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< Back to question What should the legal status of prostitution be? Show more Show less

Sometimes called ‘the world’s oldest profession’, prostitution holds a complex cultural place. While it is underpinned by gender norms and has been linked to violence, it also represents a source of agency for some and a viable career option for many. Should it be treated like any other job by the state? And if the state wishes to curtail prostitution, is making it illegal the best option?

Prostitution should be illegal Show more Show less

Sex work is inherently harmful and should be banned.
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The oldest oppression

Prostitution promotes the degradation of women and hegemonic masculinity.
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Prostitution is often equated with degradation and dehumanisation, particularly for women. Sex workers are seen as entering a market in which they are sexual subordinates, therefore perpetuating inequalities.[1]

The Argument

Prostitution actively causes gender inequality and degradation. The existence of prostitutes reinforces cultural attitudes of women being sexually subservient to men and therefore has negative implications for all women.[2] As Hassan states, “If prostitution is legal, and men can buy women’s bodies with impunity, it’s the extreme sexualization of women... if women are sex toys you can buy, think about the impact on relationships between men and women, in marriage or otherwise.”[3] The customer is always right, and the sex worker is considered by those paying for sex to be nothing but an object existing for the purposes of fulfilling their desires. Prostitution promotes the idea that male sexuality must be satisfied, without consideration for the wellbeing of those who satisfy it.[4] Prostitution is often portrayed as being needed due to insatiable male sexuality,[5] or even as a way to curb men committing sexual violence.[6] The idea that male sexuality cannot be controlled is deeply harmful to women, and insinuates that women have a sexual obligation to men. The sale of sex by sex workers fundamentally rests on a dynamic of inequality.[7] No woman wants to become a sex worker; it is done purely for the money which is used as an incentive to buy into a system of inequality and degradation. This is a system in which the people profiting off of sex workers, rather than the sex workers themselves, benefit. Functionally, prostitution is simply the mass profit of sexual exploitation by ‘pimps’. [8] This dynamic of inequality means that the very concept of choice within prostitution is non-existent. The theory of substantive autonomy posits that only certain choices are valid - true 'choice' does not exist in situations where the thing being chosen is inherently oppressive.[9] For instance, it would not be a valid choice for someone to choose to enter slavery. In the same way, as prostitution is an inherently oppressive act, it is impossible for those involved to be said to be making a truly autonomous choice.

Counter arguments

Criminalising women who sell sex further perpetuates inequalities. Sex workers working in systems in which prostitution is legal have reported feeling safer and more empowered in their work.[10] Clearly, having prostitution as an illegal industry does not serve to eradicate it; it simply drives it into the shadows. Illegality is not a solution to oppression. It cannot be assumed that no woman would choose to be a sex worker. The selling of sex is not in and of itself degrading or shameful. To suggest that it is is to subscribe to a hegemonic masculine world view. Many sex workers who have other options for work report having a genuine enjoyment of their work and the benefits it brings them. As former sex worker Meg Muñoz states, “I really, really did love the work... I was moving toward a goal, and sex work helped me do that”.[3] The selling of sex should not be problematised; the misogynist system should be. Instead of adopting a theory of substantive autonomy, we should look at prostitution from the point of view of procedural autonomy. This theory states that a choice is only invalid "if [an individual] suffers an affliction that is severe enough to distort and pathologize her capacity for reasoning; the default position is that she is autonomous."[9] We should ensure that those in prostitution have the freedom to make choices without circumstance that may serve to inhibit the quality of their reasoning and therefore a free choice. However, the way to do this is not to paternalistically dictate the choices on offer, but to do everything possible to maximise the choices of everyone who may be vulnerable. The power dynamic found in prostitution is not unusual. Many jobs and industries are male-dominated often due to constriction of choices and ideas about ‘women’s work’, reinforcing outdated cultural attitudes towards women.[11] The solution to this is not to make all of these industries illegal, but to examine why these things may come to be and how society at large can tackle misogynistic ideas about women. If these are examined, critiqued and replaced, the oppression now seen as inherent in certain industries will adjust. Additionally, it is far from unusual for people to take jobs only for money, or to have jobs that rest on systems of inequality. For instance, working in a fast-food restaurant is generally a job taken for money rather than due to a passion for fast food, and is part of a business model that normally rests on the inequality of workers being paid a fraction of what higher-ups are paid while doing far more strenuous work. This, of course, is a problematic system, but not one that would be helped by making working at a fast food restaurant illegal. Instead, strategies should be implemented to empower workers. To believe that having prostitution be illegal will help to reduce the oppression present in the industry is to examine completely the wrong facet of the issue. Illegality of prostitution simply serves to further oppress those in the industry. To implement this as a 'solution' to oppression in prostitution is to examine completely the wrong part of the issue. Instead, we should look to tackle wider societal issues of class and gender inequality.


[P1] Prostitution is a manifestation of the degradation of women. [P2] Therefore, prostitution should be illegal in order to reduce abuse.

Rejecting the premises

[Rejecting P1] Prostitution is not inherently degrading. [Rejecting P2] The illegality of prostitution does not serve to decrease its inequality.



This page was last edited on Monday, 13 Jan 2020 at 10:36 UTC

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