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March 14, 2008


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Ones hopes, Mr. Shapiro, that you are attempting to use irony. Disparaging generalizations are a curious mechanism for improving a debate.


I take issue with Professor Nussbaum’s post because I believe, perhaps naively, that more is expected on this blog. I think that Professor Nussbaum meant to argue that because the United States does not enact, or at least does not enforce, laws against extramarital sexual encounters provided on pro bono basis, it should not have laws against similar services provided for a fee. She might have couched the argument in terms of Mr. Spitzer having purchased an $80,000 car for his mistress, a scenario that likely would not have led to his resignation (assuming that it was his money to do with as he pleased). Though she compiled some interesting observations that might have supported such a discussion, she did not ask us to consider this line of thought. So, in the spirit she adopts, I will offer a few points on her post as written.

Professor Nussbaum argues that it is ridiculous that we have laws against prostitution. Fair enough, but it seems a bit strange that Professor Nussbaum’s argument relies on an assumption to which she pays only passing attention in her post: the harms, if any, resulting from prostitution, and perhaps “sex work” in general, do not rise to a level justifying intervention of the laws. In her words, “That it is sex that these women do, with many customers, should not in and of itself trouble us, from the point of view of legality, even if we personally don't share the woman's values.” Professor Nussbaum and Europe say that we should not be troubled, so stop being troubled! And once you have stopped being troubled, get rid of the law.

Suspecting, perhaps, that blogs ought to be longer than a sentence, especially if they are to adequately insult a nation as large as the United States, Professor Nussbaum brings to bear her extensive knowledge of history. Stigmas, we learn, often attached to taking money for services. Since it was silly to stigmatize opera singers for taking money, it is silly to scorn sex performers for taking money. Ah yes, if you get paid for it, it can’t be all that bad, right? Except, of course, if you are paid to do something that breaks the laws! Again, her argument relies on the initial, thinly supported, assumption that the harms, if any, flowing from sex work do not justify legal intervention. If the assumption is valid, the rest of the post is gratuitously insulting. If her argument is invalid, the rest of the post is gratuitously insulting and also wrong.

Much better, I think, to have adopted the University of Chicago manner of analysis. What are the long-term and short-term harms of prostitution? Let’s consider harms to primary actors, families, and society in general. As noted, we must consider the teaching function performed by changes in law. Let’s weigh these harms against benefits of legalizing prostitution. Europe has legalized it? Splendid, we have might have a wealth of empirical evidence to consider.


Worth noting as well that Shakespeare dealt with this issue quite well in Measure for Measure.


Perhaps someone can tell me: has Professor Nussbaum endorsed the selling of organs? The selling of votes? I'm sure she must endorse them, at least for poor women.

As for me, I will continue to endorse the apparently grotesque notion that there needn't be a market in everything.


How does Prof. Nussbaum reconcile her post with the Mr. Spitzer's own statements.

Mr. Spitzer endorsed precisely the kind of American Puritanism that Prof. Nussbaum laments. Mr. Spitzer said upon resignation, "[o]ver the course of my public life, I have insisted I believe correctly, that people, regardless of their position or power, take responsibility for their conduct. I can and will ask no less of myself. For this reason, I am resigning from the office of governor."

So perhaps it was not the "hue and cry" of American Puritanism that "ruined" Mr. Spitzer. Perhaps it was the "hue and cry" of his own conscience.

By resigning, didn't Mr. Spitzer make certain his unequivocal endorsement of the view that private acts can compromise public service?

And isn't it strange that Prof. Nussbaum would now try to defend Mr. Spitzer with an argument that he so profoundly rejected.



Your shocking snobbery knows no limits, it seems. Such contempt you have for the many people--more ordinary, to be sure, but no more mean-spirited or puritanical than yourself--whom you smear for their insistence that they not be governed by hypocrites. Eliot Spitzer sought and attained the power to throw people in jail, and then exercised that power selectively, to punish everyone except himself and his favorite escort. Surely you know that as the Attorney General he had the discretion to go easy on sex workers, and that as Governor he could have proposed the decrimninalization of prostitution. But he did neither.

I fail to see how tolerance for that kind of corruption makes you, or him, or any of us, for that matter, better.

Valentina Urbanek

I agree with many of the facts cited by Professor Nussbaum in her defense of Spitzer, but I disagree with the conclusions that she draws from them.

For example, I agree with Professor Nussbaum that prostitutes are stigmatized. However, I worry that the stigma runs deep, deeper than the stigma that used to be attached to opera singers or actresses. To be truly an equal to others in society, people must have self-respect, and selling sex often erodes one's self-respect. One need not have Puritanical ideas about sex in order to think that selling sex is not like any other kind of labor, even other stigmatized labor. Sex is inextricably linked with one's self-image, one's sense of self-worth, and one's worth in society. Perhaps this isn't everyone's view of sex, but I think that it's a widely held view, and might even be the view of many prostitutes. Plausibly, selling sex is self-destructive in ways that other labor is not, and destroyed selves cannot be fully-fledged members of a society of equals. On the premise that selling sex erodes self-respect, and having self-respect is a necessary condition of being a fully-fledged member of a society of equals, in hiring a female prostitute, Spitzer perpetuated the inequality of women in society.

I agree with Professor Nussbaum that the difference between a female prostitute and a female professor is not the difference between a "good woman" and a "bad woman". Rather, as Professor Nussbaum points out, "It is, usually, the difference between a prosperous well-educated woman and a poor woman with few employment options." This was certainly true of Spitzer's prostitute. She had been abused as a child, as many prostitutes are. She had not graduated from high school. Her boyfriend had just broken up with her, and so she was moving home to live with her mother because she could not afford rent. She had a court appointed attorney to handle her subpoena because she could not afford a lawyer. She had dreams of being a singer. I was struck by the class difference, the power difference, and the difference in wealth and opportunity between her and Spitzer. However, in learning these details about her, I thought that Spitzer owed her an apology for, rather than helping her make a better life for herself, enabling her to make bad decisions. Someone of Spitzer's means ought to help a woman who is a prostitute, not by hiring her, but by helping her find other opportunities for her life.

I agree with Professor Nussbaum that many prostitutes are abused and exploited by their pimps, they are harassed, they are at grave risks to their health, and enforcing laws against prostitution may in fact make things worse for some women. Given these facts, it may be the case that regulating prostitution by making it legal is the best that society can do. However, if the justification for legalizing prostitution derives from facts about how to best protect women, then the fact that prostitution should be legal would not by itself exonerate Spitzer in his role as a public official who hired a prostitute. Whether or not he broke any laws may very well be besides the point in an argument about whether or not he should have resigned, for I do not think that the laws themselves carve out a public and a private space. Prostitution could be destructive to individuals and to society even if we are right to legalize it, simply because the laws are not created under perfectly ideal conditions.

As a final point, if Spitzer had had multiple affairs without hiring prostitutes, then I do not think that he would have owed the public an apology nor do I think that he would have been compelled to resign. I detest the way that the public pries into the private lives of politicians, and fear that it keeps many qualified people away from these important jobs. So, I do not think that reactions to prostitution are necessarily inspired by Puritanical ideas about sex. However, I believe that Spitzer, in hiring a prostitute, did betray the public's trust. He betrayed the public's trust by exploiting society's most vulnerable members. So, I think that he owed an apology, not only to his wife and daughters, but also to his prostitute and to the public, and he did well to resign from office.

James Joseph '94

Professor Nussbaum, how does it square with your thesis about Puritanism that the admission of multiple infidelities by David Paterson (Spitzer's successor) and his wife was met with a collective shrug?


I think Nussbaum's article was well-written and enhanced the dialogue around sex work. As an attorney representing the rights of sex workers I applaud her insightful comments and encourage others to expand their minds around the issue(s), increase the dialogue on women's sexuality and to base their viewpoints around sex work on evidence from the voices of sex workers themselves.

Tony Danza

Oh, Nussbaum almost manages to avoid the blatant stupidity of so much liberalist philosophy, but then we start talking about sex and...well...

Having just read the chapter of Upheavals of Thought in which she explicitly argues that social institutions and policies may legitimately be directed at producing psychologically healthy people, I really don't know why on earth she thinks prostitution shouldn't be illegal. We can talk all day about the merits and demerits of criminalizing it, but it seems quite clear that we have to choose between actively discouraging it and believing that it's not especially problematic. One need only read some of the previous posts that try to argue for legalization even while admitting the moral horrors involved to see how outright schizophrenic that position is. At least Nussbaum realized that she had to pretend that prostitution is somehow no different than being a professor or an opera singer if she wanted the argument to fly.

I'm usually quite sympathetic to Nussbaum's work, but here I simply have to say: get real, and get consistent.

Michael Korn

Prof. Nussbaum,

I respectfully disagree with this statement in your opinion piece about Gov. Spitzer:

A man who did what Spitzer did would have a lot to discuss with his wife and family, but he would have broken no laws, and it would be laughable to accuse him of a betrayal of the public trust. This is as it should be. If Spitzer broke any laws, they were bad laws, laws that should never have existed.

The issue of how he paid up to $2000 per hour for high class prostitution services, presumably with public money he earned in his position as Governor, is a great example of betrayal of the public trust.

But if you would want to argue that his main crime was theft and embezzlement rather than graft and corruption, I might be willing to agree with you.

Michael Korn

PS see these:


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