The Personalist Project

The operative ethical principle in our society seems to be: "Anything goes, provided there's no coercion. If it's between consulting adults, it's no one else's business."

I had a conversation with a Catholic libertarian friend along these lines not long ago, when I linked this article about how Sweden has managed to dramatically reduce prostitution by adjusting its laws to focus on the problem of the exploitation of women. The clients are punished by law; the prostitutes are offered help getting out of the "profession," if they want to. (It turns out that most do.) My friend was skeptical. As a Catholic, he thinks protitution is immoral, but as a libertarian he thinks that since it's between consenting adults, the law should have nothing to do with it.

That conversation, together with the horrible flood of stories of women charging Bill Cosby with rape, and the books I'm reading about addiction and co-dependency and narcissism and dysfunctional family systems, plus the question of the burqua, has me mulling a lot lately on the problem of consent with respect to the master/slave dynamic.

The libertarian notion assumes that the only relevant distinction is between adults and minors. It grants that minors aren't really capable of consent in the morally relevant sense, but it otherwise assumes a basic peerage among adults. And yet, experience shows us that reality is a lot more complicated than that, doesn't it?

Are the women in Islamic countries (or families) who "choose" to wear burquas really making a free choice? Are the young would-be stars, dazzled by a celebrity's money and attention, who take all his favors, really free to resist his sexual advances? Are they free to make their story known if they have 1) a lot of shame for having been duped, 2) an embarrassing personal history, 3) no money for a lawyer? Is an addict free to take drugs or leave them? Is a person raised in a dysfunctional, abusive family free to make a vow of marriage? Is a person in a cult free to leave?

The answer to all these question is yes on one level, no on another.

A favorite claim of the left is that blacks can't be racist because they're not in power. I think this claim is false, but not entirely so. Its kernel of truth is that a power differential matters in adjudicating wrongs, on both the individual and social levels. Parents intuitively recognize this principle when they blame an older child more than a younger one for something that goes wrong between them. It would be false for the parents to assume that the older child is guilty and the younger one innocent. But it's not false to expect more from the older child, or to think that his greater power entails a greater responsibility for good relations between siblings.

This principle needs to be better accommodated in our laws and customs.

The article on prostitution opened a fascinating thought avenue. After detailing the stunning success of Sweden's new approach, the author asks why it hasn't been tried before, and why more countries aren't yet following its lead. 

Why, then, with Sweden's success so clearly lighting the way, aren't others quickly adopting the plan? Well, some are. Both Finland and Norway are on the verge of making the move. And if Scotland takes the advise of its own study, it will go in that direction too. But, the answer to the question of why other countries aren't jumping to adopt Sweden's plan is probably the same as the answer to the question of why governments haven't tried Sweden's solution before.

In order to see prostitutes as victims of male coercion and violence it requires that a government first switch from seeing prostitution from the male point of view to the female point of view. And most, if not virtually all, countries of the world still see prostitution and every other issue from a predominantly male point of view.

I think she's exactly right. It's a prime case in point of what Pope John Paul II had in mind when he called for "the genius of woman" to be better realized and more influential in society and culture. He meant that "the structures of society" should be adapted from the feminine perspective.


Historically, the master/slave hermenteutic has meant that men have been dominant over women. Our laws and customs have been developed from a pre-dominantly male perspective. That perspective tended to overlook the discrepancy between consent and "consent," which is easier to see and feel from the "slave" side of the dynamic.

I don't mean to suggest that the feminine perspective is better than the masculine, only that both are needed for the fullness of human goodness, and that we still have a ways to go before we've achieved the kind of equality and complementarity (true) feminism aspires to.

  • share
  • tweet
  • print

Comments (7)

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#1, Nov 22, 2014 12:07am

I seem to recall that there was more awareness of the effect of power differentials on consent in the early days of second-wave feminism. Remember the "All sex is rape" line often (inaccurately) attributed to Andrea Dworkin? But Dworkin and MacKinnon (who was also accused of equating sex with rape) were maligned precisely because they were interested in how the structural and cultural inequalities between the sexes affected things like sexual roles, expectations, and consent.

MacKinnon said that rape trials could not be just until they adopted female conceptions of consent and coercion rather than merely male ideas of what levels of force or coercion are acceptable when assuming consent (reading accounts of rape trials from 40 and 50 years ago makes me profoundly grateful for the work women like Dworkin and MacKinnon did, regardless of their flaws). On a much smaller scale, there was a lot of talk over the catcalling video that made the rounds a few weeks ago, and a lot of men said, "Most of those guys were just probably trying to be friendly." But the power differential is precisely what makes it feel threatening rather than friendly for the woman being catcalled.  

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#2, Nov 22, 2014 12:12am

Canada's criminal laws regarding prostitution were struck down a year ago by the courts after a challenge to them as endangering the health, wellbeing, and rights of the prostitutes. Parliament was given a year to rewrite the law. I know there was some push in some arenas to go to full decriminalization. Instead, we adopted (very recently--just this past month) a law very similar to Sweden's. It remains to be seen if we will be as good at implementing it as Sweden seems to have been. But I do see it as a great good for both men and women because it acknowledges that no, buying sex is not just another kind of commerce. 

Jules van Schaijik

#3, Nov 22, 2014 6:22am

Very interesting comment Kate.  I had never heard the "All sex is rape" line, and up until quite recently would have dismissed it out of hand as just the sort of angry absurdity one would expect from radical feminists. But what you and Katie say here makes a lot of sense.

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Nov 22, 2014 9:12am

Kate, thanks so much for what you say. I was raised to be dismissive of feminists, but my experience when I read them is that even some of the crazy "out there" ones often have a something valid to say—something we need to listen to and learn from.

Last year our 16 year old son had to write an essay in response to a DBQ (document based question) on the subject of women and science in the 19th century for his AP European History class. I was shocked by the documents involved—the blatant and revolting patronizing of women by men. A woman could not dream of being admitted to a science program at a university unless she first gathered evidence (from men) that she was an exemplary housewife with a perfect moral character. Then they would think about it, and perhaps make an exception in her case.

When Jules and I were in grad school in Liechtenstein, the voters of Appenzell, Switzerland, (all men) held a vote over wether or not to give women suffrage. They voted not to. This was in the 1990s.

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Nov 22, 2014 9:20am

Here's another thought. Medieval chivalry, I propose, was a cultural mode of "righting" the power differential between men and women. The elaborate reverence shown to women by men in such habits as kissing her hand and kneeling in front of her, and never using coarse language in her presence, and so on, were ways that men and boys were taught to curtail their power and put it in service of women.

That worked well until gradually, over time, women began to resist the idea that they should be understood to be beneath men in the social order. Then those modes of courtesy came to be resented as condesceding, and seen as a way of keeping women "in their place." And there's something true there.

We make a mistake if we don't realize that. Chivalry assumes a power differential that femininism has been (rightly) trying to disestablish.

Abandoning the customs and manners that used to protect women from bad male behavior has come with a cost, though.

I hope that we can come up with new manners that reflect what's been gained.

Gary Gibson

#6, Nov 23, 2014 6:12am

Thanks to Katie and all the others for their ideas and comments.  I am still learning!  As the father of 4 daughters and 4 granddaughters, this is very pertinent. As the oldest child from a family of 5, I know my parents expected more from me (and I resented that at times).  There was no doubt, however, that I had a certain prestige and more priveleges as the top dog in the house.  I like Katie's thoughts along these lines . . .   a helpful piece for me to read and ponder.

Thank you.

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Nov 23, 2014 8:23am

Thanks for the kind words, Gary. I really think that this basic insight of JP II's personalism—I mean the way the master/slave hermeneutic menaces post-Eden human relations (including between the sexes) and how the gospel challenges us to replace it with self-donating love and service—is only beginning to be grasped in the Church. We all have a lot of habits to unlearn.

Sign in to add a comment, or register first.

Forgot your password?