In the latest round of internecine libertarian infighting, Delta Tkasch and Dave Smith have gotten into it about “normalization of sex work”, with Tkasch, a sex professional, taking the pro side and Mr. Smith dismissing the idea as “goofy”, and even detrimental to the cause of libertarianism. This twitter thread and its subthreads get into it. I’m going to try to be as fair to the positions of both sides as possible-some of it is disagreements over terminology-but I’m definitely going to be taking the pro-sex worker side on this, and I wanted to respond in a longer form than I could accomplish in tweets. Here I’ll be using sex work broadly, so including not just prostitutes, but also strippers, pornographic actors, etc.
Both “combatants” and their respective supporters agree with the longstanding libertarian position that sex work between consenting adults (always an important qualifier, and will be assumed for the remainder of this essay) should be completely legal. There are a number of core libertarian positions this idea involves, along with many questions of practical effect which I’ll address later. The core questions include bodily autonomy, self ownership, and freedom of contract. The question is whether such work should be “normalized”, and if so what exactly normalized means.
As an aside, terminology matters, and terminology is at the heart of many internal debates in political movements. Most (though definitely not all) of libertarian debates start with an agreement over the NAP, and then start fighting about what qualifies as aggression. Tkasch has repeatedly argued specifically for “decriminalization” rather than “legalization” of sex work, although even there qualification is necessary. In most instances of “decriminalization” being used in non-libertarian contexts that I’ve seen it means that decriminalized activity is still a matter for law enforcement, just with much less priority or serious consequences. The most notable example would be marijuana possession being punishable by a civil fine like a traffic ticket, and/or pushed to official lowest priority enforcement. Legalization, on the other hand, means the activity is now completely acceptable in the eyes of the state, and faces no more or less regulation than any other activity. Tkasch, on the other hand, and some though not all other libertarian commentators, use decriminalization to mean free of state interference, with legalization being undesirable because it subjects that activity to the regulatory regimes of the state, including licensing, taxation, and regulation. Personally I think that legalization is a lot better than converting something from a cageable to simply a fineable offense, but I can see their point. Either way though, clarity of definitions is important.
Now on to the heart of the matter-normalization of sex work. Does normalization mean that everyone needs to embrace prostitution, pornography, stripping, writing terrible fanfiction, etc. as great and noble profession, and the best of our society? I don’t think so. We all have different interests and passions, there are many matters that libertarianism is purposely silent on to give space for religion, ethics, etc., and dare I say it being socially conservative is ok as long as you don’t impose those views on others. But to simply have it treated as other professions, a part of life like fast food, lawyers, garbage collectors, etc.? That’s a lot more reasonable proposition. Elsewhere Smith agrees that there is a major social stigma around sex work, and says that that stigma exists for a reason, and in the same tweet he says that sex workers often have lots of bad things in their early childhoods.
Let’s take those apart.
As for the idea that all sex workers are traumatized or coerced into their jobs, maybe that was true in the 1970s, but these days? In my conversations with sex workers I’ve known in real life, reading accounts online, and dare I say it occasionally reading/watching interviews with favorite porn stars (shut up, you’ve done it too), the overwhelming takeaway is…it’s just like any other job these days. Some people get into it because they’re really passionate about the work, whether it’s the sex, the theatricality, the therapeutic aspects, the technology, etc., some people do it because it’s a job and a means to an end, and yes, some have bad things happen to them early on that lead them to it. The idea that everyone is in the profession simply because they’re traumatized, desperate nutcases is way too broad a generalization these days. Ditto for assuming all sex workers are women.
For the second part, the stigma. Well yes, it exists, and it exists for reasons, but why? What are those reasons? They aren’t as cut and dried as you might think, as even a cursory study of history shows that societal attitudes towards sex work have changed many times through human history, including even within Western cultures-even within American culture. Who’s to say that it can’t change again? I think the stigma goes to one of the big problems of libertarians, and one that I’ve addressed from a different perspective before, namely failing to recognize that while the state is the greatest threat to human liberty, it is not the only threat to human liberty. Social stigma can’t send drones to a wedding party like the state can, or kill on an industrial scale the same way, but it can enable terrible laws and completely upend the power dynamics between people. It’s a lot like Rand’s description of racism as “barnyard or stockyward collectivism”; it gives people permission to view other people as Other and less than. This is not entirely a bad thing, as there are absolutely good things and bad things, good and evil, and they should be called as such. But does sex work really worthy of that shame here? Are services that, to one degree or another, most people avail themselves of, that concern a natural function, that provide people outlets to explore their sexuality and desires, really worth the violence, the terrible law, the empowering of the state, the spreading of disease, and the shame that the social stigma that comes with it all?
I don’t think it is. And I think as libertarians even though we may choose not to approve or partake ourselves we have a responsibility to speak up for those who are consistently crapped on by society without good reason. You don’t have to subscribe to someone’s onlyfans, you don’t have to hire your local hooker, but you should be speaking up for them and doing your best to make sure the boot of the state drops as far away from them as possible.
Not because it’s special. But because it’s normal.