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Prostitution and the Right to Choose

If physical appearance always plays a part in success, then is commodification of the body inevitable?
Theo Dalrymple
He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Theodore Dalrymple is a psychiatrist and commentator who has written for the Times and the Spectator. His books include Our Culture, What’s Left of It.

Does sex work, or indeed the trading on sex or beauty, represent a free choice?

The answer depends on what count as a free choice. It is possible to coerce people into prostitution, or to force young people, or people without mental capacity, etc., into it. But in the majority of cases, I think it would be a free choice, even if not a very good one in my opinion. But whatever category of person chooses prostitution, you would find many in the same category who do not.

How do we make sense of our periodic moral panics in relation to sexuality, prostitution, sex education etc.? Why are we afraid of sex?

I am not sure we do have moral panics over prostitution these days, certainly I don't. Once there were street prostitutes in the very nice street in which I lived. I used to pick used condoms off the roses. My neighbour organised a system of patrol, including taking the numbers of kerb crawlers, and the prostitutes went somewhere else. Is that a moral panic?

Do any of us choose whether to be part of a power structure in which physical beauty (or indeed sexual availability) is a factor?

Certainly we choose areas of life in which physical beauty (or its opposite) plays a larger or a smaller part in success and failure. I think a world in which physical appearance played no part in success is, in many fields, inconceivable. In the 1950s or 60s (I forget which) L P Hartley wrote a dystopia in which facial appearance was eliminated by surgery as a factor in success.

Isn’t the idea of the value of sex embedded in society? Is it only the brazen nature of prostitution, the making explicit of what is usually implied, which makes it so divisive?

The raw commodification of anything that is deemed important makes us uneasy. Some forms of prostitution seem worse than others. Not all prostitution is brazen: much is discreet. I do not think that the commodification of intellect is approved of. Do we approve of writers who accept money to write what, say, a company or government wants them to write?

Why is society averse to the commodification of beauty or sexuality, but not to that of intellect and ideas?

Again it depends on what counts as a profession. I should imagine that healing (i.e. medicine) is older than prostitution, and possibly law as well, in the sense that disputes would be settled by some reference to chiefs, customs etc. As to whether commodification of the body is inevitable, I am not sure. Is there prostitution in North Korea? In all probability the attempt to eliminate it, if it were serious, would be worse than the thing itself.

 

 

 

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