Nussbaum on Spitzer

(With thanks to Calypso for pointing me to the story)

Martha Nussbaum’s comments on Spitzer’s legal problems contain two main claims:  Prostitution should not be illegal, and Spitzer didn’t commit any crimes that are really against the state.  The second is roundly debated, both in the comments on it and in the New Yorker.  After all, Spitzer was having people arrested for an involvement  he shared in, he was laundering money, and so on.

The first claim is worth discussion here.  Is prostitution just comparable to lots of other jobs that involve taking money for the use of one’s body? 

To give you an idea of her view:

Why are there laws against prostitution? All of us, with the exception of the independently wealthy and the unemployed, take money for the use of our body. Professors, factory workers, opera singers, sex workers, doctors, legislators – all do things with parts of their bodies for which others offer them a fee….However, the difference between the sex worker and the professor, who takes money for the use of a particularly intimate part of her body, namely her mind, is not the difference between a “good woman” and a “bad woman.” It is, usually, the difference between a prosperous well-educated woman and a poor woman with few employment options.

Many types of bodily wage labor used to be socially stigmatized. … Now they are respectable, but women who take money for sexual services are still thought to be doing something that is not only non-respectable but so bad that it should remain illegal.

What should really trouble us about sex work? That it is sex that these women do, with many customers, should not in and of itself trouble us, from the point of view of legality, even if we personally don’t share the woman’s values. Nonetheless, it is this one fact that still-Puritan America finds utterly intolerable.

What do you think?  Perhaps one way to approach the question is to ask whether we also think that other very intimate uses of one’s body, such as wet nursing and surrogate motherhood, should be viewed as goods and services that should have a fair market value, for instance.

10 thoughts on “Nussbaum on Spitzer

  1. Presumably most readers of this blog agree with Nussbaum that the difference between sex workers and the professor isn’t the difference between a good woman and a bad woman; it’s not clear to me what that’s got to do with anything.

    Is the claim that all these people do things with parts of their bodies for which others offer a fee meant to a premise in support of the argument that there’s no moral difference? The quote doesn’t really settle it, but I hope not. “Why are there laws against murder? All of us, with the exception of the dead, move our body in a way that has causal consequences on the bodies of others.” Right; but the difference is the consequences of those actions which are murderous. Likewise, while most of us do things with our bodies for a living, the difference with prostitution is surely meant to be the consequences, which at best involve serious risk to the prostitutes and at worst (without implausibility) involve the prevalence of rape, violence to females, and misogyny.

    Nor is the pessimistic meta-induction any more convincing than it is in the case of science. Still, Nussbaum is surely right that the fact that it is sex that these women do should not in and of itself trouble us: rather, we should we troubled by the violence and tolerance of violence that is a result.

  2. RC, interestingly enough, Nussbaum argues that lots of other jobs women hold carry much the same dangers and we don’t disapprove of them or hold them illegal.

  3. I usually think about the question this way: a woman in sex work must make herself into a means only and presumably a professor does not. In fact, I include personal stories from my life in most classes just so I cannot be reduced to a talking mind. But sex workers must become blank slates so whatever customer is purchasing her can inscribe his own fantasies on her. If she does not make herself blank, so to speak, how can the whole wide range of fantasies of men in a strip bar, for example, be played out on this one woman? If I’m not mistaken, men who purchase the services of prostitutes specify what they want her to do and her buisness is to satisfy these requests. In fact, as I understand it, many men with sexual partners “at home” go to prostitutes because their home partner does not like and/or will not do what he can purchase.

    If a sex worker brings herself to her work, would be she successful? I suspect not to the same extent, if at all. I imagine a pole dancer or lap dancer talking about how her kids have the measles and she can’t afford a plumber to come unclog the bathtub drain so the kids can take a bath. I’m guessing the customers’ fantasies would droop and sag, so to speak.

    It is for these reasons that I see a distinction between being a professor and a sex worker. I thinks sex work requires that the person cease to exist in favor of the customer’s fantasy. Simply, it violates Kant’s practical imperative. Even Kant says you in fact can work for others without violating the practical imperative providing you are not reduced to what you are employed to do.

    In my view, other kinds of jobs that also force the worker to become a means only are also immoral. Whether sex work should be illegal is another question.

  4. I often find myself in the situation of wondering what exactly is wrong with sex work – my intuitions are that there is something morally problematic about it, and that it’s not ‘just another job’. One issue that I keep coming back to is exploitation and the kind of exploitation sex work involves. Admittedly my thoughts are not entirely clear about this, but roughly my view is that, although a lot of jobs involve a degree of exploitation (including your average fast-food worker on minimum wage or less), sex makes a difference to the kind of exploitation sex work involves. I think the problem with sex work isn’t that sex is involved per se, but that because it is involved sex workers are more vulnerable than people doing ‘other jobs’. For an interesting account of what it is like to work in a lap dancing bar in the UK, see,,2266504,00.html. I see the vulnerability of sex workers as being on a par with those who are working in sweatshops and who are (in my view) modern day slaves. They are hugely exploited due to their work but the answer surely isn’t to make sweatshops legal; the answer is to provide safeguards for people who are likely to fall victim to such exploitation because of poverty and have tougher sanctions against corporations found to be exploiting their workers. So, I can’t help but disagree with Nussbaum that legalising and normalising sex work is the answer.

  5. If Nussbaum’s making the same argument in the comment on Spitzer (too busy this morning to read the link, sorry!) that I’ve read her make elsewhere, then parsing her claim is a little tricky. She’s not denying `prostitution should be illegal’. She’s rejecting the argument that concludes `prostitution should be illegal because it is selling the use of one’s body’, and similar arguments against prostitution that appeal to the intuition that prostitution is inherently degrading (such as Anonymous’ argument that the prostitute `makes herself into a means only’, or arguments that something’s wrong with commercialising sex). Her argument is that standards of degradation are highly dependent on social context — she points to times when performing music and teaching for money were both considered degrading (and, indeed, compared to prostitution), and then to the fact that we find these ideas clearly false today.

    I think she might support legalisation on the combined grounds that (a) it’s going to happen anyway and (b) the best way to improve working conditions for prostitutes is through legalisation and regulation. Likewise with surrogate motherhood. (These are my own tentative positions, though, so take those readings with a grain of salt.) But in the paper I’m most familiar with, she doesn’t go quite this far, and sticks primarily with the negative claim of the last paragraph.

  6. Thanks, Noumena. I checked again. In the recent piece she does say, “Eliot Spitzer’s offense was an offense against his family. It was not an offense against the public. If he broke any laws, these are laws that never should have existed and that have been repudiated by sensible nations.”

  7. There have been a number of nuanced comments above. Let me just add in the conjecture that some of the dislike of prostitution that is felt – by those who feel it – might be linked to the disapproval we feel about selling body parts. That is, there might be something the cases have in common, or at least some way we are seeing them that draws out the same disapproval.

  8. It’s worth adding another nuance or two– there isn’t just a choice between illegal and legal. There are many different ways for aspects of prostitution to be either of these. Take the illegal side: you can make prostitution a crime and arrest prostitutes; or you can make hiring a prostitute a crime and make being a prostitute perfectly legal, as is done in Sweden. On the legal side, there are free market anything goes options, but there are also options involving regulation and sex worker unions.

  9. You can ponder the question all day long, but sex workers themselves prefer their work to not be criminalized. Criminalization creates a large amount of the problems everyone likes to point to as examples of why sex work should remain criminalized.

  10. Amanda, good point. Of course, one problem is that most people who are going in for illegal activites would prefer their activities not to be criminalized. So the important thing really is whether, as you suggest, it’s the results of the criminalization that provide the main objection to the activity. That’s certainly false for a lot of corporate crime, but many people have argued that the same holds for drug taking and selling. I think Nussbaum’s point is even stronger: lots of work that disadvantaged people get stuck with is just as unpleasant and dangerous, or at least enough so.

    I’m not sure, though, that everyone who is part of this discussion is concerned with criminalization. But, importantly, the question isn’t whether we want to stand in judgment of sex workers; it is much more about understanding whether there are genuine moral values that are behind society’s general and very negative attitude toward sex work.

    sorry if this all seems obvious (or wrong). I thought it worth taking some time to locate your comment in the discussion.

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