The Argument from the Debasement of Ideal Value: The Case of Sex Work




Photograph by Garry Knight, CC

Gifts are valuable and gift-giving norms are common in many societies. There are different ways of characterising the distinctive features of a gift, but the ones commonly singled out are:

Gifts are goods or services or experiences That are given voluntarily Without expectation of or demand for payment or reciprocal exchange By one person(s) to another person(s)


This characterisation may not cover everything that we mean to cover by using the term ‘gift’. For example, some people might argue that there often are norms or expectations of reciprocal exchange built into gift-giving. If I bring a present to your party and you bring none to mine, I might have reason to be miffed. Still, I think most people would agree that I would have no reason to demand that you give me a gift. Indeed, if I demanded it, then it would, arguably, no longer be a gift. There is something about the voluntary giving, and the absence of any obligation of reciprocation, that captures the essence of a gift.

Why are gifts, so defined, valuable? Part of the reason has to do with showing respect and gratitude towards others. Part of the reason lies in their superogatory nature. If you give someone a gift, you are going above and beyond the call of duty. They are getting more from you than they have a right to expect. That feels good both from the perspective of the gift giver and the gift receiver.

A common argument against the commercialisation of certain activities is that they can ‘crowd out’ or undermine the gift value of those activities. We encounter such arguments in debates about the wisdom of commercialising organ donation, surrogacy and sex (to name but a few examples). Are these arguments any good? Does the gift value of an activity give us a good reason to object to its commercialisation?

I was recently prompted to think about this when reading the book Debating Sex Work by Lori Watson and Jessica Flanigan. In the book, Flanigan (who defends decriminalisation) responds to an argument from Elizabeth Anderson claiming that one reason why sex work is problematic is that the commercialisation of sexual intimacy undermines the gift value of sex. Flanigan is unpersuaded by this argument. I want to consider why in the remainder of this article. I do so, in part, because I am interested in how this argument (and Flanigan’s rebuttal of it) might apply in other contexts. I reflect on this in the concluding section.

1. Anderson and the Gift Value of Sex

Flanigan doesn’t set out Anderson’s original argument in much detail. She just gives a very quick summary of it. To get a better sense of what that argument is, I went back to Anderson’s 1990 article ‘The Ethical Limitations of the Market’. As one might expect, the original argument is quite complex. Anderson isn’t just providing an argument against the commercialisation of sex, but, rather, highlighting important distinctions between market values and the values that characterise personal relationships. She then explores how the former can undermine the latter.

Anderson claims that there are five distinctive features of market-based exchanges. First, they are impersonal: when you purchase a good or service you care, primarily, about the good or service and not the person from whom you buy them. Second, in a market, it is expected and tolerated (up to some legal limits) that one pursues one’s self interest rather than mutual good. Third, market goods are typically exclusive and rivalrous (they are not ‘public goods’ in the economic sense of that term). Fourth, markets are ‘want-regarding’, which means they care about satisfying desires and little else. And fifth, if one is dissatisfied with a market relationship, one’s chief means of redress is to simply exit it (quit the job; go somewhere else for your coffee etc). One does not, usually, try to reform the relationship.

Anderson concedes that people’s actual market behaviour may deviate from these five features. For instance, people may end up liking their service providers and may try to renegotiate a market relationship (e.g. suggesting changes in how a good is produced). But for her this doesn’t defeat the idea that the primary tendency or pull of the market is in favour of these five features.

She then contrasts market relationships with personal relationships. She argues that personal relationships are, primarily, about intimacy and commitment. They are not, as might be expected given their name, impersonal. We care about our friends and lovers as people, not as widgets for producing goods and services. We are also committed to them over time. If they disappoint us, we don’t just walk away. We try to make things better. We only walk away as a last resort.

For what it is worth, I find this essentialisation of market and personal relationships a bit unhelpful. My sense is that people deviate from Anderson’s normative expectations more often than she might be willing to concede and this then calls into question whether she has really captured the ‘essential features’ of both kinds of relationship. But let’s set that worry aside for now in order to concentrate on her specific claims about sex work.

Her objection to the commercialisation of sex comes in two parts. First, she asks us to recognise the distinctive ‘gift value’ of sexual intimacy:

One cannot understand what makes this practice [prostitution] base without understanding the specifically human good achieved when sexual acts are exchanged as gifts. This good is founded on a mutual recognition of the partners as sexually attracted to each other and as affirming an intimate relationship in their mutual offering of themselves to each other. This is a shared good: one and the same good is realized for both partners in their action, and part of its goodness lies in the mutual understanding that is shared. The couple rejoices in their union, and not simply each in his or her own distinct physical gratification. As a shared good, it cannot be realized except through each partner reciprocating the other’s gift in kind, offering his or her own sexuality in the same spirit in which the other’s sexuality is received – as a genuine offering of the self. (Anderson 1990, 187)


Note how Anderson is claiming that there is a distinctive good associated with sexual intimacy — partly characterised by mutual understanding not simply gratification — that is only possible when each person gives and receives the sexual intimacy as a gift. In other words, in its ideal form, sexual intimacy is an exercise in mutual gift-giving aimed, at least in part, at mutual understanding.

What’s the problem with sex work? Here’s what Anderson says about that:

When sexual ‘services’ are sold on the market, the kind of reciprocity required to realize human sexuality as a shared good is broken. The prostitute does not respond to the customer as a sexually attractive person, but merely as someone willing to put down the cash…And the customer seeks only sexual gratification from the prostitute, not a physical union. Sexuality as a specifically human, shared good, cannot be achieved…market motives cannot provide it. (Anderson 1990, 187-188)


As I read her, Anderson doesn’t go on from here to provide a clear argument for prohibiting or banning sex work. That’s not really what her article is about. But she does state that “the attempt to sell gift values on the market makes a mockery of those values” and this could be taken, as Flanigan takes it, to imply that sex work ought to be prohibited on the grounds that it debases and crowds out the gift value of sex.

So Anderson’s argument — or a derivation from it — works like this:

(1) There is a distinctive human good that is only possible through a mutual gift-giving form of sexual intimacy.(2) Sex work (prostitution) debases and makes a mockery of this distinctive good because it is not possible to achieve it through commercialised sexual exchanges.(3) If a non-ideal form of X mocks or debases an ideal form X, then the non-ideal form should be prohibited.(4) Therefore, sex work should be prohibited.

Is this argument any good?

An argument map of the Flanigan-Anderson debate (with some additional comments). 
To see the full thing, click here.

2. Flanigan’s objections

Flanigan objects to each aspect of Anderson’s argument. She starts with premise (2) and the claim that commercial sex debases the gift value of sex. Consider how this might apply to other debates about commercial practices and gifts. As a general rule of thumb, it seems implausible to suppose that whenever there is a commercial market for a good or service this debases any attempt to provide that good or service as a gift.

Flanigan gives two examples of this: cleaning the house and cooking a meal. Both acts are often done as gifts or for gift-giving purposes. It is common to cook someone a meal as a way of showing appreciation and affection; similarly, people often claim that certain forms of household labour are done as gifts (voluntarily, without expectation/demand of reciprocation). Nevertheless, both services are offered on the market. You can hire cleaners to tidy up your house and there is a very active and competitive market in pre-prepared meals, take away food, and restaurant dining. But it stretches credulity to suppose that the presence of those markets undermines the gift value of cleaning and cooking. I can take you out for a meal, or cook one for you as a gift. Both options are still on the table.

This seems right to me. The mere fact that a lesser form of X is available does not, in and of itself, undermine or debase the ideal form of it. The existence of cliched and unimaginative artworks does not undermine the value of the Mona Lisa. The existence of cheap and tasteless wine does not debase the value of a premier vintage. You would need to show some necessary causal link between the availability of the lesser form of X and a resultant inability to access or appreciate the ideal form. This is not impossible. The origins of the term ‘debasement’ are testament to this. Bad money (debased currency) can drive out good money, according to Gresham’s law, but it is easy to overstate how often this happens. Certainly, when it comes to sex, it seems clear that (at least some) sex workers can have intimate, gift-type sex with their partners, whilst still offering it as a commercial service. Similarly, clients of sex workers can have normal intimate relationships outside of the commercial context.

So premise (2) looks to be implausible. What about premise (1)? This might be plausible but it is worth noting that Anderson isn’t terribly precise about what the distinctive good actually entails. She mentions that it is, in part, about mutual understanding and the offering of oneself to another, but is there more to it? And is that partial good really distinctive of sex? Can we not achieve mutual understanding through other means? Having a long conversation for example. For that matter, do we really achieve mutual understanding through sex? This is a bit vague and high-falutin for my liking. (It’s also not obvious to me that mutual understanding is necessarily a good thing).

Furthermore, as Flanigan points out, not all sex is pursued for the high-falutin reasons favoured by Anderson. Some people have sex for reasons of altruism and mutual understanding. But lots of people don’t. Some people have sex purely for short-term pleasure; some people do it for cynical and self-interested reasons. Some people may even have sex with others for the purpose of revenge or spite. These might not be good motives for having sex, but they don’t, by themselves, debase the ideal form of sex, or prevent others from accessing that ideal form of sex.

Nor, crucially, do they provide us with a reason to prohibit sex work. Sex workers (and their clients) are not unique in having sex for less-than-pure intentions. Why should they be especially punished or policed for doing so?

So premises (1) and (3) of the argument also look to be on shaky grounds. It is not clear what the distinctive good of gift sex really is; if it is purely about mutual understanding then it not clear that sex is the only means of attaining it; and it seems clear that there are other desirable goods (pleasure and gratification) associated with sex. Similarly, it is not clear why the mere fact that commercial sex is a lesser form of sex gives us a good reason to prohibit it.

3. Concluding Thoughts

To be clear, none of this should be taken to provide a decisive argument against the criminalisation of sex work. This is just one small argument among many that would need to be considered. Flanigan’s rebuttal of Anderson presumes that sex workers provide their services consensually. This is often disputed. Furthermore, many people argue that sex work has other negative consequences that would justify its prohibition (e.g. it is harmful to sex workers/societies, it reinforces inequality, it promotes trafficking and so on). These are topics that are considered at length in the Watson-Flanigan debate. I recommend reading their jointly-authored book if you are interested.

In any event, I didn’t write about this argument because I wanted to make a point about sex work. I wrote about it to reflect on the style of argument put forward by Anderson. It is a style of argument that crops up in many areas, including in debates about the ethics of technology, that I have contributed to.

Consider the debate about friendship or intimacy with or through technology (internet friends or robot friends). Opponents of the technology will often argue that although we may be able to achieve some form of friendship or intimacy with or through machines, it will be a lesser form of friendship or intimacy. The fear is that this lesser form of intimacy or friendship will undermine or crowd out the superior form.

I have three problems with this style of argument, many of which are reflected in Flanigan’s criticism of Anderson. First, I think they assume a highly idealised understanding of the value of friendship and intimacy, one that is often far removed from the practical realities of those relationships. For example, debates about friendship and technology often work from the Aristotelian ideal of friendship: a friend is someone with whom you share a life. But many friendships in the real world fall a long way short of that ideal and it is not obvious that this is a bad thing or that we should want all friendships to aspire to this ideal. Friendship, like many other relational goods, is multifaceted. There are different mixes of valuable things associated with it and it is possible to prioritise different ones at different times.

Second, these arguments often assume, with little proof (usually because the technology in question is nascent or speculative) that the lesser form will block access to the ideal form. As noted above, this is a difficult argument to make. Even if it does block access for some people, at some times, this does not completely eradicate the ideal form nor make it impossible to access it. That said, I do think that fears about crowding out are worth taking seriously when it comes to technologies that exist at a sufficient scale and market penetration. But even if there is some crowding out, it’s not obvious that this warrants prohibition or limitation of the technology.

Third, they often assume that the technology will always instantiate the lesser form of friendship or intimacy. With respect to robots, I tend to agree that this is true right now, but I don’t think it will always be true, and I think people often overstate the technological challenges and understate the epistemic problem of knowing whether we are in the more idealised form of relationship. (This is a major theme of my writings on ethical behaviourism. I will leave this can of worms closed for now.) With respect to relationships that take place through technology, e.g. online or in VR, I think the ship has clearly sailed. I have digital-only friends that I would rank as among my closest friends and my experience is far from unique.

So these arguments that assume that an ideal form of X is debased or crowded out by a lesser form of X, are often less persuasive than they first appear.

Originally appeared on Philosophical Disquisitions Read More