Brian Esperon - YouTube

UChicago Professor, Martha Nussbaum, wrote an excellent article in The Journal of Legal Studies, which explores (and refutes) six arguments against the legalization of prostitution. The article title, "'Whether from Reason or Prejudice’: Taking Money for Bodily Services," is a reference to Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. Smith writes about stage performers, like singers and dancers, whose work is considered respectable, only if unpaid. If they are paid, their work is considered, “whether from reason or prejudice, as a sort of publick prostitution.”

Nowadays, only the most bilious prude would disparage opera singers and Broadway actors as public prostitutes. If the internet has taught me nothing else, it's that opinions always span the entire gamut of possibilities, so I can't rule out a small cohort of people who think that performers are whores. Nussbaum's startling revelation that entertainers, who were too poor to work for free, were commonly thought to be debasing themselves, at the time that The Wealth of Nations was written, reflects the dominance of aristocratic values in 18th Century Great Britain. Today, we would think it is ridiculous and highly prejudiced to compare entertainers to prostitutes, just because they demand payment.

But what about prostitutes themselves? While prostitution is legal in a handful of developed countries, and in Nevada, the public perception of prostitution continues to be overwhelmingly negative. This requires no citation, as far as I am concerned. Related fields, such as Adult Film and "Cam Girls" are similarly prejudged as morally repulsive. The rise of websites such as Only Fans, which seek to democratize sex work, and empower sex workers, has sparked a public conversation, especially among young people online, as to whether sex work deserves the condemnation.

"All of us," Nussbaum writes in her piece, "with the exception of the independently wealthy and the un-employed, take money for the use of our body. Professors, factory workers, lawyers, opera singers, prostitutes, doctors, legislators—we all do things with parts of our bodies for which we receive a wage in return." In other words, knowledge work is selling your body, too. Selling your brain is a manner of selling your body, since your brain is part of your body.

I realize how offensive this statement might be to some people. But it is worth asking ourselves, Why? What is at stake for you, in your emotional calculus, when you feel the need to distance yourself from prostitutes, and by extension, when you feel this pang of contempt for sex workers? What is it about what you do for wages, that is so much better than what a whore does? You may be tempted simply to say that selling sex is not respectable, but that simply begs the question. Is sex work considered skeevy because it's not respectable? Or is it not respectable, because it's skeevy? That is the question.

Rather than rehearse the same arguments, which Nussbaum has already schematized so well, for me it's instructive to raise similar arguments in vernacular terms. "It's easy money," you might say. The implication being that you should not earn a living from the easy ways to make money, but rather the hard ways to make money. And I agree, there is something to this notion. The idea of a bright young woman, who could have become a nuclear physicist, becoming a prostitute instead, because she could make more money more quickly and with less effort, seems tragic both for her and for society at large.

But the condemnation of "easy money," may be more of an exercise in kidding oneself, than a rational argument. As with any other source of money, sex work is a highly competitive field. Data scientists have analyzed Only Fans data, and have determined that most accounts take home less than $145 per month (after commission). "The modal revenue is $0.00, and the next most common is $4.99." Depending upon the number of hours required to create and post OF content, creators may be earning less than minimum wage.

"There is something sacred about sex," you may say. Again, there is something to this notion, which I tend to agree with. However, most people have no qualms about casual sex. They have either engaged in casual sex themselves, or they reserve judgment about their own close friends who do so. It may not be your personal preference to have casual sex. But chances are, you are not breaking up with your friends who do; whereas, you would likely stop speaking to a friend, if you found out she was selling sex. If it is unproblematic to have a one-night-stand, it should be equally unproblematic to charge a fee for doing so.

"In sex work, you sell your body, whereas in real work, you sell your expertise." Again, I understand the intuition here. It feels like there is something different about selling your skills as a carpenter or an administrator, versus selling your orifices to be f**ked. However, as anyone who has ever had sex knows, sex is a skill. And sex workers, presumably, sell their expertise. Conversely, your expertise is stored in your brain and deployed by your body, in any kind of labor. A worker whose body is totally paralyzed, for example, would not be able to transmit their expertise to a paying employer.

Perhaps the best argument, which I have heard, tries to differentiate and stratify virtue on a scale of "mindfulness" versus bodily labor, the latter being lower class. But again, this simply begs the question. Is lower class work lower class because it is paid less? Or is it paid less because it is lower class? It seems to me technology has already made countless knowledge workers redundant, and soon language models may make the likes of doctors and lawyers redundant too. Philosophically, one must admit that human dignity does not derive from the market value of one's skills. Moreover, if knowledge were the essence of Mind, then knowledge work would indeed be far, far more intimate than sex work.

Personally, I find it both practical and morally edifying to identify as a whore. Just like Black people have re-appropriated the N-word, and feminists have reclaimed "Bitches," as terms of endearment in the context of radical inclusion, I wholeheartedly identify as a "Whore." I have sold my brain up and down Park Avenue. I have put my body in places where I did not want to put it, namely, in an office chair, for 60+ hours per week. If you employ me, I will toe the company line, regardless of whether I truly believe in your product. I will service the clients with a smile on my face, and the enthusiasm of an Oscar-winning performance. To me, that is what work is.

It is nice enough if you believe in the things that you sell, but it's certainly not a prerequisite to work. I don't think it would be fair to disparage people who find themselves in the position of hocking products or ideas, which they do not believe in. Knowledge work may take less of a toll on our bodies than, say, factory work or other types of "manual" labor. But it is not 100% clear that this is even true. "Burnout" may well be a type of brain damage, which is harder to heal than a musculoskeletal injury. The brain scan data are not there to determine what burnout looks like in physiological terms.

Attitudes change, and what may in one era be attributed to reason, in another era is exposed as prejudice. Attitudes may change about sex work, but my hope is that attitudes change to reflect a more accurate and enlightened definition of what it means to be a whore in the first place. I do think there is a definition of whoredom, which could serve as a sort of philosophical North Star to delineate what it means to take a wage for one's labor in a good way, versus taking a wage for one's labor in a bad way. Drawing this line would be fraught with pitfalls, and in the absence of equality of economic opportunity, would only serve to revise prejudices with other prejudices.

What would this definition look like? Let's say that the people who continue to take money from selling a product or service, which they cannot deny is detrimental to society, when they have already achieved material comfort, are whores. This includes many professions thought to be noble. Such as selling (directly or indirectly) student loans, usurious debts of all kinds, punitive banking fees, ultra processed food products, consumer airline tickets, beach side hotel towers, ego trips, unnecessary surgeries or implants, highly addictive social media apps, fossil fuels, frivolous lawsuits, lifestyle brands, political commentary, coercive rent extraction, bureaucratic scope creep, and countless other delusions.

To me, it makes sense to choose to be paid to cause harm, or simply to bleed resources in an ostensibly benign fashion, if one is destitute. But how do you go about your daily life causing harm, when you are not destitute? That should be the truest sense of what it meant to be a whore. Many highly respected people fall into this category. Ross Douthat, for instance, is one of my favorite pontificators (his term, not mine), and he sells political commentary. I find his public comments about abortion to be self-serving red meat tossed directly into the mouths of the people who pay his salary. On many other topics, he seems willing to admit his own uncertainty, but somehow he is miraculously certain about one of life's greatest mysteries: When exactly the immortal soul enters the human baby. Uncoincidentally, the arbitrary moment he has chosen to be certain of is one that is the most punishing and damning to women as possible.

Unfortunately, what makes us whores is the predicament we find ourselves in, which we shall not escape in the absence of (likely bloody) political revolution. I don't blame Mr. Douthat, in other words, for being a musty whore. If he wasn't willing to be one, he probably wouldn't be making a salary. Nor would I expect him to admit ever, not in a million years, that he might be a whore. NO! He is one of the lucky people, the few, the ones who do what they love and get paid for it, who do well and do good at once. OK. Tell that to Polish woman who died of sepsis, because they doctors decided the paperwork would be just too risky if they were to save her life. Ross Douthat is smart enough to know the way abortion limitations are administered. He knows there will be collateral damage, he just doesn't care about the collateral damage, when it's stupid whores.

The question of "selling out," moral whoredom, is a question that the late David Graeber explored in, "Bullshit Jobs: A Theory," which I highly recommend. In that book, David Graeber hypothesizes that pay is inversely correlated with the societal value of one's work. Graeber identifies, for example, a class of corporate courtiers, i.e. people who are paid handsomely to do next-to-nothing, because they serve the purpose of flattering the egos of important people. To be fair, Graeber does not equate "bullshit jobs" to being a whore, and he does not openly condemn people who take bullshit jobs. Instead, he points out how morally conflicted and ashamed these people say they feel. Maximizing utility for minimal effort should feel like winning, according to market logic, and yet it does not.

David Graeber was a genius, and I am probably not a genius. I suspect he was wise not to tell corporate lawyers and government bureaucrats that they are whores, though I suspect he believed that to be true. However, I would like to de-stigmatize the very term. In the manner of Oprah Winfrey, I would like to lead the cheer: "I'm a whore. You're a whore. EVERYBODY is a whore." And there is something wrong with that, but it isn't what you think.

I want to thank Sean Miller, who wrote an excellent three part blog post, which masterfully explicates Professor Nussbaum's article. I also want to thank Sean for providing the link to the free version of her article.