In this Jewish season of farce, a lecherous ruler (King Achashverosh) is mocked for his desire to have a pretty woman (Queen Vashti) dance for his court wearing nothing but the royal crown. Truth, of course, is even stranger than fiction, as another lecherous ruler (Eliot Spitzer) has been mocked for his desire to have pretty women (the ladies of Emperors Club VIP) go a bit further than dancing. Spitzer’s behavior is contemptible and, quite frankly, I think he has richly earned the abundant scorn being heaped upon him from all corners. In all the media frenzy to cover this juicy story from as many angles as possible, however, there has been one aspect in particular that has intrigued us here at Virtual Talmud–the question of whether prostitution should in fact be criminalized or whether the type of establishment that Eliot Spitzer, um, patronized, should be legal and regulated (one of the best such analyses is at Slate.com).
Let me start by saying clearly that this isn’t a question of whether Spitzer’s own behavior is in any way excusable or appropriate; it’s not. The man repeatedly committed adultery and ultimately humiliated his wife and teenage daughters, exposing the hypocrisy of a holier-than-thou public figure who was blatantly violating the law.
But should his actions have been illegal? There are some compelling public policy arguments to be made about why prostitution should be legalized – that instead of laboring in dangerous conditions women in the sex-trade should be moved to brothels where they wouldn’t face the same degree of danger from violence, unprotected sex, and working the streets (although according to Monday’s Times, only one in five prostitutes actually solicits on the streets). Against this the claim is made that sex-work is inherently degrading, although it must be said that many of the (legal) options for underprivileged men and women to earn a living are pretty degrading as well.
Jewish tradition, on the other hand, is unequivocal in banning prostitution, starting with the verse, “Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute, that the land not become prostituted and full of depravity.” (Lev. 19:29). In legal sources, prostitution is roundly condemned as a violation of both human dignity and a threat to the structure of the family. In part this is precisely because Judaism does not treat human sexuality as something dirty or disgraceful, but as a normal part of a healthy life and one that, within the bounds of a sanctified relationship, can even be a vehicle for holiness. It is precisely this potential for healthy–and even holy–sexuality that prostitution undermines, turning sex into a commodity instead of an important part of a loving and mutually-respectful relationship. The point about threatening family structures is important as well: in countries where prostitution has been legalized such as Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands, demand has gone up: clearly more men will avail themselves of a prostitute’s services if they can safely and legally do so than otherwise would. While not every man who hires prostitutes is married or otherwise betraying a committed relationship, many surely are and it is neither ethical nor good public policy to make this sort of behavior easier.
The fact remains that there are compelling arguments to be made on both sides of the legalization debate and the plight of women who are forced to choose (or are simply forced into) the sex trade cannot be overlooked. But we need to take this fact as a call for tougher enforcement and to provide poor women with more opportunities for decent paying legal jobs, rather than a signal to throw the doors open to a policy that degrades us as individuals and as a society.