Liberalism and Prostitution

April 29, 2010

This is an intriguing and somewhat controversial book in which the author favourably considers the value of "paternalistic" prostitution laws. Peter de Marneffe situates this version of paternalism within a contemporary libertarian framework, and thus challenges the anti-paternalistic sentiment articulated in John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. Instead, de Marneffe defines his own principles of liberalism, which comprises liberty, adequate opportunity, personal security and equality (before the law).

It is within this framework of liberalism that de Marneffe argues that paternalistic prostitution laws can be justified. He contends that an acceptable "paternalistic argument for prostitution laws is that sex work is harmful to those who do it"; he focuses in particular on the psychological and sometimes physical harm with which prostitution has been associated. However, he assumes, perhaps naively, that this principle of harm is what underpins some of the existing prostitution policies.

He also suggests that the governance of prostitution is not framed within a moral discourse and that the paternalistic laws he favours are in fact neutral and objective; however, this argument is unconvincing. For instance, despite the rigorous debate offered by the author, it appears that the cultural complexities underpinning perceptions of prostitution, and indeed "sex", have been overlooked. Ironically for de Marneffe, it is perhaps as a result of such complexities that the extent to which these laws are simply "paternalistic" or instead primarily "moralistic" can never be made certain.

De Marneffe does not argue for the complete outlawing of prostitution, as he argues this would be in conflict with liberalism. He favours a "permissive" policy that stops short of abolition, allowing the purchase of sexual services but disallowing brothels and restricting the legal opportunities to purchase these services in other ways. Further, he also supports "impermissive" regulation setting age limits for sex workers, permitting only those aged over 25 to work in sexual services.

He repeatedly refers to the Swedish legal model of prostitution, and although he has some reservations about certain facets of its policies, he implies his support for this legislation. Currently Swedish laws criminalise the clients of prostitutes, a point on which de Marneffe remains unconvinced, as this violates the liberties of the customer. The Swedish model also restricts the places where prostitutes may conduct their business; this is intended to reduce prostitution and ultimately the harm it causes. However, there is no real evidence to suggest that these policies, as reflected in the Swedish model, have reduced prostitution. Instead, by restricting the way in which women can operate as prostitutes, sex workers have become even more isolated, arguably thus subjecting these women to further harm. It has also been suggested that rather than preventing women from engaging in prostitution, it has merely pushed sex work underground, leading to the growth of illegal brothels.

The tone of Liberalism and Prostitution is at times pompous, with de Marneffe's style likely to leave the taste of Marmite in the reader's mouth. But whether you like, love, dislike or loathe his philosophical monologue, he nonetheless makes an unexpected, but necessary, contribution to the existing literature about prostitution laws. In striving to be objective and raising uncomfortable but important questions about policy, he has written a book that will appeal to those studying and researching in academic fields such as political philosophy, law, social policy, criminology and sociology, as well as those specifically interested in sex work.

Liberalism and Prostitution

By Peter de Marneffe Oxford University Press. 204pp, £40.00.ISBN 9780195383249. Published 10 December 2009

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