Essay 11: It’s Not About Morality. Yes It Is! Part 2


A frequent, familiar refrain coursed through the French legislative debates about the sex purchase ban adopted in April 2016 (discussed in Essay 10). The refrain? “It is not Puritanism that guides us.”[1] We aren’t “debating morality or immorality.”[2] “[T]his [sex purchase ban] is not a dogmatic law, this is not a moralistic law.”[3] “[M]orals, and even less, moralism, have no place” in our debate.[4] “[Our] fact-finding commission was not driven by preachy ideas about sexuality or the diversity of sexual practices today, whatever our personal judgments about prostitution might be.”[5]

The legislative deliberations proceeded from the supposition that there is no voluntary prostitution, that almost all prostitutes are trafficked and kept in virtual slavery, and that prostitution is a form of violence against women. Doesn’t this show that the case for abolition stands without need of any auxiliary sexual morality? No. The mutuality-of-desire standard that I discussed in Essay 9 turns out to be a crucial to an important part of the abolitionist stance.

For example, to explain the gravity of the “violence” done to the prostitute in the mere purchase of sex, abolitionists in the French parliament repeatedly appealed to the mutuality-of-desire standard. One witness before the Assembly, Emmanuelle Piet, president of the Feminist Collective Against Rape, suggested that “[a]ny sexual act imposed on a person who does not want it could be considered as rape, even if it takes place against money.”[6] Her theme was echoed by an influential deputy.[7]

Of course, the issue with prostitution, as I pointed out in Essay 9, is not unwanted but undesired sex. If the sex “takes place against money,” then it is part of a transaction the prostitute initiates and to which she is a willing though undesiring party. Emmanuelle Piat made this lack of desire pivotal when she went on explicitly to invoke the mutuality-of-desire standard:

Prostitution ignores the desire of the prostitute. It’s like in paying for the sexual act one forgets that it [i. e., sex] assumes two desires meet. It is a serious matter to think that payment authorizes the client to ignore the desire of the prostitute.[8]

Sex is where two desires meet. This supposition explains not just the gravity of the violence against prostitutes but the very violence itself. Although the French abolitionists rehearsed a litany of everyday kinds of violence perpetrated on prostitutes (hitting, slapping, confining, kidnapping, stabbing, raping, robbing), like all abolitionists they went further and insisted that prostitution is violence. What can this mean? Were they simply playing a word game?

No, they were building on a (near) universal feature of prostitution. In the formulation by Claire Quidet, another witness before the Assembly: “the violence inherent in prostitution . . . is to undergo repeated unwanted [i. e., undesired] sexual acts.”[9] Sex without desire: that is the violence. The client commits violence against the prostitute by engaging her in sex she doesn’t desire.

In her testimony to the National Assembly, Laurence Rossignol, the Minister of Families, Children, and Women’s Rights, put it this way: “Prostitution is an abuse in itself. It requires the dissociation of the body and the person, flesh and soul, desire and sexuality.”[10] The separation of desire and sexuality is the injury.

This injury presupposes the mutuality-of-desire standard as both a moral and psychological norm. Prostitution is psychologically damaging because separating desire from sex requires the unhealthy separating of body and person – I discussed this theme in Essay 9 – and this separation is unhealthy because of the tight moral connection between sex and desire.

But as I noted in Essay 9, no abolitionist has actually made a case for the mutuality-of-desire standard as either a psychological or a moral imperative.


Sexuality plays a central role in feminist analyses generally, yet there are surprisingly few comprehensive treatments of sexual morality by feminists (in contrast to works on the “politics of sex”). Indeed, Linda LeMoncheck’s Loose Women, Lecherous Men: A Feminist Philosophy of Sex is the only book-length treatment I know, and it deserves to be read widely. LeMoncheck is thorough. She is exceedingly fair-minded. She operates with an ethical method that may or may not galvanize readers but that employs elements that are certainly morally basic. I will sketch her argument here.

“Sexual exploitation and the eroticization of power figure in the constitution of human sexuality,” LeMoncheck writes.[11]

Women’s heterosexual subordination . . . is a subordination of identity. In a patriarchal society, women are defined in terms of [their] heterosexuality . . . in order to serve the needs and . . . privileges of men.[12]

[T]here is no clear sense in which [women’s] socially constructed desires can truly said to be ‘free’ of political and ideological forms.[13]

If women’s actually existing desires and pleasures are “constituted” by patriarchy to reflect a male view of sex – if to serve the needs of men these particular desires and pleasures are embedded in women’s very self-understanding – how, then, from a feminist point of view can women be expected to act? What path can feminists chart for women to express their sexuality?[14]

This Strong Feminist Understanding (SFU), as I will term it, marks one boundary condition in LeMoncheck’s approach.  The second boundary condition is this: an adequate feminist “philosophy of sex”

must accommodate the experiences of real women living the real contradiction of being both the sexual objects of men’s gaze and the defining subjects of [their] sexual experience as women.

[Feminists must take seriously] women’s sexuality both as a function of . . . sexual oppression under . . . male dominance and as a function of women’s sexual liberation under that same condition.

[A feminist philosophy of sex must give credence to] those aspects of women’s erotic lives in which women identify and pursue what is erotically pleasurable to them.[15]

The sexual desires and experiences of women vary widely; women possess different ideas and different goals; if we listen we will hear “so many voices with such different erotic needs.”[16] It would be a mistake for feminists to deploy the SFU in a way that dismisses the desires and deeds of large swaths of heterosexual women.

On LeMoncheck’s approach, what a feminist philosophy of sex would tell women to do is indeterminate in the abstract. This is because women are “both the subordinated objects and active subjects of [their] sexual lives.”[17] Neither side of this polarity can be short-changed. What individual women want and desire is no less important than any theoretical constrction of their condition. Thus, according to LeMoncheck, one must travel “dialectically” between these contrary poles. Any conclusions from such dialectical traveling will be highly context-specific. This approach applies to philosophers and theorists who generalize about sexuality and subordination, and to individual men and women as they shape and pursue their own sexual desires. The indeterminacy yielded by this approach may be off-putting to those who are looking for clear or simple answers, but, according to LeMoncheck, it should be prized as a by-product of a method that remains true both to what individuals value and to the objective circumstances in which they act.[18]

If the SFU is sound, then feminists must want to enhance women’s “sexual self-definition and agency” as well as reduce their “victimization.”[19] The conditions for women defining and acting aren’t optimal, but real women must live and act in the world as it is even as they and others strive to change it; their desires and choices can’t be omitted from any conception of their agency.

LeMoncheck’s dialectical approach derives from a specific epistemological commitment – a commitment to viewpoint non-imperialism. You should recognize (i) that your viewpoint is not the only one worth knowing; (ii) that it will always remain partial; (iii) that other people have viewpoints worth understanding (from their point of view, not yours); (iv) that others are effected by and respond to your viewpoint (though perhaps not as you understand it).[20]

This viewpoint non-imperialism certainly captures something fundamental about morality: that individuals are in some morally basic sense equals, that we should exercise charity toward understanding them, and the like. (Not every reader will think this non-imperialism prevents epistemological closure, although some might.)

In the middle of LeMoncheck’s book the  non-imperialist stance becomes transmogrified into an “ethic of care-respect” in which we seek to understand the world from other people’s points of view, respond to them as “the particular individuals they are,” and actively care about their well-being.[21]

The “ethic of care-respect” operates at different levels, more successfully at some than others. For example, long sections of Loose Women, Lecherous Men are given over to the quarrels between cultural feminists and sex radical feminists about appropriate sex; and between sex workers and feminist critics about the legitimacy of prostitution and stripping. In both cases LeMoncheck seeks to set out the best version of each position, laboring to give full voice to the contending parties. She does what each party ought to do itself were it guided by care-respect.

However, if cultural feminists, say, were taking account of the views of sex radical feminists in the way suggested by LeMoncheck, they would be attending to the “particularity” of their opponents only indirectly, since what is in contention is a sex radical feminist viewpoint. Behind the viewpoint lie real people, of course, and a concern about their well-being partly fuels the ultra-sympathy with which cultural feminists are urged to approach the viewpoint. (Needless to say, sex radical feminists need to manifest a similar ultra-sympathy toward the cultural feminist viewpoint.)

At other places care-respect seems to apply directly to individual interactions. LeMoncheck speaks of sexual partners relating to each other “within the parameters of care and respect:” they value each other in their specificity, try to get inside each other’s worldview, seek to promote their partner’s sexual aims and care about their well-being.[22] However, this treatment of individual relationships sounds too close to the personal and egalitarian sex favored by cultural feminists, where partners are equally affectionate, share intimacy, and more. The problem here lies in the fact that LeMoncheck has already told us to take seriously the wide variety of women’s choices about using their sexuality. Sharing intimacy is precisely what some women don’t want in a sexual encounter, and there’s nothing wrong with that.[23] Moreover, neither a woman nor her sexual partner may want the informational intrusion required to understand each other’s viewpoints and social locations. Nor might they want to promote each other’s well-being beyond responding to very immediate space- and time-limited sexual initiatives. Jane doesn’t want to know that John is a Republican; that would turn her off totally!

Moreover, mutuality of sexual desire doesn’t seem to be a necessary moral requirement either. Although LeMoncheck sees sex work as fraught with morally problematic components, she does not rule out commercial sex as an acceptable choice for women. She insists that feminist critics of sex work need to attend to its complexity and variety.[24]  And they need to credit the reasons women give for taking it up. Many sex workers “enjoy the money, flexibility, and independence” their work gives them.[25] They are not unreasonable in responding to their feminist critics as self-righteous moralizers. They are not unreasonable in “[hearing only] contempt in patronizing comments [by feminists] to the effect that to save an otherwise wounded pride, sex workers simply do not want to confront the reality of their victimization.”[26]

However, just as LeMoncheck’s dialectic requires feminists to take seriously sex workers’ reasons, it requires sex workers to take seriously the feminist analysis of their situation. Whatever their reasons for entering sex work, “all such women are also male-identified objects of a subordinated sexuality.”[27] The sex worker must “take responsibility for her sexuality under conditions of patriarchy.”

[W]hen a sex worker . . . chooses to make an economically better life for herself in sex work . . . she chooses to act for herself alone and not in virtue of how others might want her to act; but a woman who [understands the demands of care-respect] recognizes both her own individual needs and the needs of others . . . . [She should] see her actions within the context of a larger community of women whose own needs and interests may conflict with hers.”[28]

What the sex worker does plays into long-standing patriarchal arrangements and this is a cost not to be ignored. The sex worker must appreciate “why feminists regard sex work as collaborating with the enemy.”[29] However, for any particular woman, once she fully incorporates the larger picture the balance of considerations still may favor remaining in sex work, even as the balance of considerations for another woman may point in a different direction. LeMoncheck’s dialectic doesn’t result in a single rule applicable across cases. LeMoncheck resists generalizing.[30]


Loose Women, Lecherous Men is too rich and complex to summarize in a few paragraphs. Nevertheless, what emerges from the book – both from its approach and its conclusions – is no special warrant for the mutuality-of-desire standard. Could abolitionists give up the mutuality-of-desire standard and still make their case for sex purchase bans? They could, of course, but they would have to give up their insistence that prostitution is violence. This insistence, to which abolitionists seem universally drawn, requires something like the mutuality-of-desire standard as a necessary threshold for defensible sex. “Prostitution is violence,” if it is not a mere definitional trick, derives its force from the reasonable assumption that prostitution involves undesired sex. The mutuality-of-desire standard tells us that sex she does not desire violates the prostitute – is violence against her.

What remains true is this: abolitionists assert or presuppose the mutuality-of-desire standard but don’t offer serious or sustained arguments for it. “It’s just obvious,” according to Catherine MacKinnon. Evidently that is enough.


Short names for French documents cited in the Notes:

2011 COMMISSION REPORT: Rapport d’Information par la Commission des Lois Constitutionelles, de la Législation et de l’Administration Générale de la République, en conclusion des travaux d’une mission d’information sur la prostitution en France, N° 3334, 13 avril 2011,

FINAL READING: Assemblée nationale, XIVe legislature, Session ordinaire de 2015-2016, 06 avril 2016, Lutte contre le système prostitutionnel-Lecture definitive,

NOVEMBER 5 HEARING: Commission spéciale chargée d’examiner la proposition de loi renforçant la lutte contre le système prostitutionnel, 5 novembre 2013,


[1] Ms. Laurence Rossignol, ministre des familles, de l’enfance et des droits des femmes, “On m’objectera qu’il s’agit d’une position morale, mais, ce n’est pas le puritanisme qui nous guide.” FINAL READING.

[2] Mme Marie-George Buffet, “Nous ne sommes donc pas ici en présence d’un débat sur la morale ou sur l’immoralité.” FINAL READING.

[3] Maud Olivier, “[C]e n’est pas une loi dogmatique, ce n’est pas une loi moralisatrice.” FINAL READING.

[4] “Pour prendre position au sein de ces expériences et de ces opinions contradictoires, la morale, et encore moins le moralisme, ne sauraient avoir leur place.” 2011 COMMISSION REPORT, p. 164.

[5] “Ce faisant, la mission d’information n’est animée par aucun présupposé moralisateur quant à la sexualité et à la diversité des pratiques sexuelles qui existent aujourd’hui, chacun ayant par ailleurs un jugement personnel sur la prostitution.” 2011 COMMISSION REPORT, p. 200.

[6] Emmanuelle Piet, “Sans compter que l’on pourrait considérer comme un viol tout acte sexuel imposé à une personne qui ne le désire pas, même s’il a lieu contre de l’argent.” NOVEMBER 5 HEARING.

[7] M. Charles de Courson , “Tout acte sexuel imposé à une personne qui ne le désire pas, fût-il payé, pourrait au fond être considéré comme un viol.” NOVEMBER 5 HEARING.

[8] Emmanuelle Piet, “La prostitution fait fi du désir de la personne prostituée. C’est comme si payer l’acte sexuel faisait oublier que celui-ci suppose deux désirs qui se rencontrent. Il est grave de laisser ainsi penser que payer autorise à passer outre le désir de l’autre.”

[9] Claire Quidet, “Il y a enfin la violence intrinsèque et inhérente même à la prostitution, qui est de subir à répétition des actes sexuels non désirés.” NOVEMBER 5 HEARING.

[10] Ms. Laurence Rossignol, “La prostitution est une violence en soi. Elle exige la dissociation du corps et de la personne, de la chair et de l’âme, du désir et de la sexualité.” FINAL READING.

[11] Linda LeMoncheck, Loose Women, Lecherous Men: A Feminist Philosophy of Sex (New York: Oxford Unibversity Press, 1997), p. 7.

[12] Loose Women, Lecherous Men, p. 56.

[13] Loose Women, Lecherous Men, pp. 43, 56, 101.

[14] One early radical feminist group, Cell 16, drew a straight-line conclusion: women should separate themselves from men and remain celibate. See Alice Echols, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), pp. 159-161. Early radical groups like Cell 16 and Redstockings were antipathetic to lesbianism. For them lesbian separatism offered no advance over heterosexuality: homosexual sex was still sex (Echols, p. 164). Mightn’t celibacy be an easy policy  to follow after the feminist revolution? The radical feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson, imagining in 1968 what sexual life would be like were there no oppressive gendered sex roles, asked: Why would physical contact with another person “be more pleasurable than auto-contact?” What would be the point of sex with others? Interpersonal sex as we know it, completely stripped of its institutional underpinnings, would cease to exist. Masturbation would be enough. See Ti-Grace Atkinson, Amazon Odyssey (New York: Links Books, 1974), p. 21.

[15] Loose Women, Lecherous Men, pp. 8, 15.

[16] Loose Women, Lecherous Men, pp. 22, 28.

[17] Loose Women, Lecherous Men, pp. 29. Emphasis added.

[18] Loose Women, Lecherous Men, p. 20, noting the partiality, particularity, and contextuality of all philosophical investigation.

[19] Loose Women, Lecherous Men, pp. 25, 29, and elsewhere.

[20] Loose Women, Lecherous Men, pp. 20, 29.

[21] Loose Women, Lecherous Men, pp. 44, 55, 102, 104.

[22] Loose Women, Lecherous Men, pp. 111, 102-104, 55.

[23] Loose Women, Lecherous Men, p. 39.

[24] Loose Women, Lecherous Men, pp. 118, 134.

[25] Loose Women, Lecherous Men, pp. 113, 141. Recall the case of Perle, one of the prostitutes described in the last essay, a Chinese woman in France who, after an onerous period as an indentured servant to a Chinese family, turned to prostitution so she would never be exploited by an employer again.

[26] Loose Women, Lecherous Men, pp. 135, 143.

[27] Loose Women, Lecherous Men, p. 145.

[28] Loose Women, Lecherous Men, p. 151.

[29] Loose Women, Lecherous Men, p. 151. Of course, if SFU is sound, then every heterosexual act (dating, hooking up, marrying, and the like) has a political cost, whatever the benefits to the individual woman. Every woman must think “within the context of larger community of women” and “take responsibility” for her heterosexual acts.

[30] Loose Women, Lecherous Men, p. 152.