Another Thomistic Howler?
The selling and buying of sex, its commodification, is a grave evil
In my last post I argued that St. Thomas Aquinas got it wrong when he suggested that a judge who had private knowledge, and only that, of a man’s innocence could find that man guilty based on the evidence properly adduced in a court of law. Thomas rightly notes that the judicial system contributes mightily to the common good. Nonetheless, that very system violates the common good when the innocent are judged guilty.
Appeals to the common good can go wrong when we confuse the common good with the good of the majority or, say, the utilitarian good. The common good includes the good of all. The Creator fashions each of us in His own image and likeness.
Now comes another test case involving the common good. Of late it is the fashion to speak of sex workers rather than prostitutes. Fashions are fleeting, of course, and have varying sources. Maybe the originating idea is that “prostitute” is stigmatizing. And why should we stigmatize the world’s oldest profession?
Indeed, why should we criminalize it? Wouldn’t it be better to regulate and tax sex work? And why not give sex workers a voice and encourage their unionization?
So what does Aquinas tell us? Not surprisingly, he has the common good in mind. He writes, “In human government . . . those who are in authority rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain greater evils be incurred: thus Augustine says (De Ordine ii. 4): ‘If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust’” (ST II-II, q. 10, art. 11).
Thomas’s premise of “greater evils” being incurred is right. Here’s an example that shows why. Spitting in public places is an evil, but it’s not a grave evil. Police have higher priorities than enforcing a law against it. We could mandate “no spitting squads” but only at the cost of fostering a dubious surveillance mentality.
But Thomas’s conclusion, even if he joins Augustine, does not follow from his premise. Why not? Because the selling and buying of sex, its commodification, is a grave evil. It violates the dignity of the human person. Vatican II rightly locates the evil of prostitution:
Whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed (Gaudium et Spes 27).
Some will argue, no doubt, that prostitution is “different.” Properly regulated, prostitution is a transaction between consenting adults and no one is being harmed. This argument finds its pedigree in John Stuart Mill. But the argument remains flawed, and for two reasons. The first is that what counts as regulation is at best obscure and in fact is likely to be based on mere tax considerations. The second is that coercion, direct or indirect, often compromises consent. The worst form, of course, is human trafficking. Even when consent is freely given, people often consent to what in fact seriously harms themselves and others. (That’s why we experience remorse.) Our bodies are integral to who we are, and to commodify our bodies is to treat our very selves as things to be bought and sold.
There remains the argument that criminalizing prostitution only worsens the harm done to those who engage in it. Surely whether this is the case depends on the forms that enforcement takes. For a start, pimps and madams merit jail time. Those who buy sex should be severely fined and their names published. The monies paid can be used to rehabilitate those who sell sex. This rehabilitation would begin with psychological care and education for life-enhancing work. Prostitution is not a profession, much less the oldest. It is a practice that distorts our shared humanity.
So how did Aquinas (and Augustine) go wrong? These are good questions for the scholars to pursue, and it’s not for me to excuse him from this howler. A more pressing question, however, is how does what passes for progressive thought on “sex work” go so much more wrong? Is it that so often we lose sight of what it is to be created in the image and likeness of God?
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