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Sex Work – Demeaning Practice or Basic Human Right?
Owen Nicholas   May 23, 2012   Ethical Technology  

As one of the world’s oldest professions, prostitution has historically often been relegated to the dark corners of human society, scarcely mentioned and generally ignored as much as possible. When it does emerge into mainstream discourse it is inevitably followed by the predictable group polemics which accompany almost every social issue of our time, generating fierce and often entrenched debate across the political spectrum.

By ignoring the traditional treatment of this topic along the Right-Left political axis, I want to concentrate on a far more interesting debate taking place within progressive circles as to the way enlightened, future societies should conceive and define sex work. Should its prohibition be seen as a further step in the emancipation of women, or should its acceptance and protection be seen as another defence against moralist authority?

Before engaging with specific arguments it may be necessary to examine exactly why sex work, as opposed to other sexual acts, engenders such radically different viewpoints. Most liberal minded individuals will accept the idea that people can have sex for a variety of different reasons than the socially promoted kind relating to love, affection or procreation. Lust, jealousy, boredom, vengeance, security, material gain, political expedience, all these are valid, if not endorsed, justifications for fooling around. Yet introduce commerce into the equation, with one person soliciting sex with money and the other offering sex to obtain it, the matter becomes classed as being of a different category. This is because when sex is perceived as an act which can be bought and sold like any other commodity; issues of exploitation and dominance are seen as more substantial. It is when sexual services are framed as business enterprises and sex just another form of occupation that the division between rights based pro-sex worker groups and philosophy based anti-prostitution groups becomes clear. 

Feminists, as the most vocal proponents of this debate, naturally champion these two strains of thought, which has resulted in one of the bitterest sectarian rows since the sex wars of the 1970’s. To anti-prostitution feminists, sex work can never be about women exercising control over their own bodies as long as it is an expression of men’s dominance over female sexuality. It is about gendered, ethnic, age, racial and class power relations. In this sense the selling of sex is not a normal commercial process but an oppressive act of humiliation, dirty, violent and utterly reprehensible. Women are powerless victims who are abused physically, sexually and emotionally for the sole purpose of male sexual gratification. Prostitution is not a choice made by free will, but rather an act of desperation forced by social and financial pressures, and is therefore a violation of human rights. Furthermore, the legalisation of sex work can only lead to the further degradation of women under the existing patriarchal system, culminating in the symbolic triumph of male aggression through sexual violence. As radical feminist Melissa Farley articulates:

‘Acceptance of prostitution is one of a cluster of harmful attitudes that encourage and justify violence against women. Violent behaviours against women have been associated with attitudes that promote men’s belief that they are entitled to sexual access to women, that they are superior to women, and that they are licensed as sexual aggressors. Men who use women in prostitution strongly endorse such attitudes towards women.” [1]

The opposing position of pro sex-worker feminists, defines the issue in completely different terms. This view centres on the idea that sexual freedom and the right to bodily autonomy is an integral component of women’s liberation and should never be dismissed or rejected lightly. Proponents often espouse deep scepticism and hostility towards attempts by governments, right-wing organisations, other feminists, or social institutions to legislatively control sexual activities between consenting adults. As long as the sexual transaction is voluntary, there is no justification for interference by anyone. If we accept that individuals are the sole owners of their bodies and labour services, then they alone have the right to decide how those services should be used. In this conception, the right to sex work is derived from the wider human rights of basic personal freedom.

Moreover there is no concession that sex work inherently constitutes coercion, exploitation or dominance over women. Although abuse can and does exist, many sex workers do not report experiencing this level of brutality, and some even claim to enjoy it. [2] Negative stereotypes may make it easier to demonise such activity, but over-generalisations and common preconceptions are not singularly good reasons to prohibit anything. Pro sex-work feminists maintain that the abuse and degradation of women is not specific to prostitution, but exists and is possible in every context of women’s lives. Sex-positive feminists like Ellen Willis argue that while radical or fundamentalist feminists no doubt have women’s best interests at heart, in this and many other cases, they actually end up perpetuating misogynistic, neo-Victorian thinking that men want sex and women endure it. [3]

The anti-prostitution response to this is that becoming a sex worker can never be a genuine choice of employment when the underlying basis of such work is economic necessity. This position concentrates on the premise that women are a disadvantaged group in modern society, possessing fewer economic opportunities, thus putting them in vulnerable positions of financial need. How can there be such thing as ‘consenting adults’ when one party is the buyer and the other the seller, especially when the buyer is socially constructed as being of a superior sex, race or class. As the buyers of sex, men wield greater power and therefore control over the relationship, meaning that male attitudes and desires are the dominant factor. Thus prostitution is based first and foremost on the economic disenfranchisement of women allowing men of relative privilege and power to exploit the poverty, powerlessness, and history of sexual abuse of the women involved in prostitution. To this school of feminism prostitution can never be reformed or made better because it is little more than a legitimisation for the coercion and rape of women. [4]

Arguments like this are seen as flawed by pro-legalisation advocates because they operate on the assumption that women only engage in such work due to external coercion and that this is true of every case. Removing individual agency from the picture and labeling all sex workers as abused, fallen women is seen as grossly distorting. People may adhere to the view that prostitution is degrading and objectifying, but this must not be mistaken for progressive views of women. Rather, this view is believed to stem from patronizing attitudes towards women and their sexuality that are commonly held in our society, where women are viewed as inherently vulnerable, dim, passive and easily prone to victimization. Refusing to acknowledge varied and legitimate reasons for entering sex work is merely a reflection of deeply held traditional beliefs regarding masculine and feminine identity. In this way attempts to ‘protect’ women from prostitution are really means of protecting society from the sexual power of women. [5]

Another objection to the economic aspect is that there is an implicit expectation that if society were more economically equal, prostitution would simply cease to exist or undergo a swift decline. As no society has ever existed that has successfully eradicated prostitution, such speculation cannot be used to prove the fundamental nature of sex work. Is it not possible to imagine that with economic parity, and equal purchasing power for women, one would see a rise in female clientele and a corresponding increase in male, or even female, sex workers? Indeed male to male prostitution exists and male sexual services for women are hardly unheard of. It is suggested that to assume that women would not use such services is to espouse intrinsically sexist ideas that women do not have the same sexual needs as men. Although sexism and economic exploitation may be prevalent in prostitution it is argued that such conditions are not inherent to sex work itself.

Critics of sex positive accounts claim that such feminists conflate indiscriminate sexual practice with empowerment. Performing a sex act according to the demands and pleasure of another while your own satisfaction is irrelevant, is not a mutual or equal sex act but a subordinate position. The one who submits is reduced to an instrument of sexual gratification where their mental and emotional disassociation from the event is seen as natural. In this light prostitution plays an important role in supporting the social inequality of women by characterising them as sex objects which can be dehumanised and treated as inferior. Viewing women first and foremost in terms of sex sends the message that buying and selling women’s bodies as commodities in capitalist exchange is a male right. Accordingly, tolerating prostitution becomes tantamount to culturally, legally and morally endorsing the enslavement of sex workers. As abolitionist Trish Baptie phrases it:

‘Do we really think that (prostitution) is a sign of an egalitarian society? One of the most “sex-positive” things you can do is make sure men cannot buy sex, because the buying of sex is violence against women and is a direct deterrent to women’s equality.’ [6]

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum questions whether the sale of sexual services genuinely damages the persons who provide them or women as a whole. In her view it is the stigmatization of sex work that is the most damaging and argues that that the problems associated with prostitution are components of many other kinds of work and social practices, such as marriage. These problems are not inherent to the work but are often a function of the prostitute’s working conditions and treatment by others. In this way when sex work is defined in its wider social context it is concluded that poverty, repression and sexism are the cause of inequality in prostitution, not vice versa. If society were to eliminate the economic and social subordination of women, then the harms existing in the current practice of sex work would likewise be eliminated. 

Criticism has also been raised about the validity of attacking prostitution as a single institution when the fact is that sex work exists in many different contexts and involves different practices. This view opposes attempts to reduce the global sex trade to one monolithic explanation of violence to women. Certainly this is reflected in numerous discourses between 2nd wave feminists of the 1970’s and younger 3rd wave feminists who critiqued the essentialist narrative promoted by older feminist thought. Amongst this debate was the belief that post-colonial, non-white perspectives had been largely ignored by the feminist establishment. Kamala Kempadoo writes:

‘The agency of Brown and Black women in prostitution has been avoided or overlooked and the perspectives arising from these experiences marginalized in dominant theoretical discourse on the global sex trade and prostitution. Our insights, knowledge, and understanding of sex work have been largely obscured or dominated by white radical feminist, neo-Marxist or Western socialist feminist inspired analyses that have been either incapable or unwilling to address the complexities of the lives of women of colour.’ [8]

Kempadoo supports the conceptualisation of sex work as a form of labour and argues that by avoiding moralistic discourses of sexuality or degradation, feminists can steer clear of unrealistic abolitionist approaches. In doing so they should concentrate on working conditions, worker’s empowerment and the legal status of such work.

However many radical feminists are not persuaded by such arguments and cite the widespread abuse of women who work in prostitution, the serious risk of disease, the rampant criminality associated with the trade as justifications for clamping down on the industry. They posit that the best way of doing this is to use the legislative and enforcement power of the state to rescue the dignity of women forced into this work by sex traffickers and an uncaring public.

Although some feminists see getting arrested as the first step on the path to recovery, many more worry that prostitution laws will be applied unfairly to women and serve to compound their victimization. To this group the desirable alternative would be to decriminalise prostituted persons and only prosecute the clients who coerce sex with money, or the pimps who recruit women into the business. This has become known as the ‘Scandinavian model’ and has been implemented in countries like Sweden, Norway, Iceland and soon possibly Denmark. Similarities are made between this kind of enforcement and the experiences of women who are battered, raped, harassed and suffer incest who are not punished for these crimes against them, whereas the perpetrators are criminalised in accordance with the law.

Radical feminists deny that legalisation or decriminalisation can improve the lives of women within prostitution and argue that sex work is impossible to rehabilitate in the same way that domestic violence cannot be rehabilitated. Comparisons are made between the market in sexual services to the markets in bodily organs, babies and child labour. The foundations here are that people only enter such exploitative situations because they are without other options and that rather than addressing issues of legality or anti-poverty campaigns, more efforts should be made to provide alternative avenues of employment rather than rationalising oppressive systems.

A key challenge to conceptions of the sex industry as aiding the objectification of women is that such criticism ignores the opinions and attitudes of sex workers themselves who continually assert that they are selling sexual services to paying customers, not their bodies. Consequently, sex workers are not passive victims but equal actors in a contractual relationship that happens to have sexual content. The promotion of sex as an activity which somehow requires unique distinction, above and beyond modelling, sport, advertising or acting is not one universally shared by many participants. In fact one of the central allegations made against anti-prostitution feminists is that their theories bare no relation to the practical concerns or feelings of the ordinary women who work in this area. Sex-work activist and researcher Laura Agustin denounces what she sees as a reductionist, infantilising ideology which has come to dominate mainstream policy, pointing out that:

‘Large amounts of money go into these (social) programmes to rescue people who in many, many, many cases do not want to be rescued. Many women choose sex work as a preference to jobs such as domestic work….We’re talking about the ability to recognise that someone else can make a different decision from your own about her economic or mental or emotional empowerment. If you want to rescue someone you need to know very well first what it is that they want before you rush in to help them.’[10]

Advocates for legalisation assert that most of the social ills attributed to sex work are actually caused by criminalisation; for example, ‘sex trafficking’ is only possible within criminalised, underground and unregulated industries.  Criminalization worsens the quality of life for all sex workers; it closes doors to those who want to get out of the industry and forces them to remain. Furthermore the ‘Swedish model’ not only impoverishes sex workers but robs them of agency and assigns them the role of victim regardless of the status of their consent. Such legislation pushes the women’s rights movement back an entire century by reducing all women to passive dullards incapable of independent choice. Instead, comprehensive legal models which are supported include the systems operating in The Netherlands, Germany and New Zealand. The grassroots educational organisation ‘Sex Workers Without Borders’ declares:

‘Though we are often incorrectly stereotyped as mentally incompetent, addicted, diseased and desperate, sex workers actually come from all backgrounds and walks of life, and 85% of us work indoors.  Many are single mothers, some are students, and some use sex work to supplement their incomes from other sources.  Some would choose to leave sex work if they had different options open to them, while others enjoy their chosen profession and would choose sex work regardless of circumstance.  In fact, some of our members are university graduates who choose sex work because they have found it to be best suited to their goals.  All sex workers are human beings and as such ought to be afforded basic human rights to life and liberty.’

This argument hinges on the idea that legalisation will drive the industry to the surface, as opposed to being an underground black market affair. This will serve to increase the safety, awareness, and autonomy of the individuals involved in the practice itself, but will more importantly help to reconceptualise notions of sex, prostitution, and female sexuality. It is maintained that true equality and true sexual autonomy can only be achieved when sex work, and sex in general, is reconceived in an anti-hierarchical, anti-sexist, anti-heterosexist and anti-exploitative fashion.

This debate will no doubt go on for a long time with increasingly inflammatory and vitriolic rhetoric from both sides. But seeing as the future of progressive politics on sexual issues cannot be disentangled from this issue, it is becoming increasingly obvious that it needs to be resolved or at least formulated and deconstructed in a rational manner. The only group which gains from this sub-cultural paralysis is the political Right, which would no doubt like to demonise a great many sexual relationships and acts as sinful and unnatural. As a progressive think tank, perhaps the IEET could conduct a poll to see where their readership stands on this issue and begin to develop a general consensus.






[2] S.A Anderson, “Prostitution and Sexual Autonomy: Making Sense of the Prohibition of Prostitution”, in Ethics, volume 112: 2002, p. 753  





[7] treatment by others


[9] cannot be rehabilitated

[10]  quote to help them

Owen Nicholas is a recent graduate from Nottingham University where he majored in History and Political Science; he is involved in numerous charities aiding the elderly and ethnic minorities and teaches English to foreign students.


Great layout of the arguments. Perhaps too focused on female sex workers.  A little more about male and transgendered issues around sex work would be appreciated.

In my opinion sex workers need to be supported in ways that allow them to speak for themselves about their needs, and in that way change the conversation.  Categorizing a group of people as exemplary of a societal problem (i.e. objectification and exploitation) may be useful for political posturing, but ultimately is dehumanizing, and only works to re-inscribe the societal problems onto a group of people. 

I am a woman. I consider myself a feminist. My opinion has developed over the years after knowing people in the sex working industry.  I must say I support sex worker rights. Sex work should be decriminalized for men, women and the transgendered, be they patrons or workers. Male, female, and transgendered sex workers should organize and unionize for fair pay not just for prostitution services, but also for fair pay and benefits in the porn and stripping industries. In an equitable society no one should be exploited for any type of labor, let alone sex work.

Representation and lobbying power in local, state and federal governments are paramount to changing not just the dialogue around sex work but the puritanically driven dialogue around all sex. 

If I wanted to sell sex why should it destroy me emotionally, why should I be looked down upon or arrested, why should the customer be shamed in any way? What is at the core of sex and selling it that is problematic? Isn’t sex a thing that can and should be joyous, and fun, and worth it whether you paid for it, or got paid for it, or didn’t pay for it at all?  For the folks who are into having sex, (because I know there are a fair amount of people who just don’t care for it) shouldn’t they be having the most emotionally healthy and GOOD/GREAT sex they can have? I think that decriminalizing and supporting ALL consensual sex between adults would go a long way toward all of us having much healthier dialogue and much healthier lives.

In the future (and right now I suppose) when technology provides a myriad of paths toward sexual gratification, human contact will continue to be a hot commodity and probably always will be for as long as we are in our meat bodies.  We definitely should begin to create a less exploitative and more ethical framing for sex work. 

Excellent article, Owen. You have made both sides of the debate very clear.  The issue appears to a great extent to be one of consent. There are roughly speaking two classes of sex worker; the ones who choose to do sex work and those who are forced through trafficking or some other agency into the work. A possible beginning to unraveling the consent issue would be to license sex workers in the same way that other professionals are licensed. Each individual would have to hold their own license regardless of whether they worked alone or with an agency. It would also help to maintain health standards and if administered properly some advocacy for the workers much as a union would do.

The question I ask myself, is ‘Given abundance - whether you frame that as unlimited money, or the abolishment of money - would anyone then still choose to work for sex?’

In other words, eliminate the economic necessity and do you still have the motivation and/or will to do it?

If the answer is no, then the job in question, no matter what it is, is probably a negative thing. It’s what we call a ‘necessary evil’. I don’t agree with ‘necessary evils’. I don’t like slippery slopes.

I believe that what it really boils down to is intrinsic vs. extrinsic reward.

Is the activity, in and of itself, a rewarding one? To put it another way, would you do it if you were not getting paid for it?

If the answer is no, then the activity falls under the ‘necessary evil’ category.

I believe it is not only preferable, but also possible and feasible that all human activity could be intrinsically rewarding.

That is, I see no reason, beyond simple human ignorance and arrogance, that we couldn’t all choose to do whatever we wish, fulfilling our desires and dreams, without ever having to choose something that is not intrinsically rewarding in and of itself.

On the other hand, nor do I believe that these types of activities ought to be prohibited by law.

Autonomy is also very important.

The solution is to obsolete the problem.

I don’t think the majority of people on this planet would choose ‘sex work’ if they had other means to support themselves.

Radical abundance is therefore the solution.

If people choose to engage in such activities after we all live in a radically abundant world - then we will know, without doubt, that these activities are not being forced upon people by economic necessity - and then there’s no reason to prohibit them in the first place.

Radical abundance obsoletes the dilemma.

Good point, artchemical. I see it as quite similar to arguments saying that legalizing gay marriage would be immoral because the kids would get picked on at school. Funny how they fail to realize that it’s exactly the perpetuation of that disempowering/demonizing memeplex that gives rise to the mentioned negative consequences.

@iPan: In a world of abundance, would there be any difference between ‘sex work’ and ‘having sex’?

If there’s no need to get paid, then doesn’t prostitution just collapse into regular old sex? And if that’s the case, isn’t it far more likely that ‘sex work’ would continue (or expand) in a post-abundance world?

@John Niman: Presumably, in a post-scarcity world where money has been replaced by whuffie/reputation, the analogy to today’s sex worker would be one who engages in sex for the conscious primary aim of increasing one’s whuffie, foregoing the “wholesome” primary aims of love/fun/procreation etc.
The question of whether it would expand is an interesting one. I would guess not, considering a substantial proportion of today’s sex work is done out of necessity, and necessity is a more powerful motivator than whuffie wealth that is not essential for survival.

My point is more about intrinsic vs. extrinsic reward, but shaGGGz is essentially correct.

The question we ought to ask ourselves, and I believe this go’s for any activity that humans engage in, is whether that activity has intrinsic value to the person doing it.

Are they doing it for it’s own sake? Is it, in and of itself, worthwhile to the person(s) performing the activity.

If the answer is no, then a person engaging in that activity is doing so out of coercion, even if the source of the coercion is economic - being forced to, out of circumstance or lack of opportunity, is a form of coercion.

So, my proposal, is to eliminate that form of coercion, then let people do what they want to do, whatever that may be.

I don’t care whether people have sex, smoke dope, stand on one leg, or invent exponentially expanding intelligent machines, as long as they are always doing it 100% through their own autonomy at all times.

The only way to ensure that people are doing this is through post-scarcity economics.

So, obsolete the dilemma.

@iPan: Are you suggesting that sex work should be criminalized until post-scarcity economics because it is currently a form of coercion?
Yes, to obsolete the dilemma would be fine and dandy, but that doesn’t give us much insight into what should be done until said obsolescence.


We should forgive, and offer a helping hand.

On the other hand, I suspect telepresence robotics will, at least, reduce some of the dangers of sex work.

@iPan: “Forgive”? What wrong have they committed that requires forgiveness?

Owen, wonderful layout of the arguments on both sides. I would agree with Artchemical about focusing on female sex workers, as there are so many trans and male voices that are intrinsic to the conversation. But overall it is an excellent article!

@SHaGGGz - there is an aspect of what I hear iPan saying - if I were to interpret, it would be “forgiving” the crime of it - letting the person off the hook. However, this is something that should not be a crime in the first place. The other aspect of “forgiving” is that culturally, there needs to be a reviewing of the moralistic BS that is projected onto sex workers - until there is no more need for “forgiveness”.

However, the word is equally patronizing as it is to view all sex workers as victims. Not the best word to use.

What I mean is that forgiveness is how we achieve a more harmonious, anarcho-pacifist, ideal world.

I didn’t mean that sex workers needed to be “forgiven” for some transgression - I meant, that while we live in less than ideal circumstances now - we learn to forgive, and move on to a better world.

Without forgiveness, all we have is a downward spiral.

So, whether you take that as the law forgiving the prostitutes, or the prostitutes forgiving society for stigmatizing them, doesn’t matter to me.

And then, also in the meantime, I think that telepresence robotics will mitigate some of the danger of sex work (such as disease, violence, etc.)

And then, when we transition to a post-scarce world, the idea of “sex-work” will simply become obsolete (as do all forms of “work” as we currently see them).

@iPan - you make a compelling point.  if the economic pressure was eliminated what would be revealed to be a necessary evil?  I believe a lot of sex work would be revealed to be a necessary evil as would a lot of other work, (i.e. paper pushing, janitorial work, etc.)  We would enter a new era where we were economically free and therefore creatively free to invent other methods for getting crappy work done for us.

Sex “work” would probably still exist, possibly just as sex performance.  For example, I don’t see domination sex work as something that would disappear.

Also, what happens when the economic pressures go away but there is still, for lack of a better word,  a market for it?

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