Another question in Coddington’s arsenal notes that many prostitutes regret their life choices. True, no doubt, but then I regret ever having been a fundamentalist Christian. As Frank Sinatra noted: “Regrets I’ve had a few but then again too few to mention.” Part of being human is making choices and inherent in making choices is making wrong choices and that means having regrets. No doubt all of us would do some things differently. But our regrets don’t strip us of the right to choose now. If it did none of us would be safe from the prying eyes of Nanny.

Ms. Coddington notes that prostitution is not a “business” because it is not done in public. She obviously means the culmination of the deal is usually done privately since quite often the initial bargaining is done publicly. But advocates of the Sex Police have long complained about too many acts of prostitution being culminated in public. If a private culmination condemns it and a public culmination condemns it then I suspect it is not an issue of private or public at all. Some people just don’t like others engaging in prostitution.

We all know of perfectly moral activities which our cultures prefer to be engaged in privately. Considering the number of wankers in Wellington Ms. Coddington surely would not advocate making masturbation a crime merely because the overwhelming number of practitioners engage in such activity privately. Nor would I assume she’s saying that she prefers men in raincoats making a public display of the “solitary vice”. We don’t shower in the streets nor do we generally procreate on public buses. Though having lived for some years in San Francisco I can attest such is not unheard of. That some activities are done in private is not an excuse for banning them.

Over the years I’ve known numerous individuals who chose to be prostitutes. I had friends, male and female, who made those choices. They weren’t my choices but then again it wasn’t my life. They seemed to genuinely enjoy what they were doing. One such friend, Norma Jean Almodovar, even wrote about her career in her book From Cop to Callgirl. And recently I read an essay by Norma Jean in the book Liberty for Women edited by another friend, feminist writer Wendy McElroy.

Norma Jean made a point that bears repeating: “Whether or not we as individuals find the notion of prostitution repugnant, immoral, sexist, or degrading, it is not in the best interests of women to continue to allow the use of the criminal justice system to remedy so-called social ills. Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee—authors of “Inherit the Wind”, wrote these lines, ‘I say that you cannot administer a wicked law impartially. You can only destroy. You can only punish. I warn you that a wicked law, like cholera, destroys everyone it touches—its upholders as well as its defilers.’ The prohibitions against prostitution are wicked laws. For the sake of all women, we must repeal them.”

Every dictatorship is willing to allow citizens to make “right” decisions according to the State’s definition. But as the great economist and philosopher Ludwig von Mises noted it is the Liberal society which grants individuals the right to make “wrong” decisions. That’s why anyone who accepts the liberal label for them self must support the decriminalization of prostitution.

The function of law is to protect our rights. It is not there to make us good or noble. In fact it can’t do either. Morality is a category far broader than legislation. It is a fallacy of the worst sort to equate legality with morality. That individuals are free to make mistakes does not mean those mistakes are morally acceptable. Many of the most moral acts in human history required violating state legislation. Hiding Jews from Hitler violated the law but did not violate morality. It is a dangerous mixture when we equate legality with a moral sanction. Ms. Coddington is on firm ground when she questions aspects of prostitution morally. She would be on flimsy ground indeed if she then drew the conclusion that this requires state intervention.

How ACT MPs vote will help determine ACT’s philosophical direction. In the past, on this issue, they have stood by classical liberal principles. A different vote this time around will put a major question mark on those principles.

Jim Peron is the author of 9 books on public policy and the owner of Aristotle’s Books in Auckland.

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