Figurative, Not Actual Degradation

Barry’s discussions of degradation may proceed more from an idea in the mind than from realities of human behavior. Prostitution, in her view, is a form of moral corruption because it degrades women. A person who is a prostitute is generally viewed as a person of low social stature. Society encourages certain forms of behavior and discourages other forms through stigmatization. In a sense, the discouraging of the selling of sex reflects a value citing some behaviors are better than others. If a woman conducts herself in a way that goes against commonly held values, there is a cost. The costs will vary depending on mitigating factors defining an individual’s personality. The cost for prostitutes is that they are relegated to a lower social status. Defining right and wrong in terms of how the society will view a person’s status is a powerful motivating factor that naturally guides many away from activities not sanctioned by society. Because each individual case is different, and some prostitutes come from impoverished backgrounds, the power of the stigma to degrade them varies. While social image may be important to more culturally “refined” women, it may be less important to poor women, despite the elements of civility that potentially can be corrupted in either case.

     Philosopher Robert Nozick sees values emerging in society as a function of that society’s organic unity. Value is not simply some cold mechanistic prescription set down by a bureaucratic government, it is the product of shared “valuable characteristics” of each person that ultimately create the notion of morality.20 When a woman or a man of mainstream character abides by most of the values of society, they benefit by a certain level of society’s responsiveness to their needs. Accommodating the cultural values benefits people by providing them with the means of networking resources and ideas with other people to more effectively get what they want. When there is conformity to certain held values, everyone in the social pool benefits and no person is degraded. In the higher value system, prostitution is already given to be an activity that runs counter to important cultural values. As long as a woman does not appear to be complicit in prostitution, no one questions her integrity. Her integrity is a reflection of how closely she holds to the predominant value system. When she slips and begins running counter to these values, her integrity suffers, and she is degraded in the eyes of her community. She is no longer predictable as before and so is pushed more and more to the fringes of the mainstream value system.

      Most human beings exploit their sexuality to some degree or another. Individuals have self-regarding obligations, within certain logical constraints, to promote their own interests and build safe and secure futures. It is not uncommon or immoral to any significant degree for a person to try to garner attention or extract simple favors by using their sexuality. There is, however, a line reached when exploiting one’s sexuality in exchange for the favors it produces crosses over into the domain of activity that would be more accurately defined as prostitution. This is exploitative sex, a form of emotional violence against another person because he or she is led to false expectations by the enticement of sex. A prostitute may entice, but will usually be straightforward about what is expected in return. Prostitution in this sense bears a sense of virtuousness because it is not involved in exploitative mind games that can harm another person emotionally.

      If a woman benefits by adhering to high cultural values, she is expected in return to uphold those values wherever and whenever she can. If she crosses the line and begins to act like a prostitute, men may begin to deem her one. While she would vigorously deny being a prostitute, her actions might suggest that she is behaving in a way that fits the objectified view of a woman as a prostitute. Many men would perhaps not be inclined to look at a woman in a degrading way if she were in keeping with the held cultural values.21 Values discourage prostitution and even the appearance of prostitution. If a woman behaves in a way that discernibly fits the pattern of a prostitute, men perhaps take the perception to be true and in some instances follow through with aggressive harassment to establish a relationship with an obviously sexually available female. If she is doing nothing approaching sexual indiscretion, not giving off objectively definable cues suggesting availability, there is no way that a woman can be degraded by the fact that some people do practice prostitution.

     Pornography and prostitution establish a stereotype for what constitutes a sexually receptive situation. The means by which the stereotype is established is by way of objectifying sexually available women and transforming the results into an erotic presentation of the female for male enjoyment. When you objectify a situation or behavior you break it down into discernible parts. These parts describe the smallest details of what defines a pornographic situation or what defines a prostitute. If none of the behaviors of an ordinary woman fit any of these descriptions, there is no possible way the presence of prostitution should be able to harm her dignity. A woman behaving in a reasonable and conservative way, being careful not to elicit any ambiguous cues in her actions, is often described as a virtuous woman.22 Her integrity and dignity are a function of adhering to held social values. The argument that all women are degraded by prostitution, therefore, is a somewhat overstated assumption of the deleterious effects of sex work on the dignity of all women.

      The idea of virtue can be extended to men as well. Sexual knowledge provides one with a degree of personal power that can be used for good or bad ends. Using sex as a tool of exploitation invariably institutes a game-state in which both men and women lose an element of their former purity. Barry tends to emphasize the misuse of this power at the hands of men, but common sense and ordinary experience suggest women can be exploitative as well. A fierce game between sexual players, each seeking to maximize his or her gains over the other, can easily lead to the moral degradation of both. In this perspective the idea of prostitutes degrading women is an issue that extends to what non-prostitute men and women do in their private sexual lives.



20. Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1981), p. 470.
21. Values in the broad category include marriage, having children, working for a living honestly, and so forth. There is an array of other values more narrowly delineated. Virtue and chastity are values associated with sexual activity. When a person begins to experience sexuality, the inherent power of sexuality to entice, manipulate, and play with other people’s emotions becomes evident. There is so much power implied in sexuality that the
immature usage of it is inevitable. Thus, the lack of chasteness also can imply the game-state that arises when a person cannot deal adequately with the power of sexuality. Sex in this condition degrades, from its higher purpose for mating, having a family, or raising the spirits of humanity by imbuing courtship with a sense of romance, into self-serving expressions of ego-fulfillment.
22. In this respect, a prostitute being conservative with men in her private but not professional life, could be considered a sexually virtuous women given conformity to other virtuous characteristics. Although this appears contradictory, one must remember that the idea of temple prostitution was never construed as a desecration of spirit. Virtue is given an “extensional” characteristic here that gives it first-order qualities (the absence of a game-state) over the more “intensionally” defined words virtue, purity, and chastity, which are not as specific. This is important to note if the argument is to object to women being objectified on such a high pedestal of virtue. Virtue knows no gender. What applies to women applies to men equally.


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Figurative, Not Actual Degradation