Selling Sex: A Matter of the Heart

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“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.” ― Elie Wiesel

Prostitution is a deeply contentious issue; an issue which, during the ‘sex wars’ of the 1980s, proved highly divisive for the feminist lobby; an issue which continues to attract impassioned debate from political commentators across the globe[1]. Whilst it is generally accepted that involvement in the sex trade is impoverishing and potentially fatal[2], identified solutions to the ‘problem’, and indeed characterisations of what the ‘problem’ is, differ radically. The battle thus roars on. In short, the fundamental question of whether or not selling sex should be legalised or abolished continues to characterise the dispute. Such a question implicates complex, highly theoretical notions such as power, choice and sexuality, and has therefore attracted much scholarly attention.

Many academics[3] argue that the ‘problem’ of prostitution lies in its continued criminalisation and resulting stigmatization. [4] They thus contend that only through legalisation and normalisation can the industry be made safe. Such processes, they suggest, can be achieved by repositioning the sale of sex within the paradigm of legitimate and lawful employment. [5] Such a move, it is argued, would ensure that those involved in prostitution were perceived positively, protected by workplace legislation and free to contact the authorities regarding acts of violence without fear of recrimination[6]. Additionally, such commentators tend to argue that, in a capitalistic system, all adults must sell their labour, that there is nothing intrinsically distinct about sexual services[7] and that drawing arbitrary delineations, between say prostitution and plumbing, is arcane and meaningless.  Importantly, they base many of their contentions on a particular interpretation of choice. They contend that if a woman wishes to engage in prostitution, if she makes a conscious and rational choice to sell sexual services, then she should be allowed to do so[8]. In this view autonomy, consent and bodily integrity are of paramount concern.

Many others, notably radical feminists[9], argue that prostitution is a cause and consequence of systemic gender inequality[10]. They posit that the practice reinforces the objectification and commodification of women and entrenches social narratives which support the notion of a male sex right.[11] Such commentators tend to question the liberal interpretation of choice, arguing that many women involved in prostitution are coerced into the activity by a pimp, by poverty or by diffuse things like sex role socialisation[12]. They question anyone’s ability to make truly free choices in conditions of oppression, and invoke concepts such as Marx’s ‘false consciousness’ to explain why women would engage in practices which contribute to their own subjugation[13]. Other such commentators argue that attempting to engage with the concept of individual choice is a flawed approach, and that scholars should, instead, cast their gaze solely upon the institutions, structures and cultural messages which have thus far provided an unshakable grounding for the sex trade[14].  Notably, such scholars believe that only through decriminalising the sale of sex, and criminalising the purchase of sex, can women be made truly safe. Prostitution, they claim, is inherently harmful and should not be tolerated in any form.

These disagreements cannot be resolved with ease. These are disputes embroiled in great philosophical quandaries – unsettled dilemmas about personhood; the power of discourse and structure; freedom and liberty; the role of the state and the collective; sex and its significance. These ideas, incidentally, inform fierce ideological debate over a myriad of topics – violence, poverty, taxes to name but a few. Neither logic, nor fact, can transport us to an absolute conclusion. Even more concrete, less abstracted, arguments regarding the merits of legalisation or criminalisation stand on shaky foundations. No scholar can promise that legitimising the sex trade will make women safer, they possess no conclusive evidence. In countries with legalised sex industries, such as New Zealand, the commercial space for the illegitimate trade (e.g. child prostitution, trafficking) has grown exponentially since processes of decriminalisation[15]. Additionally, in a number of countries with legal prostitution, large proportions of the women involved felt no safer after legislative changes than they did before[16].  I am not suggesting legalisation could never work, but that we have no real proof to suggest that it does. And no scholar can promise you that criminalising men who buy sex will improve the lives of women in prostitution. In Sweden, for instance, many believe that doing so has pushed prostitution underground and made the women involved comparatively less safe[17]. Again, the point is not that it could not work, but that we cannot unequivocally prove that it does. In short, anyone who makes grand assurances, who provides you with a simple solution wrapped in a pretty little bow, should be distrusted. The social world, and all the people in it, are not so easily reducible. This debate cannot be so conclusively resolved.

When encountering such uncertainty, how do you decide? Do you flail in the face of ambivalence and choose not to choose; or do you disregard the abundant difficulties, puff out your chest and proclaim an affiliation? It is ultimately up to you, but as someone grappling with this matter daily, I would like to counsel you to do something rarely advocated for by scholars: just, follow your heart. Prostitution is not a matter of being correct or incorrect, it is not a matter of rationality versus irrationality, logic versus illogic – prostitution is a matter of individual emotion and morality.

Morality is a word I very rarely use. It is, in many of the realms I inhabit, a dirty word. I am not entirely sure why. Perhaps the Enlightenment (an educational paradigm which required scholars to leave their personal values out of the pursuit of knowledge) is to blame. Conversely, perhaps the more recent movement of post-modernism (which claims no objective truth can be attained, no absolute measure of ‘right’ found) is culpable. Or maybe, the dominant politics of liberalism (with its precept that individual freedom should not be attenuated by any collectively defined moral code) is responsible. I quietly suspect that powerful, oppressive and verbally abusive religious organisations such as the Catholic Church, organisations which spew hate and intolerance in the name of morality[18], should be held accountable.

What I believe, however, is that we should pick the word up off the floor, wipe away the dust which adorns its letters, and redeploy it in a way which is not hateful, not oppressive, and not lacking in intellectual merit. We should be circumspect, we should be respectful; but we should also rise up, shake our fists and fight for what we hold dear.

In many ways, this is neither a new nor radical proposal. The likelihood is that most scholars engaged with the prostitution debate are already using the resources of their moral and emotional selves. Many would argue that whenever we interpret the world, whenever we draw inferences from what we see, we engage the values which inform our subjective understandings.[19] The only mildly radical component of my proposition is the notion that we be open about the process, that we legitimise it, and that we identify these values as something meaningful in the debate overall. Not only would such a move assist us in ‘picking a side’, it would make the assessment processes we utilise transparent[20]. This could, in turn, help to progress the debate beyond the stalemate we presently find ourselves stagnating in. And perhaps legitimating raw emotional engagement would encourage more involvement, less silence, more movement – because our emotions, if nothing else, do move us.

But how do we establish a moral position on a topic of this kind? Firebrand legal theorist Catherine McKinnon, a great hero of mine, tells us that when it comes to prostitution, “each person who confronts (the) issue decides which approach best reflects the reality known and experienced, and best promotes the world one wants to live in”[21]. She thus invites us to engage our emotional selves, our experiential learning and our moral senses. This is a process, for illustration, I have had to undergo.

I will confess to being a radical feminist, to believing that prostitution is a cause and consequence of a patriarchal system which subjugates, impoverishes and kills millions of women. I will hold my hands up and say that I believe prostitution could only be made safe in a world with something resembling gender equality, and that since such a world is a utopian dreamscape rather than a tangible reality, we should never relent from attempting to abolish the sex trade. And I will admit that this opinion comes not, primarily, from rational argument and well-formed debate, but from a deep-seated emotional connection to the issue which has, in turn, informed my moral compass.

In another life I used to work with homeless women – a significant proportion of whom were involved in prostitution. And I saw them beaten, battered, raped, trafficked, and traumatised. I worked with them sensitively - respecting their choices, their lifestyles – and all I ever saw was endless physical and emotional suffering. I contemplated regaling you with the specifics, I wrote out a series of horrific anecdotes, but I decided that I did not want to trade on the pain of others and I did not want to upset you. What I can say is that I spent evenings perched distractedly at the very edge of my sofa, biting my nails, wrought with the fear that my dearest clients would not be alive come morning. I will admit that the memories I have of this experience physically hurt me, that I can feel them in my sternum. And I will confess, that as a result, I will not be easily convinced that legitimising the industry which facilitated all of this is, or could ever be, a good idea. I can rationalise my position, but it is my heart which leads my head and not the other way around. And of course, I should say, I can understand how a different set of experiences might lead a person to feel prostitution should be legalised. I cannot contest the experiential basis of your morality, any more than you can contest mine.

This is not to say that logic and fact should be dismissed. Morality is not a solid entity, impervious to reason or change. It is a fluid thing, an ever shifting thing, an often rational thing which just so happens to be based in experience and hope. My research, which looks at prostitution policy, is not an endless diatribe about how I feel. It is based in political theory, sociological ideas and real world observations. But it is motivated by love and optimism and an intrinsic, pre-verbal part of myself which cannot be reduced to logic.

Perhaps you do not feel well enough acquainted with the topic to make such emotive choices. Perhaps all that has been made available to you in this debate are arguments and anecdotes. Perhaps you feel rationality is your only, albeit limiting, option. In such cases I would urge you to consider the latter half of McKinnon’s advice, and, as she suggests, affiliate yourself with the argument which “…best promotes the world (you) want to live in”[22]. What does your utopia look like? What kind of world do you fight for? I want a world in which women are perceived as valuable and worthy human beings – not commodities, not objects. I want a Kantian world in which people are always seen as innately valuable, and not as a means to anybody else’s ends[23]. And, controversially, I want a world in which sex is about reciprocity, empathy, mutual desire, fun – not necessarily love, nor monogamy, but something inherently human, kind and good. My perfect world does not have room for what I see as the dehumanising, sexist institution of prostitution.

What does your perfect world look like?

One more word before I leave to moralise some more.  When considering how you feel about prostitution do not assume that by advocating for its legalisation, and allowing individual ‘choice’ to out, you escape the responsibility of engaging with your own moral self. Prostitution is an industry dictated by market principles and capitalistic ideals[24]. Often we are asked to believe that the market is neutral, amoral, value-free, allowing individual engagement without collective pressure. Elitist tosh. Capitalism has its own attendant morality, a morality which favours hierarchy, productivity, competition and weighing the worth of everything and everyone by recourse to their monetary value[25]. If that adequately reflects your own moral beliefs, then acknowledge it, embrace it, but do not present it as an abstention.

So choose to choose, get dirty with morality and follow your heart.


[1]Kathy Miriam, “Stopping the Traffic in Women: Power, Agency and Abolition in Feminist Debates over Sex-Trafficking,” Journal of Social Philosophy 36, no. 1 (2005): 1–17.

[2]Scott A. Anderson, “Prostitution and Sexual Autonomy: Making Sense of the Prohibition of Prostitution,” Ethics 112, no. 4 (July 2002): 748–80, doi:10.1086/339672.

[3]Teela Sanders, “Blinded by Morality? Prostitution Policy in the UK,” Capital & Class 29, no. 2 (July 1, 2005): 9–15, doi:10.1177/030981680508600102; Belinda Brooks-Gordon, “Bellwether Citizens: The Regulation of Male Clients of Sex Workers,” Journal of Law and Society 37, no. 1 (2010): 145–70, doi:10.1111/j.1467-6478.2010.00499.x.

[4]Anderson, “Prostitution and Sexual Autonomy”; M. Farley, “‘Bad for the Body, Bad for the Heart’: Prostitution Harms Women Even If Legalized or Decriminalized,” Violence Against Women 10, no. 10 (October 1, 2004): 1087–1125, doi:10.1177/1077801204268607.

[5]Elliott M. Abramson, “Note on Prostitution: Victims without Crime-Or There’s No Crime but the Victim Is Ideology, A,” Duq. L. Rev. 17 (1978): 355; Katie Beran, “Revisiting the Prostitution Debate: Uniting Liberal and Radical Feminism in Pursuit of Policy Reform,” Law & Ineq. 30 (2012): 19; Anderson, “Prostitution and Sexual Autonomy.”

[6]Miriam, “Stopping the Traffic in Women.”

[7]Heli Askola, “Violence against Women, Trafficking, and Migration in the European Union,” European Law Journal 13, no. 2 (March 2007): 204–17, doi:10.1111/j.1468-0386.2007.00364.x; Christine Overall, “What’s Wrong with Prostitution? Evaluating Sex Work,” Signs 17, no. 4 (July 1, 1992): 705–24.

[8]Beran, “Revisiting the Prostitution Debate”; Ann Heilmann, “Gender and Essentialism: Feminist Debates in the Twenty-First Century,” Critical Quarterly 53, no. 4 (2011): 78–89.

[9]Catherine A. MacKinnon, “Trafficking, Prostitution, and Inequality,” Harv. CR-CLL Rev. 46 (2011): 271; Beran, “Revisiting the Prostitution Debate.”

[10]Anderson, “Prostitution and Sexual Autonomy”; Beran, “Revisiting the Prostitution Debate.”

[11]Overall, “What’s Wrong with Prostitution?”; Anderson, “Prostitution and Sexual Autonomy.”

[12]Overall, “What’s Wrong with Prostitution?”; Anderson, “Prostitution and Sexual Autonomy”; Beran, “Revisiting the Prostitution Debate.”

[13]Overall, “What’s Wrong with Prostitution?”

[14]Johanna Kantola and Judith Squires, “Discourses Surrounding Prostitution Policies in the UK,” The European Journal of Women’s Studies 11, no. 1 (February 1, 2004): 77–101, doi:10.1177/1350506804039815.

[15]Farley, “Bad for the Body, Bad for the Heart.”

[16]Ibid.

[17]Gwladys Fouche, “View from the Streets: New Nordic Sex Laws Are Making Prostitutes Feel Less Safe,” The Independent, accessed November 3, 2014, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/view-from-the-streets-new-nordic-sex-laws-are-making-prostitutes-feel-less-safe-9294458.html.

[18]Michele Somerville, “Homophobia in the Church: What Catholics Are Doing About It, and What Still Needs to Be Done,” Huffington Post, October 10, 2010, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michele-somerville/catholic-church-homophobia_b_750254.html.

[19]Patti Lather, “Research as Praxis,” Harvard Educational Review 56, no. 3 (1986): 257–77.

[20]John Gerring and Joshua Yesnowitz, “A Normative Turn in Political Science?*,” Polity 38, no. 1 (January 2006): 101–33, doi:10.1057/palgrave.polity.2300054.

[21]MacKinnon, “Trafficking, Prostitution, and Inequality,” 276.

[22]MacKinnon, “Trafficking, Prostitution, and Inequality.”

[23]Evangelia (Lina) Papadaki, “Feminist Perspectives on Objectification,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Winter 2012, 2012, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/feminism-objectification/.

[24]Elizabeth Bernstein, Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

[25]Wendy Brown, “Neo-Liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,” Theory & Event 7, no. 1 (2003), doi:10.1353/tae.2003.0020.