In speaking with liberals about issues such as prostitution and sex trafficking, an issue that has started on its way to becoming more humane in this country due to the hopeful passing of a law that would criminalize the buyers but not the sellers of sexual services, I have noticed that the crux of the argument seems to lie on the issues of consent and commoditization. True consent is notoriously difficult to define, and then even harder to prove. I would like to focus instead on the second issue that seems to divide even those with the best of intentions about abolishing oppressive conditions for people in the ‘sex industry.’
There are those that claim that, given the existence of hypothetical true consent, there is nothing wrong with buying and selling sex, just as there is nothing wrong with buying and selling labour or goods. Thus, the argument goes, the government should only intervene to the extent necessary to preclude the possibility of sexual services being bought and sold without said consent (e.g. pedophilia and sexual slavery). Just as the LGBT community and its supporters have famously championed the mantra that ‘the government has no place in the bedroom’ when there are two consenting adults involved, such an argument claims that adding a monetary component to the sexual act does not change its moral status.
I find this argument very disturbing, and my worry is not rooted in any antagonism to liberal values, but rather to capitalistic ones, which claim that (nearly) everything can be bought and sold without moral consequence (again, given appropriately genuine consent). Beyond feeling strongly that sex is simply something that should not be bought or sold, I think that we can all agree that there are certain things that ought not be bought and sold. For instance, most of the world, and definitely those liberal thinkers who believe that sex — with consent — can morally be bought and sold, would agree that humans cannot be bought and sold. So too with air, though that might one day become a live discussion. I would argue that there are two basic categories of unsellable objects or services, speaking morally. The first is exemplified by air, and, I would argue, ought to include water, and can be categorized as basic human needs (in an ideal world, a dry roof over one’s head might also be in such a category, but focusing on the water first is enough of a hurdle at this point). The second ties in to physical, spiritual, and psychological integrity, and in this category I would include the human body itself, sex, as well as the immorality of certain torture techniques that seem to indicate that the victim’s body is no longer their own.
I find it almost obvious that all systems, no matter how successful (a term notoriously difficult to define), will need to be guarded so that it does not overextend to spheres totally inappropriate to it. In the case of capitalism, I think we are seeing such an over-extension in the sphere of commoditizing everything. I strongly believe, and this may in part be due to growing up with a strong religious sensibility, that there are simply things that cannot be on the market, no matter how much some segment of humanity’s quality of life has improved as a result of a free market system.