Every Sex Worker Is Somebody’s Daughter, Ctd

by Dish Staff

A reader adds his two cents to the discussion:

I wouldn’t want my daughter to make her living in porn, but not because I have a moral objection to it. My problem is with the career trajectory. A porn actress’s earning power peaks fairly early on. And after that happens and she wants to get a job outside of the adult industry, that porn history will put a pretty low glass ceiling over her head.

Another has a more philosophical objection:

We already make certain moral, qualitative distinctions between free commerce and other sectors of life.  You are not allowed to sell your enfranchisement, for example. Why not? Most people don’t use nearly all the votes to which they are entitled as citizens. Why can’t they offer a price to someone who wishes to make use of them? It’s easy enough to argue that votes are already bought when politicians vow certain breaks or benefits for their election. But that’s not the same thing as selling the vote itself before the fact.

You’re also not allowed to sell yourself into slavery, however much that might benefit your family or designated beneficiaries financially. Again, one may argue that all labor relations are just attenuated versions of precisely that already, but that’s not the same thing as selling the sum of one’s liberty and labor as such.

If we agree that there are already certain domains of life (e.g. enfranchisement, liberty, citizenship) where no amount of economic necessity can validate the commercialization thereof, then why is it hard to see sex as something similar? You don’t need to be a prude and you don’t need to see public law and family law as the same thing in order to recoil at legalized prostitution. If sex doesn’t rank up there with citizenship and the vote as a special, non-commercial endowment, then what principle would prevent a world of indentured servitude and commodified enfranchisement?

Every Sex Worker Is Somebody’s Daughter, Ctd

by Dish Staff

Noah Millman jumps in on Elizabeth’s sex-workers-as-daughters discussion:

You could call [Elizabeth’s take] a “moral libertarian” version of Rawls’s veil of ignorance. We don’t know what our daughter might decide to do when she is of age. She might decide to have sex for money. Therefore, we should examine our political (and moral) attitudes with a view to who would be most harmed by them – and the person most harmed by a morally condemnatory attitude is the daughter who decides to have sex for money, and would be condemned for it.

As with Rawls’s own perspective, this makes perfect sense if you take the existing distribution is a given – in Rawls’s case, of wealth; in Nolan Brown’s, of life choices. If you don’t assume that – if you assume instead that redistribution of wealth will lead to less production of wealth overall, or that a permissive moral attitude will lead to an increase in objectively poorer life choices – then you can’t blithely say that the only thing that matters is harm reduction for those who make those choices. You have to weigh the costs on all sides of the equation. This much should be obvious.

But I still think Nolan Brown’s critique has teeth, because she’s drawing a distinction between the daughter as thought experiment and the daughter in reality.

And Elizabeth responds:

I’m guessing not many people take forklift-driving positions because they just adore the work. People take jobs as forklift drivers for the same reason people take jobs in porn—to make a living—and we don’t hear complaints that this situation exploits forklift drivers because they are under economic pressure to accept dangerous work. Yet according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, there are about 85 deaths and 34,900 serious injuries related to forklifts each year, with 42 percent of these involving the forklift operator being crushed by a tipping vehicle. How many people are killed each year by porn?

Every Sex Worker Is Somebody’s Daughter, Ctd

by Dish Staff

The sex-worker-as-daughter debate, which Elizabeth launched, continues. Two readers cite two different missing pieces from the conversation thus far. One writes:

I am amazed by the Every Sex Worker Might be Somebody’s Daughter thread’s blind spot: not one person brought up the men who do sex work. Escorts and male performers in straight and gay pornography are all… somebody’s son.  Yet that doesn’t seem to worry anyone much. The same double-standard as always: sexually active women are sluts, sexually active men are studs.

The other sounds off:

The thread on this topic seems remarkably tone-deaf.

Should we evaluate all public policy issues through a “would you want your son/daughter to…” lens? Of course not. Is there lots of misguided, counter-productive, or irrelevant moralism and paternalism involved in some public policy? Sure. So some of the points made in the thread are well-taken, taken in isolation. But.

We also are all somebody’s child, or parent, or caretaker, or sibling, or spouse, etc. And these relationships tap into a specific part of our brain, and give us a specific set of perspectives on life. And sometimes it is positively healthy to ask ourselves to access that part of our thinking and feeling to a greater extent. At the least, speaking as if a whole realm of human awareness should be amputated from public concerns seems at best hugely unrealistic. Just think about the gay marriage issue. Homophobia was fine if you barely knew gay people even existed. Civil unions seemed OK if you knew that they existed, but didn’t know too much about their lives. But gay marriage became a moral imperative for many people because they knew and loved gay people personally, and saw them as, well…somebody’s daughter, or your own son or daughter. And that made a difference in how people saw the issue.

On another note, I think that people who want to jettison the “think about if she were somebody’s daughter” approach are just pretty naive about men. This line isn’t just a tool of patriarchal oppression. It’s used to counter-act male instincts (women have them also, but less strongly). And if you give men permission to stop asking the “what if she were…” questions, and give them free reign to assume that she might just as easily be a porn star, you might find that the results have a lot less to do with smashing the patriarchy than you first thought.

Every Sex Worker Is Somebody’s Daughter, Ctd

by Dish Staff

Elizabeth’s post about sex workers as the theoretical “daughters” of those opining on the topic continues to cause a stir. Adam Ozimek argues against thinking of adults in this way, no matter the issue at hand:

Whether you’d want your kid to do something is a terrible, selfish, and self-centered way to think about policy. You hear this kind of argument when it comes to drug use too. “Do you really want your kid to be able to smoke pot?” But the laws of this country aren’t the rules of your household. Stopping your kid from smoking pot or becoming a prostitute isn’t our job, it’s yours. Quite frankly if you need the law’s help in that regard then I’m guessing you’re going to have other problems on your hands anyway.

Ozimek, perhaps spoiling for a Dish guest-blogger show-down, goes on to quote Freddie making such an argument:

On the left you hear things like this when it comes to labor standards, especially around the globe. For example, I recall Freddie deBoer once wrote of an NPR piece on labor conditions in China:

Would Ira Glass ever allow his children, when grown, to work 60 hours a week? In those factories? In those conditions? Of course not.

Here we have not only have every U.S. citizen being treated like your child, but every worker in China, a country of 1.3 billion people that is thousands of miles away. That’s quite a paternalistic reach.

Many readers also responded to Elizabeth’s provocative argument. And it turns out that no, not everyone is losing sleep over the possibility that their children are or might become sex workers. Some speak from personal experience:

My friend recently went to LA to shoot porn. Her parents were fully aware; and she went with her husband (she only shot solo stuff and “girl girl” scenes. Her parents gave their blessing; I’m not sure “approve” is the right word, but they definitely were not upset by her decision and they were happy she seemed so excited.

I suspect a lot of parents would be like this: your primary desire is your child to be happy and safe; and after a certain point you get convinced that both will be true within that industry.

That said, it WAS a very odd experience. This is a girl who had had sex with only one guy in her life, and one girl; yet her second day there she is taken to a shoot in a hotel room, meets another young nervous girl, and in 15 minutes is having sex with her on film. The fact that she loved it was beside the point; there is something very weird about having a third party arrange your sex partner for you, and you having sex with them within 15 minutes of meeting them.

My friend is also a cam model on one of “those” sites; and she could easily make $75k this year. This is working from home, maybe 15-20 hours a week, setting her own hours, doing something that she loves to do. What parent WOULDN’T want their child to be in a situation like that?

Another reader astutely notes that even non-controversial romantic situations have the potential to freak out one’s immediate family:

“I submit that virtually every honest person — those with children of their own, as well as those who merely possess a functional moral imagination — will admit to being appalled at the thought.”

Sure, and every one of us is appalled at the thought of our parents having sex, too.  That doesn’t mean sex for old people is wrong.  It just means we don’t want to think of it. We don’t like to contemplate the sexuality of the people we have a close non-sexual relationship with.  When we men don’t are appalled at the thought of our daughters having sex for money, it’s just a more advanced version of not wanting to think of them having sex at all.

And another makes a feminist libertarian argument:

I think the key thing to understanding this is the framing – Father, Daughter.  It’s an entirely paternalistic approach, treating these adults as if they were children. “I know better than you.” The gender aspect matters to a degree, since it touches on the tendency towards protectiveness/possessiveness towards the sexuality of daughters, but even if we were talking about a mother or a son, the key point is the same.  This sort of logic and thinking should not be what drives us.  Your children are not yours to make decisions for once they become adults, nor should it remain in that frame. Just because someone wouldn’t want their daughter (or son) to sleep with half the people at their college, doesn’t mean that we should outlaw sex.

We need a society where everyone’s choices are respected, not treated as perpetual children. Laws should be about reducing risk associated with those choices (focused on making sure no one else screws us over, literally or figuratively) not about making our choices for us.

A different reader – one with daughters! – argues that there are options worse than sex work:

What a lede – it just made me shout out, in the presence of both my kids “THAT’S NOT TRUE!”  Having a daughter as a sex worker is not my worst nightmare – there are many fates worse than being a sex worker, and being a sex worker can actually prevent some of them (dying homeless, being “forced” by finances into a bad marriage, starving while working “legit” fast food, etc.).  My daughters both agreed.  And then they added that most of the true hazards of the sex business come from its illegality.

Another reader dissents:

One does not have to be an uptight sexual prude to expect more from one’s daughter beyond having sex for money. Does this mean I do not respect sex workers? I respect them if they made their own choice to be in the sex business; but I often wonder if they truly did.

Why? Because I shared a rehab group therapy with a number of young women who worked the sex trade as teenagers and then young women. The experience showed me that none of them did sex work as an ambition; none said they sold their bodies as a deliberate choice to work in the sex trade. Most told how they started peddling their bodies for sex as strippers, or because a man offered to pimp them (one was 14 when her volleyball coach raped her, then turned her out). Sex work was a way to pay for drugs, and to feel loved for a bit. None spoke highly of the sex work they did. All were trying to end doing it, and those with daughters were very concerned their children might end up in sex work, because of how they got there.

Add to it none saw sex work as a viable way to make a living.

My stance on this front is: I do not want my daughter to aim so low in her life, that sex work becomes her only option, or an option at all.

Every Sex Worker Is Somebody’s Daughter

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown


Last night, a close friend told me he had been reading my posts about decriminalizing sex work. “I’m sympathetic,” he said, “and I want to agree with you. But I just keep thinking, ‘what if it were my daughter?’ That’s, like, every father’s worst nightmare.”

My friend doesn’t have a daughter, to be clear. He’s also one of the most sexually liberal people I know. But while his attitude does discourage me, it doesn’t surprise me. This is the sexist culture we live in—one where a man who I know has had sex with at least three different women in the past week can literally imagine nothing worse for his hypothetical daughter than getting paid to have sex.

Damon Linker trots out similar sentiment at The Week today. Using his apparent mind-reading powers, he asserts that no one could honestly be okay with having a child in porn:

People may say they see nothing wrong with or even admire (Miriam Weeks’) decision to become a porn actress, but it isn’t unambiguously true. And our ease of self-deception on the matter tells us something important about the superficiality of the moral libertarianism sweeping the nation.

How do I know that nearly everyone who claims moral indifference or admiration for Weeks is engaging in self-deception? Because I conducted a little thought experiment. I urge you to try it. Ask yourself how you would feel if Weeks — porn star Belle Knox — was your daughter.

I submit that virtually every honest person — those with children of their own, as well as those who merely possess a functional moral imagination — will admit to being appalled at the thought.

Linker knows that nearly everyone must feel appalled because… he thought about it and was appalled? That’s some pretty shaky logic. (By the reverse, I conducted a thought experiment and am not appalled ergo everyone wants porn star daughters!) It also preemptively dismisses disagreement—anyone who says they are not appalled is just not being honest.

Under that rubric, I’m not even sure what sense it makes to argue, but nonetheless: I would not be appalled to have Weeks as my daughter. I would be proud to have raised a young woman of intelligence, confidence, academic commitment, libertarian leanings, a strong feminist streak, and a way with words. I would worry about a daughter doing porn—but not because of the porn itself. I would worry about the way she might be treated by people outside the industry. I would worry that she might experience sexual violence not on set, but at the hands of people who think porn stars and prostitutes don’t deserve the same bodily integrity as “good” women. And my heart would break to think of her other accomplishments being dismissed by people intent on defining a women’s worth by how many people with which she’s had sex.

I would sure as shit rather have a porn star daughter (or son) than one who thinks, as Linker does, that being in porn makes someone “low, base, and degraded.”

I think I get this viewpoint from my very Catholic, sex-negative, virgin-until-marriage mother. She taught me that we’re all created equal, that only God can judge, and everyone, everyone, is deserving of charity and respect. (The God part didn’t resonate so much with me, but you win some, you lose some.) I’m also reminded of one of my favorite quotes, from a book called Das Energi:

Don’t ever think you know what’s right for the other person. He might start thinking he knows what’s right for you

There’s nothing wrong with having certain expectations for your children—most parents want to see their kids live up to their fullest potential and achieve certain markers of normative success. All else being equal, I’d rather my own hypothetical daughter choose, say, engineering over becoming a Burger King cashier or a brothel worker, because the former seems to offer more security and room for advancement. But here’s the crux of the matter: Our best laid plans mean jack.

“It’s fine that you wouldn’t want your daughter having sex for money,” I told my friend yesterday, “but say she does anyway, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Would you want her to have to stand out on the street, get in cars with totally unvetted strangers, be arrested, get a criminal record? Or would you want her to be able to work in a safe environment? And go to the police if something bad happened? And not get thrown in jail?”

Decriminalizing prostitution is a means of harm reduction.

It’s the same argument people make about marijuana: You don’t have to get high, or even approve of people getting high, to think we shouldn’t be locking people for up it. Proponents of decriminalization aren’t asking you to become pro prostitution, to encourage your kids to go into sex work, or even to abandon thinking it’s morally wrong, if that’s what you think. Plenty of people think premarital sex in general is wrong, but they probably don’t think it should be illegal. All we’re asking is for you to consider that criminalizing prostitution does more harm than good. If — gasp! horror! disgust! — your daughter did happen to become a sex worker, wouldn’t you want to make it as safe and non-ruinous for her as possible?

Thoughts? Email dish@andrewsullivan.com.

(Photo: @belle_knox/Twitter)