Le Québécois Libre, 15 avril 2012, No 299.
Sex is a charged issue, and rightly so. Among the most important decisions we make in our lives are whom to have sex with and under what circumstances. These decisions directly impact our happiness and entail potentially life-altering repercussions in terms of pregnancy and parenthood, sexually transmitted diseases, jealousy-fuelled hurt or anger leading to violence, and so on. Not to put too fine a point on it, but some care is called for in deciding what kind of a sex life to have.
But are your decisions about sex any of my business? Assuming you do not initiate force against me or anyone else, what do I care how you conduct your sex life? Who, what, why, how, how many, and how often are personal choices directly affecting you and your partner(s) and, generally, no one else. Neither I, nor the state, should have any say in the voluntary goings on that take place behind bedroom doors. Three stories that made the news in recent weeks illustrate just how far modern attitudes have come in this regard.
Stark Raving Mad
To argue that no one should have a say in the voluntary choices others make is not to argue that individuals cannot express their opinions about those choices, of course. Bombastic radio personality Rush Limbaugh exercised his right to free speech in no uncertain terms on his program six weeks ago when he called a Georgetown law student a “slut.” After which many advertisers exercised their rights to freedom of association by dropping their support of Limbaugh’s show, despite the radio host having issued an apology.
The underlying issue that whipped Limbaugh into a lather was a new federal insurance mandate requiring contraceptive coverage, which this particular student supported and which Republicans tried and failed to overturn. Now, as a libertarian, I believe it is indeed wrong to force some people to provide insurance that covers contraceptives. It is wrong for the same reason that every other government intervention into the health care market, or any other market, is wrong. The simple fact is that initiating force is wrong, period.
But Limbaugh calling this student a slut is nonetheless objectionable. (He also called her a prostitute, based on the laughable claim that she wanted to be paid to have sex, as if her support for the contraception mandate means she is willing to trade sex for money.) Calling a woman a slut betrays an attitude that judges female promiscuity, but not male promiscuity, as something bad and shameful. Limbaugh is entitled to his opinion. And I’m entitled to think he’s a sexist pig for thinking the way he does, and a doofus for expressing it on his radio program and distracting from the legitimate matter at hand, which was the issue of force versus freedom.
Lifting the Brothel Ban
Speaking of trading sex for money, it may soon become easier to do so, at least in the province of Ontario. Prostitution is actually legal in Canada, although many activities surrounding it are not. But in late March, the Ontario Court of Appeal struck down certain provisions of Canada’s anti-prostitution laws, specifically those preventing sex workers from hiring drivers, bodyguards and support staff and from working in brothels. The Court suspended the implementation of its decision for a year in order to give the government the chance to amend the Criminal Code.
Social conservatives objected, of course (though none as tactlessly as Limbaugh to the contraception mandate, as far as I can tell). Justice Minister Rob Nicholson stated, “As the prime minister has said, prostitution is bad for society and harmful to communities, women and vulnerable persons.” He added that the government was reviewing its options. Rather less stiffly, National Post columnist Father Raymond J. de Souza wrote of “women forced to turn tricks” and of “a trade that invites people of repellant moral character to degrade the poor and vulnerable for depraved pleasure or commercial gain.”
It is not out of moral relativism that I respectfully disagree with conservatives like Nicholson and de Souza on the issue of prostitution. I believe that sex for money falls far short of the ideal of sex within the context of romantic love, and I feel the same about casual sex, to be honest. But it is in the nature of a voluntary exchange that each party to that exchange expects to get something out of it (or it would not occur) and usually does get something out of it (or it would not recur). If one party does it for sexual pleasure and another does it primarily for money, what business is it of mine to tell them to stop?
And I’m sorry, but the concern evinced by conservatives for prostitutes themselves rings hollow, because it is much easier to abuse prostitutes when the illegality of the profession discourages them from seeking police protection from such abuse. As for those who claim that prostitution makes it easier for men to cheat, a) prostitution is not going away, and b) seriously? Cheaters gonna cheat, man. And who says every john is a cheater? Bottom line: sex is a good thing, even absent romantic love, and if you ask me, this is what rubs social conservatives the wrong way.
A Change Is as Good as a Rest
Finally, another recent story throws our changing attitudes about sex into relief. Three weeks ago, the Miss Universe Canada beauty pageant announced that one of its 65 finalists, Jenna Talackova, would not be allowed to compete because although she is a woman, she was born a boy. Responding to widespread outcry, businessman Donald Trump, who owns the Miss Universe organization, has since reinstated the lovely Ms. Talackova, and the organization is changing its rules to allow transgender women to participate in all future pageants. Score another one for our evolving sexual mores!
On the surface, these three stories could not be more different from a libertarian point of view: the contraception mandate is a violation of Americans’ rights (though a small one in a sector of the market that is riddled with them); the overturning of the ban on brothels is a solid win for the rights of Ontarians; and the fate of the transgender beauty contestant does not concern anyone’s rights directly at all, since (as Jesse Kline points out) the Miss Universe organization is a private one that can exclude whom it pleases for whatever reason it chooses without violating anyone’s rights. In a private, voluntary transaction, all parties have the right to say “no thanks.” That’s what “voluntary” means.
Yet despite this important difference, these three stories do all point to the fact that modern attitudes about sex—whether we’re talking about promiscuity, paying for sex, or trading in your wee-wee for some ta-tas—have evolved in a more tolerant direction. It’s not that we always approve of the sexual choices others make, of course. But we are increasingly okay with letting them make those choices, and that is important from the point of view of liberty. It is important because the less people need to hide or apologize for their voluntary behaviour, the less easily they can be controlled by authoritarians. So love ’em or hate ’em, we should all raise a glass to sluts, whores, and transgender beauty queens everywhere.
* Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.