Saturday, June 06, 2009

Women doing it for themselves?

How do liberal moderns decide moral issues? Consider the case of Clementine Ford, a feminist columnist for the Adelaide Sunday Mail. She recently discussed at her website the story of a young Romanian woman who auctioned her virginity on the internet, selling it to an Italian man for $20,000.

Clementine Ford declares at the start that "It's not the auctioning itself that I have a problem with." For Clementine Ford, the sale of a woman's virginity is moral if it is an act of female autonomy, i.e. if it's something the woman does herself without interference from others:

The value placed on female virginity through the ages has always been despicably high ... the idea that women need to somehow ‘save’ themselves for their husbands because their virginity is the most precious gift they can give them – virginity has ALWAYS been commodified.

It’s just that the sale of it was never controlled by the women who actually owned it.

In Alina's case, even her autonomy in selling her virginity ... was undermined along the way:

The auction was hit by controversy three weeks before its culmination when a teacher at Alina's former school claimed she was not a virgin.

Clementine Ford then considers the objection that auctioning your virginity is equivalent to prostitution. But this too is OK if it's an act of autonomy:

So what if it's, as some critics argue, 'nothing more than prostitution'? Is it the prostitution itself that offends them, or the idea that a woman might choose it for herself rather than having the socially sympathetic ease of being the victim of a pimp (or father) who forces her into it?

For that matter, is that why the auctioning of virginity is considered so offensive - because the person determining the situation, parameters and outcome of its loss is a woman who, while not necessarily required to be in command of her emotions regarding the situation, is at least in command of the financials?

Again, what matters here to Clementine Ford is not the act of prostitution itself. It's whether or not the prostitute is autonomous, i.e. whether she is "determining the situation". There's even a suggestion in the above quote that prostitution might be an act of liberation and feminist independence if it's self-determined.

Before anyone jumps in to write off Clementine Ford as mad, let me say that she is following orthodox liberalism in a perfectly logical way. If autonomy is the one intrinsic good, and if our Romanian woman is following her own autonomous will to achieve her independent life goals, then liberals must declare her actions to be moral.

Furthermore, if feminist patriarchy theory is right, and men have asserted an oppressive power over women, denying them autonomy, then it's not so bizarre for Clementine Ford to think that the issue is not prostitution itself, but a resistance in society to female autonomy.

But look where these theories lead us. They commit us to the view that there is nothing that is inherently right or wrong, that there is nothing in the expression of sexuality itself that is a moral good or that is morally degraded. A woman who sells her virginity online, according to these theories, is acting in a more moral way than a woman who saves her virginity for her husband.

This is a curiously empty and alienated world to inhabit. I find it hard to believe that Clementine Ford would really want to inhabit such a world. Has she never wanted a significant relationship with a man? One in which sexuality did express something meaningful?

Does she really want men to follow the principle of autonomy alone? Would she mind if men simply went and had sex, according to their own autonomous will, with whomever they wanted to, whenever they wanted to? Would this culture be conducive to good relations between men and women? To family life? To the ultimate happiness of both men and women?

Would Clementine Ford view her own daughter positively as an agent of liberation if she were to become a prostitute?

Even though Clementine Ford is willing to follow the logic of autonomy theory further than most, I doubt if even she would be willing to live by it consistently. Her mistake is not just her attitude to the one issue, but her acceptance of an overly abstract, formulaic, simplistic and reductionist approach to morality, in which autonomy is held to be the sole intrinsic moral good.


  1. Thank you for this blog. It is a refreshing antidote to the bread and circuses offered up by those who wish to destroy our society:

    ABC/SBS - postmodern athiests;
    Fairfax - postmodern atheists; and
    Murdoch - postmodern atheists.

    So much for diversity!

  2. I think you're assessment of my argument has failed to take into account any of my personal views on sexual relationships or my opinon of the current cultural malaise we find ourselves in. You've also selectively represented much of what I said without providing a context for your readers.

    You would probably find the answers to the questions you ask of my personal morality by perusing my blog further rather than simply using one piece to try and decry the 'madness' of liberalism and in the process wholly missing the point.

  3. Anonymous, thanks.

    Clementine, my post has two parts.

    The first part describes your approach to settling a particular moral issue.

    The second part then describes the logical consequences of adopting such an approach.

    I think the basic points I made in each part stand.

  4. Most people don't want to follow their logic to the uttermost, but if we elaborate any constraints, they howl in protest. "There must be no constraints!"

  5. Well, you know what they say.

    Those who know the cost of everything, but the value of nothing...

  6. Miss Ford writes:

    "I think you're assessment of my argument ..."

    "You're" assessment! Thank you, Miss Ford, for this priceless insight (dare one say "you're priceless insight"?) into the grammatical standards now dominating at the Sunday Mail.

  7. I too immediately noticed that infelicity. Yet, in fairness, it could well be a simple typo brought on by so constantly encountering that very error in the things one reads.