Some consider the commodification of sexual services inherently wrong, something that ought to be abolished outright.
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.