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Guest Post: Prostitution, harm, and disability: Should only people with disabilities be allowed to pay for sex?

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* Note that this entry is being cross-posted at the Journal of Medical Ethics blog.

By Brian D. Earp


Is prostitution harmful? And if it is harmful, should it be illegal to buy (or sell) sexual services? And if so, should there ever be any exceptions? What about for people with certain disabilities—say—who might find it difficult or even impossible to find a sexual partner if they weren’t allowed to exchange money for sex? Do people have a “right” to sexual fulfillment?

In a recent issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics, Frej Klem Thomsen[1explores these and other controversial questions. His focus is on the issue of exceptions—specifically for those with certain disabilities. According to Thomsen, a person is “relevantly disabled” (for the sake of this discussion) if and only if:

(1) she has sexual needs, and desires to exercise her sexuality, and

(2) she has an anomalous physical or mental condition that, given her social circumstances, sufficiently limits her possibilities of exercising her sexuality, including fulfilling her sexual needs. (p. 455)

There is a lot to say here. First, in order to figure out the merits of making an exception to a general ban on prostitution (for people with disabilities or for anyone else), we have to start by deciding what to think about the advisability of such a ban in the first place. For, if we don’t think it’s a good idea to begin with (spoiler alert: this is my own view), then we can skip all the talk about making exemptions, and just argue against the ban.

But Thomsen doesn’t pursue that route. Instead, he wants to make a case for an exception. So, he has to try to convince his reader that a general prohibition makes at least some kind of moral and/or practical sense. How does he go about making this argument?

A case for prohibition?

It’s actually pretty straightforward. Thomsen spells it out like this:

(1) Prostitution is bad because it causes harm to prostitutes.

(2) We have reason to avoid harm to persons.

(3) Prohibiting prostitution will reduce harm to prostitutes.

(4) Therefore, we have reason to prohibit prostitution. (p. 453)

Is this a good argument in favor of prohibition?

The harm of prostitution

Let’s take it one step at a time. We can start with the first claim: that prostitution is bad because it causes harm to prostitutes. Is that a convincing claim?

It does have a certain intuitive appeal, and most people would probably say “yes.” But in another recent essay (also published in the JME), the philosopher Ole Martin Moen has put forward a powerful set of arguments that call into question the conventional wisdom.[2] According to Moen, while it is true that prostitution is not a harmless line of work:

  • (1) it is no more inherently harmful (on balance) than a long list of other occupations which we do not see fit to ban, but instead choose to regulate; and
  • (2) most of the harm that does go along with prostitution is actually a consequence of its being illegal (and otherwise socially stigmatized)—i.e., contingent, external factors that have little to do with prostitution per se.

Let’s take a closer look at Moen’s argument. To do this, we can start by considering one specific type of harm as an example: the apparently higher rates of physical and mental health problems among sex workers compared to members of the general population.

As Moen argues, this purported harm of prostitution might be due—at least in part—to the legal prohibition against the activity, which prevents sex workers from taking certain actions that would predictably improve their lot. For example: “joining labour unions, organizing their work in brothels, renting a place where they can work, hiring security agencies, advertising and forming work contracts (regarding salary, working hours, working conditions, health insurance, retirement savings, and so on)” ([2], p. 3).

In fact, Moen does a good job of addressing most of the arguments that claim to show that prostitution is inherently harmful (including in ways that are not just physical, but also more abstract, or “moral”), by performing a similar analysis for each one. Click here to take a look at Moen’s paper.

Thomsen’s critique

Now, Thomsen actually considers Moen’s argument. But he doesn’t find it entirely convincing. Among other issues, his main objection that even if “extrinsic” factors like social stigma and legal prohibition were responsible for some of the harms associated with prostitution, they wouldn’t necessarily account for all of the harms associated with prostitution. (As far as I can tell, Moen doesn’t dispute this claim, but let me set that aside for now.)

To support his position, Thomsen cites an empirical study by a researcher named Vanwesenbeeck.[3] According to Thomsen, this study showed that “roughly half—but no more than half—[of] the variance in [certain negative emotional outcomes] experienced by indoor prostitutes in the Netherlands was explained by external factors including stigma, lack of control and poor working conditions” ([1], p. 453, emphasis added).

The implication, then, is that the other half of these negative outcomes (for example, emotional exhaustion) must be due to something intrinsic to prostitution.

Intrinsic vs. extrinsic

There are a few ways to respond to this line of thought. First, there is the problem of non-random sampling: some people turn to prostitution because of pre-existing issues with addiction or mental health, and so the arrow of causation is not entirely clear. Second, it seems unlikely that the study by Vanwesenbeeck measured every possible “external factor” that could be responsible for the various harms of prostitution, which introduces a further limitation to what we can infer from these results. But even if it did—so, even if we were justified in saying that “roughly half” of the variance in (say) emotional exhaustion experienced by this particular sample of Dutch prostitutes was due to something intrinsic about their selling sex—we would still have to put this information in context.

What sort of context do I mean? Well, consider the fact that many careers contribute to, e.g., emotional exhaustion (and other negative emotional outcomes): just think of the burn-out that grief and trauma counselors experience, for example, which is probably due to factors that are (at least in large part) intrinsic to that particular line of work. Or think of the various harms that are “built in” to any number of jobs, like the dangers of construction work, or professional boxing; or the job-insecurity of being an actor (unemployed after every show); or the “degrading” nature of, say, collecting people’s garbage or cleaning out their toilets.

When it comes to these careers, however, no one thinks we should prohibit people from choosing to pursue them, just on account of the fact that they carry some degree of risk, or are stigmatized, or are otherwise less than ideal. Instead, we try to think of ways of reducing the various risks that are involved, and/or we compensate people—usually monetarily—for the harms and difficulties that do in fact come along with their choice of employment.

The importance of choice

Note that I do mean choice here. My position has to do with people—men, women, or intersex people—who freely choose to sell sexual services in exchange for money. If someone is forced to sell sexual services, that is sexual slavery, not prostitution, and that is a different matter entirely.

Now, someone might argue that prostitution is so inherently harmful or degrading, that someone would only “choose” to exchange sex for money if in reality they were forced by their circumstances (i.e., extreme poverty). A similar argument has been made about the prospect of establishing a market for selling kidneys: only people who are pressured (by their circumstances) to sell their kidneys would end up doing so—the argument runs—so this kind of vending is not really a free “choice.”

This takes us to yet another recent JME article, by Luke Semrau, entitled, “The Best Argument Against Kidney Sales Fails.”[4] Semrau points out that there are two types of pressure to tease apart here: a specific pressure to sell one’s kidney (or to engage in prostitution), which would in fact be directly coercive—and which could conceivably be relieved by prohibiting the activity in question—and a more general kind of pressure (i.e., economic insecurity), which, by contrast, could actually be relieved by any number of activities, including not only selling one’s kidney or engaging in prostitution, but also other types of employment.

In this latter case, however, prohibiting the activities in question does not actually relieve the more general pressure. Instead, it may actually compound it—because it would take away otherwise viable employment options. So, if someone has another way of relieving their poverty apart from kidney-vending or prostitution (or collecting garbage, or cleaning toilets, or filling out spreadsheets, or flipping burgers)—but regards one of those options as being preferable to the alternatives—then it’s hard to see how we could say that they had been specifically pressured into choosing that career.

Harm and prohibition

All of which is to say the following. Even we if were to grant the first point from Thomsen’s argument—the one that says that prostitution causes at least some intrinsic harm to prostitutes—this wouldn’t necessarily mean that we should favor a ban on prostitution. For one thing, if Moen is right, a ban might actually increase the level of harm to prostitutes, compared against the alternative policy of not having a ban, and setting up reasonable health and safety regulations, encouraging de-stigmatization, etc. And for another thing, as Thomsen himself points out, even if a ban did not have this harmful effect, we might still have other reasons to argue against it.

For example, we might endorse what Thomsen calls the “antipaternalist challenge.” This view holds that “prohibition constitutes an unjustifiable interference in the freedom of consenting adults” ([1], p. 454). Peter de Marneffe[5] puts the view like this:

Discretionary control over one’s own sexual activity [is] central to sexual autonomy, [to] control over one’s body, and so to personal autonomy. … It is important that adults have the discretion to make personal choices about the kind of sex they engage in with other adults, even if these choices are unwise. So it is objectionable for the government to prohibit a person for using her own body and sexuality for prostitution. (quoted in [1], p. 454).

As it happens, I tend to agree with this kind of analysis.[6789] Just think: adults are allowed to have sex with someone they might otherwise find unappealing in exchange for literally anything they desire except money: promises of emotional support, the prospect of economic security, or maybe just a few drinks at the bar. This doesn’t mean those are good reasons to engage in sexual intercourse—but it’s up to you how you negotiate your needs and desires.

More generally, however, when it comes to prohibition, one has to remember that it’s no small step from (on the one hand) getting your ethical analysis in order—in terms of establishing if a given practice is in fact harmful, and in what particular way—to (on the other hand) determining what kinds of social and legal changes would best reduce the harm, with the least amount of collateral damage.[10]

To put it simply, prohibition is often a bad idea, even if the targeted activity is harmful.[11]

Back to Thomsen

Now, Thomsen actually appears to agree with this. So, after taking several pages to try to convince us that prostitution can plausibly be regarded as bad (because it’s at least somewhat intrinsically harmful), and that the best arguments to the contrary are not as strong as they may seem—he nevertheless concludes that the “case for [actual] prohibition is murkier and weaker than its proponents sometimes suggest” ([1], p. 455). A mere three sentences later, however, Thomsen shifts gears rather awkwardly and asks us to go ahead and just “assume for the sake of argument that the balance of reasons favours a general prohibition of prostitution” (ibid)!

Now, for my money, if that’s what he wanted us to accept, he should have just started the paper with that assumption—however unreasonable it may be—and then proceeded to tell us his thoughts about an exception for disability. But let’s go along with the shift in gears. What is Thomsen’s case for a “disability” exception to a ban on prostitution?

Buying sex—for disabled people only?

Thomsen points to two facts that lay the groundwork for his position:

(1) Many or most persons have a sexuality that generates strong needs for sexual relations, and

(2) Some disabled persons are partially or entirely incapable of satisfying this need except through the purchase of sexual services from a prostitute. ([1], p. 455)

Let me give you an example of what he means. Quoting from another source,[12] he cites the case of a man who “couldn’t walk and his carer would bring him. You had to lift him out of the wheelchair and into the Jacuzzi and he was stiff because he didn’t move his arms or legs. He couldn’t move, could get an erection but that was about it” ([1], p. 455).

Evidently, in exchange for money, someone was willing to have sex with this man under the stated conditions, and this was helpful for resolving his “needs for sexual relations.” (Note that Ezio Di Nucci has suggested a very interesting alternative: namely, establishing non-profit charities whose members would voluntarily provide sexual pleasure to the severely disabled.[13] For a related story, see the fascinating autobiographical account, “Head Nurses” by William Peace in Atrium magazine.)[14]

What should we say about a case like this? The first thing to point out is that the man’s disability didn’t make it so that he physically couldn’t have sex (if that were the case, hiring a prostitute would not help his situation); instead, the issue was more that he couldn’t find a willing sexual partner … for whatever reason.

Now, it seems reasonable to conclude that—in this particular instance—the “reason” had something to do with his physical disability. In other words, it is likely that (all else being equal) relatively few people would maximally desire to form a sexual relationship with someone who could not “move his arms or legs” (although I imagine that there are many exceptions).

But that’s a very specific issue—and it glosses over a more general point. And that is that all sorts of people find it difficult to find a willing sexual partner—or enough willing sexual partners—to “satisfy” their sexual needs, for a whole range of reasons that have nothing to do with physical (or mental) disability of the “obvious” kind exemplified by this man. They may just be perceived as unattractive. Or they may be shy. Alternatively, they may be very attractive—and not at all shy—and just have an insatiable sexual appetite. Are all of these people “disabled” on Thomsen’s account?

Defining disability

It’s hard to tell. On the one hand, Thomsen could define “disability” in a very narrow sense that captures only the “obvious” cases that everyone would recognize—perhaps typified by the man in the example. But this would result in an extremely unreliable, and indeed almost absurdly arbitrary proxy for the “real” underlying issue at stake, which is the difficulty that some people have in finding a willing sexual partner(s) sufficient to meet their sexual needs without having recourse to prostitutes.

After all, innumerable people with physical and/or mental disabilities have extremely satisfying sexual relationships, so the connection between “having a disability” (of some kind) and “being perceived as sexually unappealing” is so tangential as to be almost offensive.

On the other hand, Thomsen has the option of defining “disability” in a very broad sense—which is what he does in fact choose to do—which carries its own set of problems. For one thing, it refers to an extremely vague and amorphous group of people who (to quote from Thomsen’s definition) have “an anomalous physical or mental condition that, given [their] social circumstances, sufficiently limits [their] possibilities of exercising [their] sexuality, including fulfilling [their] sexual needs” ([1], p. 455).

But that could include just about anyone! For one thing, there is the nearly boundless room for interpretation surrounding most of the key terms in Thomsen’s definition: “anomalous,” “physical,” “mental,” “condition,” “sufficiently,” and “fulfill.” For example, what is “anomalous” – ? Statistically rare? How rare? As measured along what dimension? Also, why should the condition have to be “anomalous” in any event? Isn’t it the (lack of) functional outcome that is the morally relevant concern here?

Or think about the word “condition” – meaning what? Is shyness (to repeat that example) a “mental condition” that counts as a disability? And what about “sufficiently”? How shall we determine the cut-off? In other words, just how “hard” does it have to be to find a willing sexual partner before one is allowed to register oneself as “sexually disabled,” say, and pick up her “prostitution exemption” card? And finally—“fulfill.” Wouldn’t, say, most married couples report that their sexual needs were not “fulfilled” in some relevant way? Indeed, one survey puts the figure at 57%.[15]


So this doesn’t seem to be the way to go. Either the definition of disability is so narrow as to be unjustifiably arbitrary as a proxy for the real underlying moral issue, or it’s so broad as to include almost anyone. Why not—instead—just argue against a general prohibition, and let mature individuals decide for themselves (a) what kind of consensual sex they wish to engage in, and (b) in exchange for what.


[1] Thomsen, F. K. (2015). Prostitution, disability and prohibitionJournal of Medical Ethics41(6), 451-459.

[2] Moen, O. M. (2014). Is prostitution harmfulJournal of Medical Ethics40(2), 73-81.

[3] Vanwesenbeeck, I. (2005). Burnout among female indoor sex workersArchives of Sexual Behavior34(6), 627-639.

[4] Semrau, L. (2015). The best argument against kidney sales failsJournal of Medical Ethics41(6), 443-446.

[5] De Marneffe, P. (2009). Liberalism and prostitution. Oxford University Press.

[6] Vierra, A., & Earp, B. D. (2015). Born this way? How high-tech conversion therapy could undermine gay rights. The Conversation. Available at

[7] Earp, B. D. (in press). Female genital mutilation and male circumcision: Toward an autonomy-based ethical framework. Medicolegal and Bioethics, in press. Available at

[8] Earp, B. D., Sandberg, A., & Savulescu, J. (2014). Brave new love: The threat of high-tech “conversion” therapy and the bio-oppression of sexual minoritiesAJOB Neuroscience5(1), 4-12.

[9] Maslen, H., Earp, B. D., Cohen Kadosh, R., & Savulescu, J. (2014). Brain stimulation for treatment and enhancement in children: An ethical analysisFrontiers in Human Neuroscience8(953), 1-5.

[10] Earp, B. D. (2014). Things I have learned (so far) about how to do practical ethics. Practical Ethics. University of Oxford. Available at

[11] Earp, B. D. (2013). The ethics of infant male circumcisionJournal of Medical Ethics39(7), 418-420.

[12] Sanders, T. (2007). The politics of sexual citizenship: commercial sex and disabilityDisability & Society22(5), 439-455.

[13] Di Nucci, E. (2011). Sexual rights and disabilityJournal of Medical Ethics37(3), 158-161.

[14] Peace, W. (2014). Head nursesAtrium, Winter, 12, 20-22.

[15] National Survey of Marital Strengths. Available at


Thanks to Julian Savulescu, John Danaher, Michael Hauskeller, and Ole Martin Moen for feedback on these ideas.

About the author: 

Brian D. Earp is a researcher in science and ethics at the University of Oxford, and an Associate Editor at the Journal of Medical Ethics. He blogs regularly at the Practical Ethics blog hosted by the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, and contributes a monthly blog at the JME Blog as well. Follow Brian on Twitter at @briandavidearp.


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18 Comment on this post

  1. Banning prostitution causes additional law-enforcement costs. Any replacement of income through taxation puts further financial burden on the public. (And as you correctly point out, without replacement of income, a ban does not benefit people who would sell sex out of financial difficulty.)

    This goes further: Are we assuming that the disabled are independently wealthy? Or are we assuming that they will pay the prostitutes with additional money from the public? Considering that taxation causes deadweight loss (at the square of the tax rate), moral arguments should never ignore the ethical weight of public expense and its consequences.

    A cynical view of paternalism: “Protecting people from themselves” is not about protecting people. It is, perhaps in many cases, just a rationalization of a moral emotion or a moral status signal for those who demand it without paying the true indirect costs individually. This will cause a hypocritical debate culture, which is indeed common in politics.

    But if we really think that paternalism should apply to prostitution, because perhaps we have identified, say, a systematic underestimation of health risks by those who enter it, we still do not have to ban it. We could simply tax it and use the revenue to offer help to people who want to leave it.

    1. Thanks Aunt Hill – I agree with most of what you say here, so don’t have too much interesting to add. Thanks for your contribution to the discussion.

  2. Tides, too. Tides are inconvenient and they are usually implicated in welfare-damaging coastal erosion events. Let’s ban them.

    If we took the view that any labour market had to be regulated based on the experiences of the least advantaged worker, then there are very few jobs that would remain in existence. In most cases we try to improve working conditions, rather than abolish entire industries. But I guess for some folks, sex is different – for reasons I don’t understand, opinions on how other people should spend their sexual energies are often incredibly strongly held.

    1. I don’t think sex is really unique in that sense: there are plenty of things – drug consumption and video games being salient examples – for which many people, typically of a conservative persuasion, seem to have preferences that other people not engage in these activities (or do so only under strictures). Prostitution is unusual compared to other sexual activities, in that the conservatives have succeeded in keeping it illegal.

      1. Hi Andrew, thanks for the reply. Your impression is different from mine – the prudishness and strident moralising I hear/see on sexual issues comes more from the left than the right, but I appreciate these things vary from place to place. I don’t think video gaming is in the same league (as sex) as far as censoriousness goes – most people are fairly liberal regarding adults playing video games. (Drugs less so, partly because of the externalities some drugs impose on people nearby.)

  3. Frej Klem Thomsen

    Hi Brian.

    This is a nice piece of commentary – thanks for taking the time and interest! Its good enough in fact, I think, that you might want to think about polishing it a little and submitting to a journal. And I say that not (only) because it would serve my self interest to gain the citation. I may have more to comment when I think about it a little (if so, I’ll post more here), but a few minor things struck me while I read it.
    1) I think you are right that the most interesting issue in the overall debate is whether prostitution should be criminalised in the first place (and if so how). Of course you’re also right that if there are convincing arguments that it shouldn’t be, then most of the argument of the JME paper is mostly superfluous (there might remain a theoretical relevance, as a kind of hypothetical reasoning, but I wouldn’t want to label that as particularly worthwhile). The motivation for writing it was twofold: first, it seemed to me that a lot of the debate about both the broader issue and the more narrow issue (an exception for disabled) was somewhat confused. My first aim was to try and clarify some of the key points and structure of the debate in a concise way, so as to help future discussion of the issues (both narrow and broad). That is, to provide a bit of groundwork for resolving the issues, but not to resolve them. The second ambition followed from my impression that the broader issue was difficult, and that there were powerful arguments on both sides. Obviously, that’s a judgement with which one can disagree (I try to set out some of the reasons why it seems that way to me in the paper, but they may not be persuasive), but allowing that its not an entirely unreasonable judgement it makes the narrow issue pertinent. That is, given that there can be reasonable disagreement about the broad issue, it may be worth trying to solve the narrow issue. So I took a closer look at it, and tried to set out what seemed to me two attractive arguments that counted in favour of a conclusion (a legal exemption).

    2) I think you’re right that the harm-argument is less powerful than many of its proponents make it in the debate. I tried to be careful to say only that harm gives us a pro tanto reason for prohibition, which leaves open of course both how strong this reason is (presumably it will vary with the severity of harm, about which there are conflicting interpretations of the empirical evidence), as well as what other and contrary reasons are at stake. Some of your objections seem to me to point to such contrary reasons. The fact that there are other professions where we intuitively do not feel that harm is sufficient reason for prohibition may be (at least in part) due to the fact that there are powerful reasons for allowing these professions. That is compatible with my argument I think, so I’m not certain we disagree as much as might at first appear.

    3) I’m a little unsure how much of a problem the (admittedly!) tentative definition of “relevant disability” I provide is. Broadly, you point to two problems. One is practical, in that we would need to draw sharper lines for it to be of any use in practice. I agree with that, as well as with that constituting a difficult problem. Its not a unique problem to this debate, but one that concerns any legislation targetting the disabled (and other vaguely defined groups), and there is a substantive literature on the topic, which I deliberately chose not to engage with for purely strategic reasons (too much time and effort, not enough prospective benefit for the purposes of this article), at least not in a substantive way. I’m not sure whether this affects the viability of the argument I make. It certainly shows that if the argument is right, then a lot more work will be needed, but that isn’t in and of itself a point against it. Secondly, you point to the fact that parts of the argument would apply to many persons we do not traditionally think of as disabled, that is, that there is no tight fit between the moral properties the argument relies on and the group. I think this is right too, but again I’m not sure how great of a problem it constitutes. Certainly, if there were members of the group I have defined who failed to possess the properties the argument relies on, then the argument would fail (because it fails to apply to them). A modified argument could perhaps be made regarding how if just enough of them possess the properties, and it is too difficult to draw finer distinctions, then…yaddayadda, but that isn’t the argument I make. But the argument you make is slightly different, that there will be persons who fall outside the group I define (or ought to, intuitively) but who possess the properties. Now, I don’t claim that _only_ the relevantly disabled should enjoy an exemption, so in one sense that may not be a problem at all. But in a slightly more relevant sense, it may point to another part where “more work is needed”. After all, (to draw a comparison) to argue persuasively that moral concern ought to extend to non-human mammals is not to argue that it shouldn’t extend to birds and fish, and if these too possess the moral properties upon which the first argument rely, then perhaps the argument can be extended to cover them. But perhaps it cannot. Whether or not requires that one takes a closer look to see whether there are any pertinent differences between the groups who share the pertinent similarities. That’s certainly an interesting question (with respect to the problem of the paper again, now), but not one I had time or space to address there.

    I hope these comments make at least some sense. If not I’m happy to clarify. And once again, thanks for the interest.

    All the best,

    1. Thanks Aunt Hill – I agree with most of what you say here, so don’t have too much interesting to add. Thanks for your contribution to the discussion.

    2. Dear Frej,

      Thanks very much for taking the time to respond to my post — I was obviously inspired enough by your article to want to put my thoughts together about it, and it’s gratifying that the conversation can continue. I am, in fact, working on a version of this post to submit to the JME as a response paper, and I will do my best to take into consideration the points you’ve raised here. I do think that what you’ve written is reasonable, so it’s really just a matter of carrying forward from what you’ve set up. Thanks again for the feedback —

      Warm regards,

  4. Brian, when you say “. My position has to do with people—men, women, or intersex people—who freely choose to sell sexual services in exchange for money. If someone is forced to sell sexual services, that is sexual slavery, not prostitution, and that is a different matter entirely” that is far to quick.

    1. A prostitute-user, unless they know their prostitute very well will not know if their prostitute is acting consensually or not. We know that a good number of prostitutes are trafficked and not acting freely (the exact percentages are hotly debated). They do not know if they are committing rape or not. Can that be a risk that is morally justified?

    2. The prostitute-user is stimulating the prostitute business and increasing the market. That will encourage those who traffic to continue to do so. Prostitute-users encourage trafficking.

    1. In reply to Jonathan – we don’t use this logic in other markets. Example in reply to your first point: we know that the t-shirt industry involves quite a bit of sweatshop labour, in which people are forced to sell their services under objectionable conditions. We don’t ban t-shirts. Instead, we try to identify instances of bad practice and target those for regulatory sanction.

      I think your second point requires there to be something wrong with the institution of prostitution for an objection to market growth to be sustainable, doesn’t there? If there’s nothing inherently wrong with a (well-regulated, safe) sexual services sector, then there’s no objection to market expansion.

  5. David

    On the first, I think with prostitute use the point is the directness of the harm. The prostitute user, to be blunt, takes a reasonably high risk he is committing rape. The T-shirt buyer takes a risk they might be giving money to a company that might give money to a company that might exploit workers. So it is a far more remote harm. To the person who does an act that risks death or rape we don’t say, carry on acting and we will see if we can reduce the risk somehow. One exception, in the case of death, may be if the activity is very socially useful. Prostitute use, even for disabled people, is not.

    On the second, given we do not have a well-regulated safe sexual services sector, do you agree with my argument that the unsafe market we have should not be encouraged? Can you point to anywhere int the world which does not have trafficking and non-consensual prostitution?

  6. This pays little attention to the position of prohibitionist feminists on choice. They say that no woman would freely choose be a prostitute , so we don’t have it consider the details of what drives them to it. This is not a trivial minority view: almost all feminists who support prohibition, also reject the idea that anyone can freely choose be a prostitute. That’s one reason why they reject the term ‘sex worker’, since in their eyes prostitution is never comparable to any other paid employment. Some feminists say it is always slavery.

    Why is this important? Because so much discussion about prostitution is evasive about the central issue, which has a lot to do with the feminist idea of ‘male entitlement’. Men pay for sex, because they can’t get it without paying. If prostitution were successfully prohibited, then many clients won’t have sex at all. More precisely, in feminist terms, they would not be able to use the body of a woman for sexual gratification.

    The general feminist position is that men should not use the body of a woman for sexual gratification, and have no right to do so. If it must happen, then only under certain strict conditions: mutual trust and respect, communication and openness, and not simply ‘consent’ but the absence of all coercion, malice, and inequality. Obviously paid sex will never meet these standards. Prohibition of prostitution is the logical consequence of second-wave feminist theory, which in practice determines the orientation of current western feminism.

    The absolute nature of this position is overlooked, in ethical discourse on prostitution. There is undoubtedly some self-censorship going on, because male authors don’t want to become the target of feminist campaigns. That leads to red herrings, like the discussion about the ‘disabled client’ here.

    I think we must consider the reality of conflicting interests. Men want sex, and since most are heterosexual, they do indeed want to use women’s bodies for sexual gratification. Prostitutes, by definition, don’t want to voluntarily supply their body for that purpose: they want payment first. The real issue is whether male sexual desire overrides women’s autonomy and bodily integrity. We can see what that implies in practice, by imagining a replacement of commercial prostitution by compulsory state-enforced sexual service. Women would be conscripted into state-run brothels and escort agencies, and compelled to have sex with random male sexual partners. Men would get guaranteed sexual partners, perhaps with some degree of choice.

    That will horrify most people, although I don’t see why it is worse than being conscripted into the army in wartime, and getting your arms and legs blown off. But if forced sexual service is the only way to ensure that male sexual desire is satisfied, is it not justifiable for that reason? The feminist answer is ‘no’, but then feminism represents women’s interests. Feminism can not, on its own, determine policy. Ethics ought to look at this type of underlying conflict, however nasty and unpleasant.

  7. “But if forced sexual service is the only way to ensure that male sexual desire is satisfied, is it not justifiable for that reason?”

    Um, no. You asked: “whether male sexual desire overrides women’s autonomy and bodily integrity” and then, outlandishly, you seem to assume that it does, thus basically arguing that rape is justified.

    What makes you think that anyone – male or female – has a “right” to have their “sexual desire satisfied” by somebody else?

    1. I did not use the word ‘right’ since I am sceptical of all claims to rights: it is just a way of presenting political demands. Feminists generally use the term ‘male entitlement’ in this context. The feminist position is that men have no entitlement (or right) to access women’s bodies for sexual gratification (or any other purpose). However feminists seem to derive that, from the position that men should not access women’s bodies for sexual gratification, and sometimes say that explicitly. Consent is in that case irrelevant, and some feminists simply reject consent as an ideal. As is often the case with feminism, it is male behaviour which is at issue. The feminist position on prostitution implies that if a man can only get sex if he pays for it, and if that option is no longer available, then that man should not have sex. In more general terms the feminist rejection of male entitlement has the obvious implication, that there could be an end to all sexual contact between men and women. That is for some lesbian feminists a primary goal of the feminist movement. I think that such issues should be considered, when discussing specific policy questions such as regulation or prohibition of prostitution. They are emotional issues, true.

      1. I think you’ll find that’s an extremist view associated with a self-consciously illiberal type of feminism, usually called “radical feminism”. Other types of feminism include “sex-positive feminism”, which supports much more liberal views of sexual relationships, sex work, pornography etc. To quote Wikipedia: “Some sex-positive feminists believe that women and men can have positive experiences as sex workers, and that where it is illegal, prostitution should be decriminalized. They argue that prostitution isn’t necessarily bad for women if prostitutes are treated with respect and if the professions within sex work are de-stigmatized.”

  8. What makes you think that anyone – male or female – has a “right” to have their “sexual desire satisfied” by somebody else?

    …regardless of consent, I should have added.

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