As the 2020 election season ramps up in the United States, Democratic candidates for president have been unveiling the platforms they intend to propose to the American electorate. One of the more controversial propositions that is under discussion is a push to decriminalize prostitution.
U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor and California attorney general, said, “When you are talking about consenting adults, we should really consider that we can’t criminalize consensual behavior as long as no one is being harmed.” New Jersey Senator Cory Booker agreed, “especially when [criminalization] causes even more harm for those involved.”
The current debate, framed as it is in terms of sexual license between adults capable of consent, obscures the ancient roots of the social struggle to regulate prostitution. Not only has it consumed the attention of lawmakers for centuries, but it also has sparked dispute among saints.
Medieval historian James Brundage wrote of Augustine’s view that he “formulated the classical Christian rationale” for tolerating prostitution in society, believing that “if you remove harlots from society, you will disrupt everything because of lust.” Brundage noted that Augustine’s view on prostitution contrasted significantly from his disapproval of other forms of sexual misconduct and speculated that it could have been a product of Augustine’s class bias.
But Augustine’s acceptance of the social value of “comfort women” may have stemmed from a simpler reason. Before his conversion, Augustine confessed that he’d had a longtime lover with whom he had a son. Later, while preparing for marriage, he kept another woman as a lover to assuage his lust:
My mistress was torn from my side as an impediment to my marriage, and my heart which clung to her was torn and wounded till it bled. And she went back to Africa, vowing to [God] never to know any other man and leaving with me my natural son by her. But I, unhappy as I was, and weaker than a woman, could not bear the delay of the two years that should elapse before I could obtain the bride I sought. And so, since I was not a lover of wedlock so much as a slave of lust, I procured another mistress—not a wife, of course.
St. Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas followed Augustine in his toleration for prostitution, arguing that allowance for the practice in society prevented graver evils:
In human government . . . those who are in authority rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain greater evils be incurred: thus Augustine says: “If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust.” Hence, though unbelievers sin in their rites, they may be tolerated, either on account of some good that ensues therefrom, or because of some evil avoided.
It’s important to note that Augustine and Aquinas weren’t arguing for the decriminalization of prostitution, nor were they arguing that prostitution should be considered to be a moral good. Augustine and Aquinas were considering whether an immoral practice ought to be tolerated by civil authorities, and they argued that prostitution could be tolerated so as to prevent graver social evils from springing up in its place.
In Augustine’s case, Brundage reports that Augustine feared that outlawing prostitution would mean that men would “turn their lustful attentions to respectable matrons and other virtuous women.” Elsewhere in the Summa Theologica, Aquinas argued that “simple fornication, which is committed without injustice to another person [as distinguished from other sexual sins that create injustice to other persons, such as spouses], is the least grave among the species of lust.”
St. Alphonsus Liguori
Alphonsus Liguori has been named by the Church as the patron saint of moral theologians, but his magnum opus on the subject, Theologia Moralis, is little known in the English-speaking world. Until a few years ago, it hadn’t been translated from Latin into English.
Liguori tackles the subject of prostitution in detail, laying out the opinions of moralists who preceded him, including Augustine and Aquinas. He finds Augustine’s and Aquinas’s arguments in favor of tolerating the existing practice of prostitution to be “probable” (permitted). Liguori himself, however, prefers the argument against toleration offered by other moralists, calling this argument “more probable”:
In lustful men lust plants deeper roots through easy and frequent sex with prostitutes; and so, when the frequency of this vice increases all the more, they do not cease committing pollution and heinous sins [i.e., graver sexual sins that sex with prostitutes was supposed to prevent] . . . and therefore they do not abstain from soliciting upright women. On the other hand, when prostitution is permitted other innumerable evils are added [e.g., more prostitutes are created, children are corrupted, and marriage is devalued].
In American society today, when an outlawed practice is made legal, all too often the assumption is made that the practice is moral—and, if moral, that people also have a right to engage in that practice. We saw this happen when abortion was legalized in the U.S. in 1973.
Likewise, the current debate isn’t only about tolerating prostitution for the sake of some higher good; it’s also about convincing society to recognize prostitution as morally good and a human right. Julia Salazar, a New York state senator who has been working to legalize prostitution in her state, argued:
Sex workers are workers, and they deserve to be treated with dignity, including protections and decent working conditions, rather than the abuse and criminalization that they currently face. I’m dedicated to defending workers’ rights, reforming our criminal justice system, and ending exploitation, and we know that criminalization puts everyone in sex work at risk rather than protecting them.
“Sex workers” are not simply a class of workers in need of labor rights. They are human persons possessing innate human dignity and personal rights. Rather than treated in a transactional way based solely upon the sometimes dangerous sexual practices in which they engage, prostitutes should be assisted in finding morally good and dignified work by which they may support themselves and their dependents.
The Church teaches that the best way to protect the human dignity and rights of those caught up in prostitution is to recognize “sex work” as a “social scourge” (CCC 2355) and an insult to human dignity:
Whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed (Gaudium et Spes 27).
The Church’s understanding of the social ramifications of prostitution may have evolved over time, but it has always taught that sex outside of marriage is immoral and that treating sex like a commodity devalues both marriage and the dignity of human persons. Decriminalization of sex work may seem to be an answer, but the Church has learned over the past two millennia that legalization has the potential to create more problems than it would solve.