The exchange of personal sexual services for economic rewards has a long history. It is important to distinguish different kinds of markets in sexual services in order to determine the appropriate societal response. For example, markets in sexual services that involve coerced sex, children, fraud and deception, and, in general, non-consensual and egregiously exploitative sexual or labor practices, are immoral and should be restricted. Theorists often use the terms “human trafficking,” “sex trafficking,” or “sexual slavery” to describe such practices, and the service providers in these practices have the status of a victim or slave.
There are markets in sexual services that do not appear to involve forced labor or sex, and in which the workers seem reasonably well compensated. Debates over prostitution often focus on the issue of whether genuinely voluntary markets can exist or whether markets in sexual services are inherently coercive, oppressive, and harmful to the individuals who participate, as well as to non-involved third parties.
Prostitutes are highly stigmatized for the work they do, and those who condemn this work believe that it is shameful and immoral, and has no place in a just social order. Others believe it is a necessary evil, in that if men (primarily) could not satisfy their sexual urges through some form of commoditized sexual service, these urges would find a more socially disruptive outlet. Some feminists argue that prostitution is a relic from older patriarchal societies in which men’s access to the bodies of subordinates was a privilege and expression of men’s social power. Many contemporary “sex workers” (a term coined by prostitutes’ rights activists) report that their clients have various motives, but primarily to seek relief from loneliness or to have uncomplicated sex. These sex workers believe that they are providing a valuable and morally permissible service to their clients and, by earning a living doing valuable work, they are making a contribution to their societies. In short, women (and men) who offer their labor in various types of sex trades believe that the stigma that attaches to them and their work is unfair and undeserved.
The appropriate societal response to human trafficking and slavery is abolition. The abolitionist approach criminalizes only the activities of the client and others who profit from sex trafficking, but not the provider of sexual services. Providers are treated as victims whom others exploit by luring them into sex trades. For sex markets not involving forced labor or sex, there are three standard approaches: prohibition, legalisation, and decriminalisation. The prohibitionist approach criminalizes the activities of the provider, client, and other persons who profit from sex market transactions. The legalization approach tolerates sex markets and businesses, but restricts them in ways that are specific to this industry. Regulations may include mandatory STD testing or condom use, zoning restrictions, special licencing requirements for businesses, government registration of workers, restrictions on advertising, and minimum age restrictions for providers and customers. The decriminalization approach seeks to remove both criminal and special regulatory restrictions and to regulate markets in sex in ways that are common for non-sex businesses.
The abolitionist approach collapses sex trafficking and prostitution together, as proponents generally believe that few workers enter sex markets voluntarily, and those who do are not acting in their best interest. The decriminalization approach typically recognizes the need for some special regulation (at least those appropriate to adult businesses, such as liquor stores), but proponents often oppose the regulatory schemes currently in use (especially, registration and mandatory health exams for workers). For the sake of argument, this debate assumes that some service providers enter sex markets voluntarily and with a rational assessment of their interests, and that some special regulation is necessary even if we have not yet come up with the best scheme. Therefore this debate will focus on legalization verses prohibition.
Criminalizing the acts of selling and buying sexual services does not protect those who sell or buy such services, but rather pushes these activities underground. While market exchanges of sexual services involve some risk-taking, the risks are increased and compounded when such markets are prohibited. When selling and buying sex is illegal, those participating in these exchanges cannot, or simply do not, seek the protection of the law when their rights are violated. Because crimes against sex workers or their clients are often unreported, and when reported often not investigated, predators and rights violators can take advantage of others without fear of arrest and punishment. Moreover, because criminalization forces sex work into remote and invisible corners of society, sellers and buyers are less able to insure their safety and protection. For these reasons, laws criminalizing sex markets amplify the risks sellers and buyers face when they participate in sex market transactions.
The main purpose of criminalizing sex markets is to protect those who enter such markets from harm. Yet the harms of paying or accepting money for a good that can be legally exchanged for free are far less than the harms that result from the rights violations that often occur (robbery, battery, sexual assault, murder) when sex markets are pushed underground.
The fact that prohibition cannot prevent prostitution is not an argument against prohibition. We have laws prohibiting murder, and yet murders happen. Our laws deter some murders and they express our society’s moral outrage regarding murder.
Similarly, laws prohibiting prostitution deter some prostitution and express our society’s moral condemnation of sex for hire. These laws do not create harms, rather prostitution itself creates harms, by robbing those who participate of self-respect, and contributing to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. It is inevitable that laws prohibiting prostitution will make it riskier to engage in prostitution, as this is the purpose of such laws: to provide disincentives to those who might otherwise engage in this activity.
While many societies have attempted to restrict sex to marriage, few (if any) have succeeded. In contemporary, secular liberal societies, adults are no longer punished for pursuing sex outside of marriage. Many adults find non-marital sex satisfying, healthy, and fulfilling, whether it occurs in the context of an ongoing romantic relationship, a casual friendship, or a market exchange. While many people will never seek the services of a sex worker, those who do are often seeking sensual comfort, companionship, entertainment, and fantasy fulfilment. While the latter goods are often obtainable in non-market relationships, some people prefer the convenience and efficiency of market mechanisms for securing these goods.
In a liberal society, individuals are free to pursue their own vision of happiness, as long as they respect the moral and civil rights of others. Markets that provide sexual services enable some individuals to secure goods essential to their happiness. Those who provide services to these individuals can do so in a manner that respects their rights and dignity, if the markets are legal and well regulated.
Market mechanisms are inappropriate for the exchange of some goods, such as children, medically needed bodily substances or organs, and sex. These are precious goods, and we should not allow citizens to alienate these goods for payment. Instead, the terms of alienation should protect the critical interests of all involved.
While sexual relationships serve legitimate needs, it does not follow that we should be able to purchase them. Having children serves legitimate needs, but we do not think that people should be able to buy children. Buying sex robs the provider of dignity and the right to sexual autonomy. Moreover, people are not entitled to some goods simply because they have money. If we allow money to determine who can have children, donated organs, or sexual intimacy, then this will lead to unfair distributions. Market mechanisms may eclipse other forms of exchange, and deprive those without significant wealth of the means to happiness.
Sexual autonomy means being able to control when, where, and with whom one has sexual relations. It also means that, at any moment, one may withdraw from a sexual relationship or encounter.
Spouses, lovers, and also strangers have the right to sexual autonomy. If an adult chooses to engage in sex with other adults who offer material benefits, her right to sexual autonomy is respected as long as she has control over when, where, and with which clients she has sexual relations, and as long as she is mentally competent and is allowed to terminate the agreement at any time.
If markets in sex were to become legal, the rights of providers (and clients) to sexual autonomy would need to be respected. This means that sex workers would maintain the right to refuse service to any customer, and to discontinue service or employment at any time and for any reason. Like other workers, sexual service providers would have the right to a safe and healthy work place. Workers who are drug dependent, or otherwise incompetent or highly vulnerable in the work place, would need to be provided treatment and time off work until they were capable of protecting themselves and others.
No person would sell sex unless they were desperate. To have sex with someone for reasons other than sexual attraction, desire, and affection is repulsive to any sane and mentally competent adult.
People who sell sex are not exercising sexual autonomy, but are giving up their right to sexual autonomy in order to support themselves and their families. Instead of legalizing sex markets, societies should provide other means of employment and a basic standard of living to all members, so that no one has to resort to prostitution to survive.
Removing criminal penalties from the sale or purchase of sexual services, and regulating sex markets so that they protect participants and non-involved third parties, would be socially beneficial. In particular, sex enterprises and businesses could be made safer for workers, clients, and the communities in which they operated. By allowing sex businesses to operate openly, providers, clients, and business owners can become law-abiding, productive citizens, who contribute to their communities. Sex businesses and workers would pay taxes, and other licensing fees. Business owners would be expected to comply with standard business laws and regulations. Moreover, the government could enact special regulations appropriate to this industry, such as age restrictions on workers and clients, and mandatory condom use.
The resources that are currently allocated to arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate sex workers and clients could be reallocated for better uses. For example, these resources could be used to better address the sexual abuse of minors, sexual assault, substance abuse, mental health problems, and the many public and individual needs that go unmet.
Legalizing prostitution would unleash forces that exploit vulnerable women and men for profit. People with the means to buy sexual access to others would be able to exploit those who are poor, young, or inexperienced. By legalizing prostitution, society endorses impersonal and promiscuous sexual relations that damage individuals and families.
The resources we allocate to protect vulnerable citizens from sexual exploitation, and to uphold the values of sexual commitment, loyalty, and responsibility, are well spent, and the foundation of a healthy social order.
Some markets in sex should be blocked. Markets that involve child labor, forced labor or sex, and forced migration and detention, should be stopped and those who organize and profit from such markets should be prosecuted. As with any service, it is critically important that no one is forced to work or to continue working, either through the threat of harm or through fraud and deception. It is also critically important that children are protected from sexual predators, and are excluded from all aspects of sex businesses. Forced labor and child sexual abuse involve violations of basic human rights that all societies are expected to protect.
Voluntary, adult sex work is significantly different from trafficking, and law enforcers need to distinguish market exchanges involving consensual sex among adults from market exchanges involving forced sex among adults or involving minors. By legalizing voluntary, adult sex work, law enforcers and rights protectors could focus their efforts on eliminating markets that involve the sexual abuse of adults or children. Additionally, clients of sex business would have the choice of patronizing legal business, and therefore would be less likely to patronize inadvertently a business that relies on forced or child labor.
While some sex market transactions are more consensual than others, all sex markets treat people like objects to be used and exploited by others. Sex should not be turned into work or a business from which some people profit, even when the labor is allegedly voluntary.
Moreover, it is not evident that the proliferation of legal sex businesses would involve the proliferation of sex businesses that acted ethically and responsibly. If sex businesses could operate in a more lax and permissive environment, many abuses would go undetected. Because of the already noxious aspects of this industry, abuses such as fraud, deception, and coercion are intolerable.
The good of sex when offered as a gift is not the same good when it is bartered. Taking or offering money cheapens and deforms the good of sexual intimacy, which when shared with many on the open market diminishes its value. Moreover, while the benefits of commoditized sex are questionable, the harms are significant. Those who engage in such exchanges diminish their capacity for genuine sexual intimacy, while damaging their physical, emotional, and mental health. Moreover, the harms of market sexual transactions often affect non-involved third parties, such as the spouses or lovers of sellers and buyers.
Because the harms of market sex are long lasting, though sometimes distant, it is appropriate for society to intervene to prevent these harms. Markets in sex pose a public health threat, just like markets in dangerous drugs. Prohibition will reduce the number of people who engage in market sexual transactions, and for those who do participate, there are ways to minimize violations of their rights.
Sex exchanged for money may not have the same value and meaning as sex exchanged as a gift among lovers. Yet, it does not follow from this that paid sex is without value. The value of paid sex is clearly subjective, and may be derived from its ability to provide sensual pleasure, sex education, and relief from stress, boredom, or loneliness. It may be less meaningful and enjoyable than sex with a romantic companion, but when the latter is not an option, paid sex may be an acceptable substitute. Since people have different expectations from paid sex than non-market romantic sex, they are not likely to suffer emotional and psychological damage from the former.
Individuals who are not in monogamous relationships, and who have multiple sexual partners must take special precautions to protect their physical health, whether money is exchanged or not. Sex work does not pose additional health risks that are not otherwise faced by sexually active but non-monogamous individuals. There are precautions that all sexually active people can take to protect their health, such as rigorous condom use and regular health exams. Moreover, societies can promote education about STDs and how they are transmitted and detected, so that all sexually active individuals can learn how protect themselves.
Markets in sex do not in themselves precipitate harms or pose a public health threat, rather ignorance about sex and STDs, and barriers to health care and prophylactics such as condoms, are responsible for the harms of sex.
Sexual relationships involve crossing ordinary social boundaries that exist between people, and exposing aspects of ourselves that normally remain private. This aspect of sexual relationships renders the parties vulnerable emotionally and socially, and therefore sexual partners often extract commitments from each other of sexual fidelity and exclusivity. These commitments allow people to engage in sexual relationships while treating each other with decency and respect.
Markets are public and involve exchanges among strangers. In markets, goods are exchanged with the highest bidders and not with those to whom we are committed and loyal. For this reason, markets in sex undermine the ideals of sexual commitment, loyalty, or exclusivity, which makes decent and respectful sexual relationships possible. Markets are for exchanging shoes and cars, or services that we can separate from ourselves without leaving us emotionally and socially vulnerable or exposed. Sexual relationships require commitments of fidelity and exclusivity so we don’t lose part of ourselves in the exchange.
People who engage in market sexual relationships and other forms of casual sex can treat their partners with dignity and respect. This involves respecting the boundaries that sexual partners communicate to each other, regarding what parts of their lives and themselves they are willing to share. With different sexual partners we open up in different ways, and people who engage in casual, market sexual relationships might draw different emotional and sexual boundaries in these relationships than in others. While casual sexual relationships are unlikely to involve commitments of fidelity and exclusivity, they are compatible with the decent and respectful treatment of others if persons in these relationships respect their partners’ rights to privacy, autonomy, and other basic interests.
Moral sex requires treating others not merely as a means to our own ends, but as beings with ends of their own. This means that we are morally required to consider the needs of our sexual partners and not only our own selfish desires. In market sexual transactions, the client merely pursues the satisfaction of his own desires, and therefore treats the service provider as a means to his own ends.
Because prostitution inevitably involves the instrumental and immoral treatment of others, toleration of prostitution involves the toleration of immoral behaviour. Society should uphold moral values by banning prostitution.
In market sexual transactions, each party pursues the satisfaction of her/his desires. The service provider is typically pursuing her desire for income, while the client is typically pursuing his desire for sensual enjoyment and intimate companionship. As long as each party respects the terms of the exchange, they are treating each other as beings with ends of their own, and therefore morally.
Markets in sex are shaped by values that differ from non-market sexual relationships. Market sexual transactions are not structured by the ideals of fidelity and exclusivity between social intimates, but rather by the ends of profit maximization and mutual benefit among strangers. The goods exchanged in a market are interchangeable with other goods, in ways that maximize profit and mutual benefit. When these goods include sexual services, the sexual services of one provider will be interchangeable with those of another.
The position of seller or buyer in a particular market is often determined by one’s gender, class, race, and nationality. In sex markets, sellers are typically female, and buyers are typically male. Race, class, and other social hierarchies also shape one’s position in a sex market. Because the sellers in sex markets are often people who are disadvantaged by their gender, class, race, or nationality, the existence of markets in their sexual services will promote the idea that the sexual capacities of women (and other disadvantaged groups) are goods that are interchangeable and exploitable. The idea that the sexual capacities of women (and girls) can be accessed as market goods or commodities will shape attitudes toward women and girls who do not enter sex markets as providers. In this way, the values that structure markets in sex will spill over into non-market sexual relationships, and lead men to regard women as replaceable goods rather than unique human subjects.
Consumers can access the healing capacities of health care providers without coming to regard the people who provide health care as replaceable market goods rather than unique human subjects. Consumers can access the cooking talents of chefs without coming to regard the people who provide good food as replaceable goods rather than unique human subjects. Sex markets may differ in that the position of consumer and provider is often shaped by gender and other social markers. But if this is what causes the degradation of the provider into a replaceable and exploitable good, then what needs to change is how positions in this market are shaped by one’s social identity, rather than eliminating sex markets.
All markets are structured by social hierarchies. As illegitimate social hierarchies based on gender, race, class, and so on, are dismantled, then this will have beneficial effects on all markets and not just sex markets.
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