Saturday, September 17, 2005

Danish Compassion

Via Matthew Yglesias, via Brad Plumer, I learn that the Danish government has been paying sex workers to provide services one time per month to disabled people.

The "Sex, irrespective of disability" plan has understandably come under fire by opposition politicians. Since most governments recognize that prostitution is not exactly a winning career, most governments that legalize or even assist prostitutes try not to subsidize them, per se. In the article, the Social-Democrat spokesperson points out the political contradiction:
"We spend a large proportion of our taxes rescuing women from prostitution. But at the same time we officially encourage carers to help contact with prostitutes."
(From the CIA Factbook I learn that the Feb 2005 elections put the Liberal Party at 29% and the Social Democrats at 25%, meaning that the PM, Anders Fogh Rasmussen is likely a Liberal under Social Dem breakaway pressure.)

Both Brad and Matthew are skeptical but intrigued; Brad wonders whether shy or ugly people shouldn't also deserve subsidization yet acknowledges some physical and mental health benefits from sexual activity, and Matthew remains very detached and worldly, dismissing the idea as politically impossible while sketching the utopian socialist background for sexual equality (Fourierism).

All that background aside, I am moved almost to tears by this policy. Click through for why. Once a government has decriminalized prostitution, there remains little official reason to stigmatize it. Of course we don't really want our daughters to become prostitutes, but in general we don't want our daughters to become bartenders, either. Both professions see people at their most vulnerable and most uncivilized, and both professions have historically left their practitioners destitute and unhealthy in their old age. What if, you know, there was a broad social policy in place to help these low-wage workers enjoy a safe, protected retirement? Would these professions seem quite as bad? Yes, prostitution is and probably will remain a stigmatized profession. But remember: in countries where prostitution is less hidden, less "street," and less suicidal, frankly, social mores may be shifting.

Again, once a society has allowed people to sell sexual services, and once a society has assumed some responsibility for the health of its citizens, why should it not try to help, in a small way, the sexual desires of those citizens most in need? If I broke my neck tomorrow, one of the next thoughts on my mind would be will I ever have sex again? Hell, when I broke up with the person I thought I'd marry, I had the same thought, and it was a great deal less objectively true then. If you were stuck in a bed, and yet still felt sexual desire, wouldn't it make the days seem more liveable if you could get off? Unfortunately, unless you've got excellent connections on the outside--a self-sacrificing partner or someone who knows a pimp--you're shit out of luck. Better to try really, really hard to transcend all human need, in good puritanical fashion. Only problem for society is: the ultimate, non-corporeal transcendence is suicide--or politics.

I am positively heartened to hear about this Danish initiative. I don't believe that any sex worker is being forced into providing services for disabled people, nor do I believe that any disabled person is forced into accepting the services of a sex worker. In fact, a sex worker might even have good reason to take the government up on its offer: a disabled person might be more routinely screened by doctors.* No matter how morally impalatably it may seem to some, once you have recognize sex work as legal, bringing that work to people who lack mobility yet need that work most becomes a positive good.

What I like most about the Danish government measure is that it doesn't pretend to operate in a libertarian fantasy in which all people suffering from sexual unattractiveness get market vouchers. Instead, since the Danish subjects aren't all full of themselves and their perceived need for equal treatment, they accept that some people, through no fault of their own, are probably going to have to overcome major probabilitic hurdles in getting laid. And, you know what? If I somehow became disabled, it would humiliate me so much to go through my friends to find someone willing to get dirty with me that I'd probably rather kill myself. That plus immobility, and the private sector in preventing suicide by sexual frustration is dead. Shy and ugly people may similarly suicidal thoughts resulting from sexual frustration--but they can walk, dammit, and they can hold jobs without filing access lawsuits.

Maybe it's because Denmark is a constitutional monarchy that it is able to offer one good thing for a sector of its population without the rest of the country's clamoring for equal treatment. Still, as far as I can tell, the argument within Denmark is about morality, and the argument for equal treatment is tacked on by bemused American bloggers.

*HIV infection rates in Denmark, however, seem to me to be impressively low: according to the CIA's 2003 numbers, only 0.2% of the population was infected, as compared to 0.3% in Canada, 0.4% in Switzerland and France, 0.6% in the US, 4.2% in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 5.6% in Haiti, or 12.2% in Mozambique. Of course all of these numbers are estimated and probably too low.


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