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Mercenary sex, his and hers

Notes on:
Lars O. Ericsson, “Charges against Prostitution: An Attempt at a Philosophical Assessment”

[See also Pateman on prostitution.]

Is “mercenary sex” undesirable? Should it be eliminated? Ericsson defends it against many classic charges. Most interesting to me is the source of our discomfort with it.

… I shall argue, [337] the major culprit is the hostile and punitive attitudes which the surrounding hypocritical society adopts toward promiscuous sexual relations in general and prostitution in particular.

Can a society function without heavy doses of hypocrisy? Is it even theoretically possible or is the very nature of the social founded upon a presumption of untruth? For the smallest truths assail us at every point as individuals. We are vulnerable to them, as naked we are against the elements, when we have not others to shield and comfort us. The truths must grow to monstrous proportions before showing themselves capable of toppling the social edifice of our collective denials.

If two adults voluntarily consent to an economic arrangement concerning sexual activity and this activity takes place in private, it seems plainly absurd to maintain that there is [339] something intrinsically wrong with it. In fact, I very much doubt that it is wrong at all. To say that prostitution is intrinsically immoral is in a way to refuse to give any arguments. The moralist simply “senses” or “sees” its immorality. And this terminates rational discussion at the point where it should begin.

In the face of an intense heterocosmic involvement, if one’s ultimate source of value precludes forms of behavior that attach one to worldly pursuits, it is not too difficult to see how pleasure may become tainted and, perforce, the same with anything to do with sex. Some pure forms of this feeling are discernible in certain religious sects (the Shakers, the Jains, etc.) or in certain inspired moralists (Tolstoy) or philosophers (Otto Weininger). Muddier, less pure, inconsistent varieties of this idea, of course, abound in a common persistent squeamishness with discussing sex. (Yes, “sexual revolution” or not, most, perhaps especially those supposedly liberated, are still reluctant to probe central questions around the meaning of sex, perhaps thinking Freud figured that all out long ago. But sex is not an instinct like any other. I will show you differences, as Wittgenstein would put it.) Alas, most of these hypocritical forms are Aristotelian in their appeal to moderation, for the heterocosmic idea is inimical to all forms of sexual life: Weininger, in particular, it seems, ranked the prostitute higher, not lower, than the conventional wife and mother on the scale of misplaced affection. At least, the former seeks, however misguidedly, to minister to the quality, not quantity of life. The prostitute does not waste resources creating more of her own kind. (Of course, Weininger also placed all feminine endeavor outside the purview of conventional, that is to say, male morality. The only ones capable of true morality and, lest we forget, immorality are men. Still, among adiaphorous women, the prostitute, not the mother, stands closer to the goal of disabusing men of illusions about the part sex plays in his role. As such she may pick up where his mother leaves off in his sentimental education.)

… This brings us to another aspect of the sentimentalist charge. It is not seldom a tacit and insiduous presupposition of the sentimentalist’s reasoning that good sex equals intramarital sex, and that bad sex equals extramarital—especially prostitutional—sex. This is just another stereotype, which deserves to be destroyed. Concerning this aspect, Benjamin and Masters make the following comment: “The experience with a prostitute is probably ethically, and may be esthetically, on a higher level than an affectionless intercourse between husband and wife, such as is all too common in our present society.” The demarcation line between marital and mercenary sex is not quality but the contrasting nature of the respective legal arrangements. Furthermore, we must not think that the quality—in terms of physical pleasure—of the sex services of prostitutes varies any less than the quality of “regular” sex. The best prostitutional sex available is probably much better from the customer’s point of view than average marital sex.

The sentimentalistic critique of the prostitute-customer relationship, however, has also another side to it. This consists in the notion that sex without love or affection—sex “pure and simple”—is “no good.” I have already admitted the obvious here—namely, that sex love is a beautiful thing. But this seems to me no reason for embracing the romantic notion [341] that sex without love or mutual affection must be valueless. On the contrary, satisfaction of sexual desires is, qua satisfaction of a basic need, intrinsically good, love or no love.

The argument fails to show that prostitution is undesirable. If it shows an[y]thing at all it shows lack of contact with reality. As I pointed out earlier, sex between lovers hardly dominates the scene of human sex quantitatively. Consequently, the argument entails that a major part of the sex that takes place between humans is worthless. And how interesting is this? Even if correct, it does not show that there is something particularly or distinctively bad about prostitution.

It is likely true and very interesting. It is a fact that plays into the hands of celibacy… And, no, there is nothing particularly bad about prostitution. It may even lead one to enlightenment quicker than whatever we might think to compare it with.

It is also naive to think that an open, honest, and equal relationship between partners would do away with the demand for prostitution. Sexual attraction and the lack of it are largely irrational phenomena and as such they are only marginally influenceable (thank heaven!) by open, honest discussions between equal men and women. Moreover, it is my guess that when equality between the sexes is achieved we will see an increase in the demand for male heterosexual prostitutes. The degree of female frustration that exists today (but is rarely spoken of) will then no longer be tolerated, rationalized, or sublimated, but channeled into a demand for, inter alia, mercenary sex. An outlet which always has been the privilege of men will then also be available to women.

Ericsson mistakenly assumes the feminine experience and conception of sexuality is at all comparable to the male one. Perhaps there might be something like a demand for male prostitutes in the world he entertains here, but the expectations of them would be quite different from what is expected of female prostitutes. They would be expected to gratify in more extended sensual, verbal, and relationally erotic ways than what is usually recognizable as a “sex act” in the rather limited male sexual palette.

Consider the female counterpart to male interest in pornography. It is not erotica in pastels, per se. I am going to suggest it is seeing and imagining extended relational interplay, especially verbal and heavily charged with emotion: e.g., soap operas and, a more recent development, daytime talk shows vacillating between a focus on failing and flourishing relationships. The need for vicarious participation in catharses of feeling, however lacking in depth or richness, is as pervasive among women as is the desire for the two-dimensional stimulant of flattened naked bodies for men. But this rehearsal of desire may be as far as many—women or men—ever get to experiencing the real thing in space and time. The immense popularity of the soap opera and the fact that the bestselling literary genre in modern times is the romance novel are witness to the only real competition for human libidinal resources that pornography has.

Third, and most important of all, it is a mistake to think that prostitution can be made superfluous by eliminating the demand for mercenary sex. For the fact is that the social system where no one would ask for the services of harlots, although imaginable, is so totally unrealistic that no one who has carefully considered the matter can seriously believe that it will ever come to pass. This is neither pessimism nor defeatism but realism.

If some feminists also have, in passing, entertained this thought, it must be due to their having taken too seriously the notion of sexual interchangeability often associated with progressive notions of “equality.” While men are also vulnerable to a similar mistake in other areas—regarding political liberty, for example, as in Mill’s naïve presumption that women appreciate liberty in quite the same way and degree as men—in the area of sexuality, I think men are less likely to be confused. They are not for a moment looking for a mutual experience. The transgressive quality of prostitution is essential to its appeal for him. It is rather the liberty to approach it without the least consideration for her feelings, that is, to indulge in his own animality without anything to suggest reproach. And it is not just that he does not crave mutuality, for even if he should be conditioned to prefer it, he will remain at heart in the dark about it. Female sexuality is very clearly foreign to him; he cannot pretend otherwise very long without self-betrayal. The “sensitive man,” at least in the area of sexual relations, is merely the man who is “trying very, very hard” at a semblance of appreciative mutuality and who, in the nature of the case, will never succeed, but who is looking to get credit for his effort nevertheless.

Male heterosexual prostitution will never be a promising career choice, no matter the fate of the attached social stigma. Most women will seek to have their needs satisfied by other women, or even by their sensual environment, before it would occur to them to be sexual customers.


Ericsson’s argument is largely political. As far as it goes we tend to concur. But as analysis of what is philosophically at stake in prostitution it is barely suggestive. Prostitution is morally problematic, but the consequences of its illegality are even more so for all concerned.


See related comments in Lorenne Clark and pornography.



[Editor’s note: The following notes on Ericsson were made earlier than those above but were misplaced at the time of the original posting and only found and appended here in April of 2006.]

Ericsson offers a defense of prostitution, addressing a list of objections, the most pertinent one for our purposes being his response to feminist charges that women are “reified” or made into objects or commodified for the pleasure of men. Underlying his defense is the belief that human sexuality naturally calls for such an institution as prostitution (and by extension, we presume—though he does not directly make the point in this paper, pornography) and that the social hypocrisy that envelopes prostitution is the real cause of the misuse and abuse of women who engage in “harlotry”, as he refers to it.

He places the blame for that hypocrisy ultimately on a legacy of dualism.


In my view, contempt for whores and contempt for women are closely related. The devaluation of the female sex is a permanent part of the Western tradition of ideas, reinforced by the Christian so-called culture. As an early example, according to Aristotle we should ‘look upon the female state as being as it were a deformity though one which occurs in the ordinary course of nature.’35 And according to Freud, who in many respects echoes Aristotle, woman is pictured as partial man: ‘She [the female child] acknowledges the fact of her castration, and with it too, the superiority of the male.’36 The influence of these and numerous other similar ideas has, with the passage of the years and often in vulgarized form, been sedimented in public opinion.

In a culture where both the female sex and sexuality are devaluated it is only ‘logical’ to place the prostitute—an individual who is not only a female but who also earns her living by means of her female sex by selling sexual services—at the bottom of the scale of social approval.

[Ericsson’s notes]

35 Aristotle, The Generation of Animals, quoted in Caroline Whitbeck, “Theories of Sex Difference,” Philosophical Forum 5, nos. 1 and 2 (1973-74): 54-80, quote from p. 56.

36 Sigmund Freud, Female Sexuality, quoted in Whitbeck, p. 69.


Translated into the tradition just described, this becomes: Pornography catches only the bodily aspect of man, thereby totally disregarding his soul. It is sheer self-deception to retort here that the opposition to pornography is based rather on its commercialistic character, for a nude by Picasso is just as much a commercial object as a copy of Playboy.

This list of examples could be made much longer (the reader is invited to provide examples of his own), but those given should suffice to make it clear that our outlook as far as sex roles, relations between the sexes, and sexuality are concerned is still very much under the influence of time-honored, but primitive, ideas and attitudes—ideas and attitudes which have negative effects not only on prostitution and prostitutes but also on the relations between the sexes generally. I find it particularly sad that so many feminists seem unable to understand that contempt for harlotry involves contempt for the female sex.

Our attitudes toward sexual expression in general, and mercenary sex in particular, ought to be modified or abandoned partly because of the damage that they do, partly because they represent prejudices in the sense that they are rooted in false beliefs. Women are not partial men nor is the female sex a deformity. And the distinction between body and soul, with all its metaphysical and religious ramifications, apart from being philosophically highly dubious, is the source of more human misery than almost any other.

The distinction is indeed ‘primitive’ but not entirely in the unmitigatedly bad sense Ericsson seems to imply. It is also primitive in the sense of being first and essential to what we recognize as ‘human’.

There is a curious inconsistency here. On the one hand, Ericsson wants to validate sexual desire and its gratification in terms that appeal to its naturalness—that is, before its corruption by Christian or Platonic squeamishness or prudery. Its naturalness presumably came first and hence is primitive in one sense. On the other hand, he wants to suggest that we now are capable of rising above the distorting influences of those disingenuous traditions which he then proceeds to call ‘primitive’ in a normative, condescending sense. If it could be shown that the metaphysical dualism (the mind/body or body/soul preoccupation), so decried by Ericsson and many others, is itself just as primitive in the first sense as sex itself, that it is indeed born of physiological sexual dimorphism, that to deny its significance is also to wish for an end to sex itself, it would be to hearken to a much earlier point in our evolutionary development when we reproduced asexually. (Or to a much later time when this may happen again.) The mind/body or soul/body is a very old distinction: we argue that whisperings of it are intimately connected with the division into distinct sexes. Older still than our dioeciousness, is sexlessness. If consciousness does not completely exhaust and destroy sex (and itself in the process—think of Weininger), we may yet return to a less operatic way of taking up space…

Perhaps, Ericsson is intimating, paradoxically, that we should speed the process along…

If women are not partial men (and vice versa), as Ericsson asserts (but Weininger denied), if women and men do not contaminate each other, then what are they to each other? Is each a natural kind all to itself? That would beg the question what possible connection subtends among them? (A mystery comparable to the challenge for dualism of explaining how mind and body interact.) Why in effect do they interbreed? This is not a biological question, rather, a philosophical one. We are asking for a story. Aristophanes [in Plato’s Symposium], for example, provided one…

We can hardly quarrel with Ericsson’s social criticism that common attitudes toward prostitution are quite intolerable. We are saying that their source is more intractable than his presuppostions seem capable of allowing him to admit.

Ericsson, just as many feminists, has swallowed whole the classical liberal notion of equality among the sexes. It is not a wholly unnourishing thing to swallow, but it would be healthier to have chewed longer. At one point he counters an obvious feminist criticism by suggesting that if women do not patronize male prostitutes as avidly as men do female ones, it is the fault of their repressed upbringing. Remedying that condition would, we are supposed to infer, even the score. But how meaningful to me is an ‘equality’ that offers me the opportunity to engage in something that I am not interested in? Ask women what service—frowned upon by respectable society—they would really like to purchase even at the risk of going to jail. It is not likely to be sex—at least as that term is understood by men.*

It may not always have been the case and there may yet come a time when it will no longer be, but there are not now human beings in existence.† There are only men and women in various degrees of purity. To paraphrase Diogenes addressing Plato, “Show me your chairness, I want to sit on it.”

Editor’s Notes

*What answer is Luno insinuating would be forthcoming? Based on comments elsewhere, we suggest he may have in mind, as the moral equivalent of prostitution and pornography for women, soap operas, romance novels, the psychological consulting industry (whose clientele is overwhelmingly female), even mundane conversation over tea… But notice these are all perfectly legal and, though not universally respected pastimes, are rarely subject to moral censure. Their legality is consistent with his Weininger-derived claim that law and criminality are essentially, not accidentally, male spheres. Prostitution, in other words, carries the stigma it does because men cannot find their way to self-control except by criminalizing things and women become, almost naturally, culpable as aiders and abettors. But then she is an “aider and abettor” in almost everything. The prostitute is resented for being the temptation she is for him. What service (comparable to sex) would women pay for and for which that they would also risk going to jail? Insofar as “going to jail” meant one had foresworn one’s ties to society, the answer would be nothing. Luno writes, “Women are never innocent bystanders, they are engaged bystanders and want to be so—but they are always still bystanders. Criminality—keeping in mind the full meaning of the word and the isolation it entails—is never a female temptation, let alone fantasy. Drawn into it under duress or because she cannot ever really say ‘no’ and mean it (because of the betrayal that would mean of what is most holy to her: relationship), yes, but, in its purity, isolation is the one thing she cannot eroticize.”

†Luno writes, “What is ‘natural’ changes. We are not condemned to preserve what is or once was natural to us. Like it or not, we cannot go back to seeing our evolutionary development from animals as undoable. Consciousness, not biology, forbids this. Reptiles may have come from amphibians who came from fish, but reptiles can drown. But it would not occur to reptiles to think otherwise as it sometimes does to those of us—repositories of nature’s conceit.”

Posted by luno in prostitution, philosophy and sex, pornography, female criminality, sex differences, male criminality (Friday December 30, 2005 at 2:56 pm)

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