posted 2012-02-01 11:09:41

The Degradation of Prostitution

Should the Sale of Sexual Services Be Illegal? 

Salim Westvind

Opinion Editor

The question of whether or not the sale of sexual services is ethical is an age-old issue. Most modern societies hold that it is not and, with few exceptions, have made it illegal. The word most commonly used to describe these transactions, “prostitution,” carries further negative connotations—Merriam Webster includes “debasement,” or the “[lowering] in status, esteem, quality, character,” in the word’s definition. However, despite the status quo, the sale of sexual services may be okay in itself. The reasoning behind its prohibition seems questionable, and its taboo based on religious morality rather than secular ethics.

Why would someone offer sexual services in exchange for money? There seem to be four principal reasons: desperation, a lack of appreciable skills, personal preferences or choice, and coercion. The first, desperation, occurs when men or women face financial troubles and resort to prostitution to bring in much-needed money for themselves or their families. The second, a lack of appreciable job skills, is related to first. A lack of education, for example, may leave few other options for employment. Though not often cited (especially by opponents), there is also the third possible motivation, that of personal choice. Just as some women choose to be exotic dancers, and others adult film actors, some women may choose to sell sexual services because they enjoy it, or enjoy the lifestyle that it brings. Finally, and perhaps the most common explanation, is coercion. Criminal gangs or abusive lovers may force women (and men, though perhaps less commonly) into the sex trade, either with intimidation or threats of violence.

But, with the exception of coercion, aren’t these the same reasons we take any job? We don’t denigrate the job of a janitor, though he may be forced into his occupation by a need to feed his family (desperation). Nor do we criminalize the burger-flipper at McDonald’s, who faces a limited job market because she dropped out of high school (lack of appreciable skills). Finally, though there remain taboos regarding pornography, it’s a legal profession in much of the Western world, and women like Jenna Jameson (estimated net worth; $20 million) have embraced the entrepreneurial possibilities of the industry (personal choice). What is it about the presence of a camera that makes a paid sex act more permissible? Is it that the intent of the act is different? Is it that both parties are paid, ameliorating the power structure of one human (the buyer) over another (the seller)?

As for coercion, this may be a product of the prohibition on the sale of sex acts, rather than the act itself. Arguably, it was the prohibition of alcohol from 1920 to 1933 which led to the rise of organized crime. Similarly, it may be because the sale of sexual acts is illegal that men and women can be forced into labor by criminal organizations, rather than something about the act itself, which as noted above seems little different than other forms of labor. While men and women employed in lawful profession can seek legal action against employers, and are protected by employment laws governing sick leave, minimum salaries and working conditions, those in the sex trade have no such protections.

If there are no clear distinctions between the motivations behind those seeking lawful employment and the professional provision of sexual services, only vague demarcations between pornography and paid sex off-camera, and a case of mistaken causality in coercion, what then makes the sale of sex acts unethical?

Two related candidates are commonly cited as an explanation: dogma, and the “sacred” aura surrounding reproduction. The Bible prohibits prostitution as immoral, and many people today still champion this decree. But the Bible is not always the best source on morality: Leviticus famously allows certain forms of slavery. While religion may be a simple reason to ban a practice, it is unjust—another’s religion may have different views, and in a country where there stands a wall between church and state, no one view should take precedence over another.

The second explanation, the idea that there is an air of sanctity around sex and reproduction that should not be violated, is more convincing. There does seem to be something special about human love and sex, at least in that it is central to how we tend to organize our society at the lowest levels. Sex is an intensely personal act, perhaps the most personal that humans can share, and the inclusion of money may stain it. But we farm out other aspects of sex and reproduction with few qualms. Especially in this country, we farm out child caring to professionals. Other deeply private matters, like end-of-life care and old-age nursing, are paid and delivered as plainly as buying bread. It is important to note that these two professions are also notoriously low-paying. It seems strange that these professions—which are also demanding, deemed “demeaning” by observers and deal with the most intensely personal matters of human existence—are legal, but the sale of sexual services is not.

Though often dismissed and vilified, perhaps the sale of sexual services is not so different from “regular” jobs after all, and it is only religious dogma that keeps it wallowing in “sin.” Unfortunately, this designation may in itself lead to abuse, as it opens the market to criminal enterprise. Since causality is unclear, the resulting coercion is used to justify the ban, creating a feedback loop of mistreatment. Ultimately, society would be best served by legalizing the sale of sexual services. By recognizing its commonalities with “normal” jobs, we can better the lives of the men and women involved and our society as a whole. Though we as a society often focus on how the sex trade is degrading, perhaps we should look at how we degrade the sex trade.