This essay first appeared in Cliterati on April 14th; I have modified it slightly to fit the format of this blog.
Intellectual laziness can manifest itself in many ways, of which one of the most common (and irrational) is black and white thinking. Humans are highly variable creatures whose characteristics, behaviors, beliefs, preferences, tastes, etc are often very different from one another; between the two most extreme points on any scale there are an incalculable number of different positions, and in any population one is likely to find as many different opinions on any given subject as there are people. But one would never know this from talking to the dualist; he insists on pretending that everyone is clustered near the endpoints, and willfully ignores every shade of grey in between. But this view of human reality is not only limited, it’s wrong; on most subjects, only a small minority of individuals can be found in those extreme endpoints, and the great majority fall somewhere in the middle.
What makes this fallacious dichotomization even worse is that people who might not be inclined to think that way often fall into it as a response to someone else’s extreme viewpoint. For example, when faced with the bogus claim that some drug (cannabis, for instance) is universally horrible, destructive and addictive, some supporters of drug decriminalization respond with equally-spurious claims that the drug is a physical or spiritual panacea. The truth is not only in between those two points, but also varies with individuals; any given drug has both beneficial effects and harmful effects, and the proportion of one to the other can vary considerably between individuals. Each individual must decide whether the drug is right for him, and in a free society he is allowed to make that decision for himself without fear of authoritarian violence. And though there are ample moral reasons to support the principle of self-determination, there are practical reasons as well: criminalizing consensual behavior adds artificial harmful effects to those inherent in it, and makes it much more difficult for anyone to make an informed choice because data about criminalized activities is often hidden or distorted.
Sex work provides good examples of this syndrome on both sides of the transaction, worker and client. Under criminalization and even quasi-criminalization (i.e. legalization schemes which criminalize some actions such as solicitation, kerb crawling, brothel-keeping, etc) prostitution is pushed into the shadows due to fear of arrest or other police harassment, thus creating dangers not inherent in the work itself. It also becomes impossible to collect comprehensive and reliable data on the subject, and as a result prohibitionists are free to make the sort of outlandish claims with which everyone is familiar (all sex workers have pimps, we were all abused as children and/or suffer from PTSD, the average age at debut is 13, most of us are coerced, etc, etc, ad nauseam). Unfortunately, in reacting to these lies many sex workers espouse a false dichotomy; as I explained in my column of that name,
…they believe there are two and only two kinds of prostitutes, free-willed high-dollar independent escorts and pimped, coerced slaves. This, of course, is pure poppycock…The only people who…have…absolutely free choice to do any kind of work are the Paris Hiltons of the world, those who have a guaranteed inheritance, income and secured future no matter what they choose to do with the present. Every other person has no choice but to work in some fashion; the choice not to work at all simply doesn’t exist unless one considers starvation an option. At that point, then, the choice boils down to what kind of work one is able and willing to do.
Some harlots absolutely adore their work; others like it but don’t love it; others tolerate it for the high income and flexibility; still others dislike it but prefer it to their other options; and some dislike or hate it but have no other options (due sometimes to literal coercion, but more often to conditions such as drug addiction or a criminal record). The distribution may be fairly even along the spectrum, or it may be a classic bell curve; it’s difficult to be sure because of the issues discussed above. But one thing is certain; the majority lie not on the ends, but somewhere in the middle.
Clients are, if anything, even harder to get data on than sex workers; after all, even in countries where prostitution is decriminalized most men have good reasons to be discreet (including wives and social stigma). In the 19th century nearly every man paid for sex from time to time, but as sexual mores progressively relaxed decade by decade in the 20th, that fraction undoubtedly dropped because at least some men could obtain casual sex without direct payment. In the 1940s Kinsey found that 69% of men had paid for sex at least once in their lives, and though it’s probably lower now (due, again, to the increased availability of “free” sex), it still gives us a reasonable baseline to work from. But when we look at modern claims about this percentage, we find them all over the map. A few studies still produce reasonable figures, but most go wildly in one direction or another due mostly to questions and categorization criteria specifically designed to give the “researcher” exactly what she’s looking for. On the one extreme, early in 2011 the well-known prohibitionist Melissa Farley defined “paying for sex” so broadly she literally couldn’t find any men who hadn’t (and therefore had to redesign the parameters to produce a less-obviously-bogus result). On the other, the General Social Survey claims only 14% have ever paid, a figure so ludicrously low the industry would collapse; reader Kevin Wilson (a research consultant) showed that when taken with other claims from the survey, this would mean the average American sex worker only has about 10 clients per year (a number I exceeded every week of my career).
Obviously, neither of these extreme claims can be true; logic dictates that the fraction of men paying for sex now could neither be higher than it was before the sexual revolution made casual sex socially acceptable, nor too low to support the observable economic reality. The most credible studies I’ve seen indicate that though a slight majority of men have directly paid for sex at least once, most don’t repeat the experience; about 20% of all men do it occasionally and 6% regularly. So once again, we see the same pattern; sex-worker-hiring is neither ubiquitous nor rare but, like most other human behaviors, somewhere in the middle.