Fourteen percent of American men say they've paid for sex. Credit: Thinkstock

A weak sentence can undermine a strong argument. The other day I read Steve Chapman’s libertarian case for legalized prostitution. Then I read a moral case against it, made by Sarah Marshall in the New Republic. I won’t say one writer was right and the other wrong; they frame the question differently and reach different conclusions, and it is up to you to frame the question for yourself the way you want to.

But I wish Marshall had been told to rewrite the sentence that mangled her essay.

Chapman’s point is that prostitution is a vast business that can be pushed underground, “where abuses are more likely and harder to detect,” but that can’t be banned. And that’s why Amnesty International “recently endorsed the decriminalization of ‘sex work,'” Chapman writes, a position supported by “the World Health Organization, Anti-Slavery International and the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women.” 

Prostitution might be a “terrible way to earn a living,” Chapman argues, but prostitutes have concluded that “their other options” are worse. And most are “rational adults” living a life they chose.

Marshall is reviewing the book Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution, by Rachel Moran, which became a best-seller in Ireland when it was published there in 2013. Her argument against prostitution, says Marshall, “demands the reader see decency, not autonomy, as a society’s cardinal virtue.” It assumes that the choice of prostitution, like the choice of stealing bread, can be both rational and tragic, made only “because she is utterly desperate and lacks any other viable choices.” Moran’s prime example of prostitution’s miseries is herself. “At age 14, I was placed in the care of the state after my father committed suicide and because my mother suffered from mental illness,” she wrote recently in the New York Times, “Within a year, I was on the streets with no home, education or job skills. All I had was my body. At 15, I met a young man who thought it would be a good idea for me to prostitute myself. As ‘fresh meat,’ I was a commodity in high demand.”

Marshall tells us Moran remained a commodity until she was 22, when she quit prostitution to find “what was left of my original self.” 

Until she read Paid For, Marshall saw prostitution as a “necessary evil” to be tolerated and regulated, and herself as someone favoring a “pragmatic approach” to an “indelible part of society.” Moran changed her mind by making “a simple yet blisteringly powerful argument: Prostitution does not need to exist just because it always has . . .”

Marshall is bringing her review to its climax here and I’m wondering if she’s changing my mind too. Chapman had won me over—I’m a sucker for live-and-let-live pitches. But Marshall has me thinking that prostitution’s enormous numbers—Chapman said 14 percent of American men, or about 17 million, admit to having paid for sex—can be interpreted as a business that isn’t going anywhere but also as a lobby for sexual objectification that in size dwarfs the NRA lobby for guns.

At any rate, Marshall goes on to say, “. . . To argue that prostitution is a fact of life is, Moran would seem to suggest, akin to making the same argument about domestic violence or child molestation. It means taking for granted that sexuality will always be defined along these lines: what a man wants, what a man must have, and what he will purchase or obtain forcibly if necessary.”

Strong language, but is it Moran’s? Moran doesn’t say this—she suggests it. But no, she doesn’t even suggest it—she seems to suggest it. But actually, she doesn’t even seem to suggest it. She would seem to suggest it, if— If what? If the phone hadn’t rung? If she’d been Marshall?

It’s a horrible construction. If it means anything important it means Marshall is brushing aside her subject—I can make Moran’s case better than she can. All it probably means, though, is that Marshall’s editor was sleeping or there wasn’t one. 

But let it go. Read the essay. Read Chapman’s too.