Thursday, January 23, 2003

Squeals on Wheels?

Today's (23 October) Dear Abby column is more interesting than usual. Read the letter for the full details; here's the adumbrated version. The letter writer has a friend with muscular dystrophy. He is mostly paralyzed and could die any time. Yet, like most men, he still has sexual needs. The letter writer arranged for his friend to have a date with a female "escort" -- yes, that kind of escort -- and the encounter apparently went quite well. But the man's parents (who care for him) were appalled, and they have banned the writer from seeing his friend. Now, this is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. First, like all libertarians, I think prostitution should be legalized. But I don't think prostitution is a "good thing." In general, I think it's a poor personal choice. I support legalization because (a) I think prohibition creates even greater harms, and (b) I am unwilling to substitute my personal moral judgment for that of another competent adult. Here, however, we have one of the rare cases in which I think prostitution is not just tolerable, but actually desirable. Abby gets it exactly right in her response:
It is wrong for a person in control to project his or her own moral values on another adult who is dependent. For parents to confine an adult child, to prevent that person from having relationships, and to discourage that person from living life as fully as possible is to me both cruel and ignorant. I would only hope that someone in your community who understands this could intercede and explain to Kent's parents that there is room for nontraditional relationships in cases like this one.
Second, there is a twist in the story that I left out above: when the writer contacted the escort service and explained the situation, the manager offered the escort's services for *free*. Does that mean this wasn't prostitution after all, because the price charged was zero? From a legal standpoint, I suspect this encounter was totally legit, unless the escort herself was still paid and the money came out of the business's general revenues. However, my understanding is that escort services usually handle only the "date" portion of an escort's business; the prostitution, if any, is left as a transaction strictly between the escort and her customer (so that the escort service is shielded legally). I think this case highlights the arbitrariness of a law that bans certain acts of sex simply because money is involved. What if, hypothetically, the escort service had not offered the service for free, but had instead offered a discount? Would it matter how big the discount was? In this case, it's hard for me to find a relevant moral distinction between sex for free and sex for a nominal payment. But perhaps I'm being misled by the fact that I think prostitution is desirable in this situation anyway. I'd like to hear someone who is opposed to prostitution make the case for a meaningful distinction.

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