Ethics & Controversial Products: Virginity For Sale

This story broke 2 months ago: Student auctions virginity, sparks online debate (via Reuters)

A 22-year-old woman in the United States is publicly auctioning her virginity to pay for her college education, sparking a heated online debate about sex and morality.

The student from San Diego, California, who is using the pseudonym Natalie Dylan for “safety reasons,” said she had no moral dilemma with her decision and found it “empowering”.

But few bloggers sided with her and some suspected her intentions.

Now, a disclaimer: 2 months have passed, and I don’t know (haven’t been able to find out) if the auction has happened yet. Or even if it’s going to. For all I know, the whole thing was a hoax. It doesn’t really matter. It certainly could happen, and that’s enough to warrant some ethical reflection.

This story has generated controversy, titilation, and outrage. To some, this is just a voluntary business transaction between consenting adults. To others, it’s a mortal sin. To others still, it’s a woman’s demonstration of ownership over her own body and sexuality — though maybe a somewhat unfortunate one. Many people are uncomfortable with the very idea, but it’s hard to give clear, coherent reasons for condemning this transaction.
The best I can do is break down the different reasons we might be uncomfortable with this particular commercial transaction.
Reasons might be broken into two categories:

  • Concerns about the transaction itself. Just how “voluntary” is this transaction? Does Ms. Dylan really (really) understand what it is she’s selling? Is financial need “forcing” her into this? Will this transaction result in psychological or social harm to the buyer, the seller, or people on the sidelines (like Ms. Dylan’s family)? What about the role of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, the Nevada brothel where the auction is to take place? Lots of people draw a line between a woman selling sex, on one hand, and others profiting from helping her sell it, on the other.
  • Concerns about social trends. Is this auction an indication of the extent to which sexuality (in particular women’s sexuality) has been ‘commodified?’ Will such a high-profile act contribute to that trend? What does the possibility of such an auction say about the arguably-unhealthy way our culture continues to obsess over virginity? And what does it say about men (maybe not men in general, but those who are likely to bid)?

I’m not sure there’s a knock-down argument to be had in the answers to any of those questions. Beyond those questions, there are of course objections based on religion, but those aren’t publicly-accessible reasons and certainly not convincing to all. My main point, here, is that if you object to what Ms. Dylan is doing, you need to get past the kind of knee-jerk reactions and name-calling that a case like this tends to generate. But if we’re going to say “She shouldn’t do it!” — and if we intend that to be an ethical claim, rather than just advice — we need to be able to provide an argument: plausible premises, connected by the right logical relations to our conclusion.

Relevant past blog entries:

Relevant books to suggest:

1 comment so far

  1. Mitch on

    I think this one is an interesting topic, and one can get into debating the ethics of such a decision or not, based on whatever criteria one wishes to. I’m usually of the opinion that adults will make the decisions they wish to make, and have to be ready to deal with any consequences that come because of those actions. I’m not one against prostitution because I feel a woman should make any decision she wishes to for how she treats her own body, just like men do. However, I would wonder about the ethics, morality, and future of the man who felt virginity was so precious that he’d be willing to spend an undetermined amount for the right to be first.

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