The Sex Trade

25 December 2014

The sex trade includes pornography, erotic dance, phone sex, and probably some things I’ve never heard of.  But our focus today is prostitution in many but not all of its varieties.   Prostitution mainly involves men paying women for sex.  There are a lot of male and transsexual prostitutes too.  And there are some female customers, too.  But in the overwhelming majority of cases prostitutes, male or female, service the sexual desires of men.

I think it's a mistake to suppose that all customers of prostitutes are pathetic or perverse.  Normal guys with normal sexual desires frequent prostitutes too.  Prostitution is a complex, multi-faceted thing.  We can’t lump all forms of it together, if we’re going to justice to the many moral and legal issues the sex trade raises.

The legal status is pretty settled, at least in the US.  Thanks in part to the women’s movement, it’s been against the law since the early 20th Century, except for a few counties in Nevada.

But it is legal in a lot of countries -- some of which might surprise you. Canada, most of Central and South America, India, and Turkey.  And some which might not surprise you -- Australia and most of Western Europe.

Aside from the issue of legality, prostitutes work under lots of different social and economic conditions.  Some walk the streets, plying their trade in cars or back alleys.  Others work in brothels or fancy hotels.  Some prostitutes live trick to trick,  hour to hour.  Others have secretaries, appointment books, and well-heeled regulars.

One position on prostitution is that none of this really makes a moral difference. The institution of prostituion is wrong, evil even, a gruesome reminder of the second-class status that women have traditionally had and still suffer from around the world.  After all,   prostitutes are often coerced into the trade.  Some girls end up as prostitutes before they’re even old enough to know what’s happening.   Others are sold into prostitution by their own families.  Many are lured into it under false pretenses, these days, in Europe and in America, often as part of some illegal immigration scheme.  And there is the fact that many prostitutes work for pimps, who rake in the profits, while the sex workers do the dirty and often dangerous work.

But suppose prostitutes were guaranteed a fair wage, decent working conditions, and a real measure of autonomy?  Would prostitution be immoral, under these circumstances?

Some would argue that it would still be immoral. Even if the working conditions are improved, it is inherently degrading to sell your body. Against this one might argue that as long as no one is being abused or manipulated, or coerned, so it is basically a fair transaction, selling sexual labor is no more degrading than selling many kinds of manual or even intellectual labor.

Many feminists --- but not all ---  argue that prostitution is intrinsically wrong, because it debases and dehumanizes women.  It turns them into objects. It is intrinsically different from other forms of manual and intellectual labor.

But we treat each other as objects in many situations.  Suppose I stop and ask you for directions.  I’m interested in you for one reason and one reason only.  You may as well be a GPS as far as I’m concerned.

One might well suppose that sex is different.  It should be a two way street.  Prostitution makes it a one-way street.  It turns what should be intimate and mutual into something cold and mechanical.

But doesn’t this view over-romanticize and idealize non-commercial sex?  Certainly, at its best, consensual non-commercial sex may be a two-way street, intimate, mutual, and rewarding in spiritual ways to both parties.  But lots of sex falls short of this, even when no money is involved. Guys get sex all the time by convincing women that they care.  And there are plenty of women who’ll sleep with a guy just because he’s rich or famous.  One might argue that compared to other parts of the realm of non-ideal sex,  at least the sex trade is up front and honest.

So we have two positions. One holds that prostitution is inherently degrading and of necessity involves objectionable objectification, and so is wrong, even if conducted in a way that is safe for and non-exploitative of the prostitute. The other position holds that if conducted in this way, prostitution could be a fair commercial transaction that preserves the dignity of both seller and purchases of sexual favors.  We should have a lively discussion.

 

Comments (21)


Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, October 13, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Would you accept it,

Would you accept it, truthfully and supportively, if your mother, daughter or sister chose to go into prostitution?

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, October 13, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

World's oldest profession? So

World's oldest profession? So it has been said. Sleeping with someone is a misnomer because people do not lie down together to sleep. Please. Let's cut through the anthropocentric symbolism. Everyone pays for sex, one way or another. And anyone who denies this is a fool. It is all a matter of perspective.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, October 13, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Why wouldn't I support them

Why wouldn't I support them Jennie? If you didn't you would be a gigantic asshole.
You don't get to choose what your mother, sister, or daughter do.
But you can be a part of making sure they can do what they decide to do safely.
That they won't be harassed by cops.
That they'll be able to access the health and support services they need.
That they can report abuse and exploitation to the police without being treated like dirt; so that they can report the crimes against sex workers that would otherwise go unreported.
Also why are you only asking about female family members?
What about fathers, brothers, and sons?
Is it because you think men are capable of making their own decisions but women aren't?
And what about all the other things people may not want their mothers, sisters, or daughters to do?
What about washing toilets for minimum wage?
What about BDSM?
What if your daughter realized that she enjoyed being fucked in the ass?
Or having her face fucked until she gagged?
Would you support that?
If not does that mean it should be illigal?
So to answer your question; yes, I would support them absolutely.
My only reservations about sex work is because of the stigma against it.
I'd be worried that they would be targeted for abuse by intolerant and judgmental people.
The kind of people who hide their misogyny and sex negativity behind feminism.
But the answer to that is to promote sex worker's and indeed women's rights;
Not the criminalization of sex work.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, October 13, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Some thoughts on today's

Some thoughts on today's program ?
I think the points that Ken was making (and I'm not sure to what degree they are his actual positions on the issue) sum up a certain strain of Second Wave feminist argument against the sex industry that relies on the idea of "inherent disgust" and "moral intuition" and has more than a slight degree of subjectivity to it. Why is it that sex in a commercial rather than relational context is "cheapened", "degrading", etc? It seems to me that the anti-sex industry argument can't ever really get beyond its own intuitional sexual morality ? the view that since one could not imagine oneself doing such work and being anything other than disgusted and traumatized, it must be harmful for all people, or at least all women. That's a very subjective view that one needs quite a bit of additional justification to universalize.
Indeed, most of what I see said about the "telos" of sex are mere pronouncements. Statements of "ought" based in subjective moral judgements rather than remotely objective moral arguments. The claim that sex is "for" the advancement of loving "mutual" relationships and therefore sex work should be outlawed is as much of a kneejerk moral judgement as the idea that the "telos" of sex is ultimately to bond man and wife and produce children, and in turn using that as a basis to argue against rights for gay people. (And, BTW, I've heard San Francisco's new Archbishop make a variation on that argument within the last month as justification for the Church's active support of Prop 8.)
The argument that the sex industry is upheld by "disgusting males" is similarly weak. Again, so what? This seems to be a cheap appeal to the idea that female sexuality is somehow higher and more noble than male sexuality, and is a foolish basis for real social policy. (And as a "disgusting male" myself, if I was feeling less diplomatic, I'd go on at length of how contemptible I find such judgements.)
More to the point, while I agree that men are indeed by and large the buyers in the sex industry, I think the real implication of the fact that male sex workers exist in non-trivial numbers was not really explored during the discussion. I think it clearly undermines the "patriarchy" argument about prostitution - the idea that men objectify and consign women to the sex industry because men have power over women. The thing is, male sex workers exist in proportion to the gay and bisexual male population. Where is the "patriarchy" and gender power asymmetry there? Where is the asymmetry between straight and gay? Certainly other power differences of race, age, income, etc may still exist, but there are too many mature white male sex workers to reduce male sex work to a simple power differential. So if sex work and "objectification" can indeed exist even among relative social equals, what happens to the "inequality" argument? And is it such a stretch to hold that in many cases, women likewise can engage in sex work from a relatively egalitarian place with men?
On the other hand, one point that Tracy Quan didn't go into enough depth about, perhaps due to time limitations, was how to help those who are coerced, trapped, or otherwise less than willing in the sex industry. It certainly gave room for a questioner from the audience to play the "What about the sex slaves?" argument quite self-righteously. She had a point, however, that are many in the sex industry who are without a voice and relatively powerless. The weakness in the questioners argument, however, is that it seemed very hostile to the idea that those people be offered solutions that give them a voice, and instead seemed to prefer that they be consigned to the role of victims to be rescued. (Something that puts this kind of anti-prostitution activism in much the same category as anti-abortion or animal rights activism, with its similar emphasis on saving those helpless victims without agency from terrible atrocities.)
I think there are many ways that the pure victimization point of view fails actual victims (witness the rhetoric from some feminists that sex workers are all "brainwashed"), and there's really much more that a rights- and empowerment-based activism has to offer even the most downtrodden, but too often, sex worker rights activists don't address that area because they are forced to spend so much time defending the voluntary nature of much of sex work against naysayers.
(OK, that was more than a few thoughts.)

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, October 14, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Seems the morality theme is

Seems the morality theme is continuing. I suspect someone is working on a book---but, that is only a suspicion. I think there is nothing much new to say about this issue.So, I will not try. I'll only repeat, briefly, what has been said about sexuallity for years since Kinsey and Masters and Johnson. The substance is an interpretation. The words are, I think, my own: Sexuality and sexual behaviour are among the most fundamental of human instincts. And they are, instinctual-educational and cultural influences, notwithstanding. Maslow constructed his hierarchy of needs many years ago. We can parse, examine and analyze these things until we can no longer parse, examine and analyze them. Is it all so complicated? No, not really, yet, I am sure, we will continue to parse, examine and analyze. This is how we are.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, October 15, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Prostitution must be a very

Prostitution must be a very tough way to make a living,
But if your body is all that you have to offer,
Then who am I to judge,
Or take their livelihood away.
Be One,
=

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, October 15, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Armchair Philosopher - I'd

Armchair Philosopher - I'd take serious issue with the idea that there's nothing new to say about sexuality since Maslow and Masters & Johnson! A great deal has been researched or discussed in a number of sciences, in the arts, and in philosophy. And I think we've barely scratched the surface of what makes us tick sexually!

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, October 16, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Bleah! Let's get back to

Bleah! Let's get back to philosophy, shall we? Thanks.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, October 17, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

John and Ken (especially Ken)

John and Ken (especially Ken) -- for a couple of feminist guys you really monopolized the discussion. I wish you would have let the guest talk more. She was certainly trying to, but you kept interrupting.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, October 17, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Long time listener first time

Long time listener first time commenter.
You sure did prove the point tonight about our male dominated patriarchal society by constantly interrupting your guest, talking over her, scolding her choices and not allowing her to answer many of the audience questions.
Excellent demonstration of the concept, gentlemen.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, October 18, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

I have never heard our

I have never heard our moderators ignore and not allow to participate or express views less than on this podcast. That to me is Ken's patriarchal domination over their GUEST like never before. Very long time listener, never moved to blog, This was true travesty.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, October 19, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

It seems to me that Jennie

It seems to me that Jennie raised a point that was inappropriately dismissed. My own version of Jennie's point goes something like this: If prostitution is fully legalized so that it becomes like any other normal occupation, then people who receive social assistance and, as a condition of receiving it, must accept any offer of work that is offered or lose their assistance, they will become de facto sex-slaves. I think that most people not indoctrinated into such a system would find it deplorable. While I support decriminalization of prostitution and social action to combat exploitation of people who enter into prostitution forcibly or voluntarily, prostitution should not be allowed to develop into into an unregulated occupation.
By the way, the statement that prostitution is legal in Canada is misleading. As I understand it, the specific law against prostitution was declared unconstitutional and, in the absence of a replacement, prosecution is impossible. However, "communication for the purpose of prostitution" remains an indictable offense, seeming to serve little purpose except to facilitate police stings.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, October 20, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Iamcuriousblue,

Iamcuriousblue,
I would like to thank you for your points about the Feminist driven movement against prostitution. I was listening, I wanted to be in that auditorium and challenge Ken on his pure feminist motivations. It is my understanding that most male sex workers in the gay sex industry actively make the choice to participate in the industry. In fact, most of them thoroughly enjoy the work.
If one wanted to solve Ken's moral feminist dilemma but legalize prostitution, the obvious solution is to legalize male prostitution. Then "disgusting" men only degrade themselves instead of women. Problem solved. But I strongly suspect Ken would reject this proposal for some "new" reason.
Overall I really liked this episode. The guest was perhaps a little dogmatic. But I really liked how John challenged Ken on his Protestant and Catholic background as influences.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, October 21, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

You can dress it up however

You can dress it up however you like but it's sickening moral relativism to feel entitled to have a portion of society be disposable for men's use.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, October 22, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

With reference to the comment

With reference to the comment by Patrick R, the egalitarian ideal in all Western societies makes the idea of legalizing only male prostitution unworkable. However, the distinction between voluntary and involuntary involvement in prostitution is crucial to a morally sound solution.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, October 22, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Well, this has been fun. Or,

Well, this has been fun. Or, if that designation offends: interesting. Nothing quite like politics, religion or sex to fire up a discussion. Parsing over the many comments was instructive to me. Not sure what to say, but, I'll say this: cultural intractibility (or intractability---I'm not good with spelling), appears to be a culprit. World's oldest profession? Probably so, if we believe so-called history. It is subject to change, isn't it? Oh, don't laugh. Yet.

maria's picture

maria

Tuesday, October 23, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

I am a sex worker. Yup, a

I am a sex worker. Yup, a whore. I'm 50 years old and chose to enter this when pressured by finances but I now defend my choice as I have found that I often enjoy what I do. I advertise myself as providing a more intimate, human encounter. I have devoted regulars and have been told that I have changed a few peoples lives.
Sometimes people need a guide to help them feel bliss or a sense of sexual and perhaps even personal freedom. I enjoy being that guide.
I don't feel degraded and in fact have had amazing experiences and met incredible people.
Ive had some of the best sex of ,my life with a few clients. I have a bounty of friends I met as a hooker.
I am the type of sex worker who could needs prostitution decriminalized.
How we contend with the world wide problem of sex slave trafficking is an entire other thing. Certainly if prostitutes could report abuse that would be a start. But we are criminals and we are usually treated as such even when we are actually victims.
Options would be nice. So many of these women end up where they are because of too few options. Runaways who need to flee abuse are a common theme.
Criminalizing prostitution creates a bitter cycle for many of the people who end up in it. Once you get arrested for prostitution, try getting a legit job with that on your record.
There are no easy answers but one thing is for sure is that prostitution is NEVER going to go away. Lets find ways to protect and empower anyone who finds themselves in sex work.
Whether they are there willingly like me or not.
Oh and please vote NO on Prop 35. Its a shortsighted proposition that will hurt more than it helps.
Well stated here - http://www.eastbayexpress.com/ebx/endorsements-part-iii-vote-guillen-sal...

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, October 23, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Good points on all sides.

Good points on all sides.
I think one of the real ways this could hurt women - and why I would dissuade a sister or friend - is the social stigma.
1. How does "prostitute" or "sex worker" look on a resume?
2. How would a date react if you tell him you were working as a prostitute?
It could be something positive on a resume: Prostitutes are often very professional, very much in control of the situation (managing), good at human contact, attractive and charming, and have experience handling cash transactions, sometimes under high pressure and limited security. That's the job! All of that would seem to indicate that this is often rather high-quality human capital we're discussing. In western European tourist cities, you could add that the East-European girls working there also build up very good English skills. Anyone have business ideas to occupy them once these ladies get "old" and go back to the bleak employment prospects of Sofia or Bucarest?
The more serious question is to what extent, once a woman becomes a prostitute, she can re-integrate into society. Marry, have kids. In many societies she will nonetheless be either seen as lesser than a woman who hasn't engaged in prostitution, more "used", less "moral", lower class, and looked down upon (also by prospective husbands), or a prospective husband will have trouble trusting her with monogamy. Maybe she'll revert to that profession if he gets fired from his job? Maybe she'll do so even if they have kids?
For most men those are scary scenarios to play with, even if they are in their mid-30s in Ukraine, want to settle down, and have just met a beautiful, sweet, multilingual, confident and talented woman... who reveals to him that she honed those talents in the sex trade of some place with more money than Kiyiv.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, October 23, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Well, yes---it has been fun.

Well, yes---it has been fun. I don't believe we ought to empower or protect anyone who finds themselves in sex work. Period. Come on now. I served my sentence. Worked my thirty years in government, constantly having my intelligence questionned, while other, politically advantaged and pre-positioned bozos got promotions, and, ultimately, better retirement packages. So, here's to whores. Do what you like---if you like it. But don't preach to me about empowerment or protection. Or, you could go to somewhere in the Middle East, with all that Shariah law and such. I don't suppose you'd really want to do that, though---would you?

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, October 30, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Arvoasitis -

Arvoasitis -
The claim that if prostitution is legalized or fully decriminalized, then poor women will be forced by welfare agencies to take jobs in the sex industry is simply a myth perpetuated by the anti-sex work movement. Snopes has a very good article debunking the oft-mentioned claim that women are forced to take brothel jobs in Germany: http://www.snopes.com/media/notnews/brothel.asp .
It should be pointed out that most non-Islamic countries already have some subset of the sex industry that's legal. Even where prostitution isn't legal, stripping, porn acting, or webcamming often are. And while it's true that some women, men, and trans people may very well take such jobs out of financial desperation, in no countries do welfare agencies push people into such jobs.
There is *no* necessary incompatibility between full decriminalization of sex work (including prostitution) and having a society where people are not forced into the sex industry, and sex workers are offered real ways to transition out of it, if and when they decide they no longer want to do that kind of work. This is in fact what sex worker activists like Tracy Quan are calling for.

Barbie's picture

Barbie

Wednesday, September 12, 2018 -- 7:55 PM

As a former exotic dancer I

As a former exotic dancer I can see the similarities between the exotic dancers life style and that of a prostitute. Many of us had regular customers that would have us perform one-on-one dances for them. These were often lonely individuals that just wanted some affection and to see a sexy woman. It made them feel better for a lotyle while but they would have use visits on a regular basis. It was good for me but sad for them

I still work in the industry as a manager and many of the girls say the same thing about their regulars.

 
 
 

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