Trading on America’s Puritanical Streak

Martha Nussbaum on prostitution in

Many types of bodily wage labor used to be socially stigmatized. In the Middle Ages it was widely thought base to take money for the use of one’s scholarly services. Adam Smith, in “The Wealth of Nations,” tells us there are “some very agreeable and beautiful talents” that are admirable so long as no pay is taken for them, “but of which the exercise for the sake of gain is considered, whether from reason or prejudice, as a sort of publick prostitution.” For this reason, he continues, opera singers, actors and dancers must be paid an “exorbitant” wage, to compensate them for the stigma involved in using their talents “as the means of subsistence.” His discussion is revealing for what it shows us about stigma. Today few professions are more honored than that of opera singer; and yet only 200 years ago, that public use of one’s body for pay was taken to be a kind of prostitution.

Some of the stigma attached to opera singers was a general stigma about wage labor. Wealthy elites have always preferred genteel amateurism. But the fact that passion was being expressed publicly with the body — particularly the female body — made singers, dancers and actors nonrespectable in polite society until very recently. Now they are respectable, but women who take money for sexual services are still thought to be doing something that is not only nonrespectable 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.

[H/t: Ruchira Paul]