Some thoughts on prostitution

Call girl, escort, fallen woman, harlot, hetaera, hoe, hooker, pro, streetwalker, sex worker, strumpet, tart, to be on the game,  tramp, trollop, whore, working girl… if you consult your thesaurus you will find these and many other words for prostitute. I don’t know about Eskimos and snow but English speakers have a serious obsession here. The reason for the ongoing popularity of prostitution is simple: men want more sex than they can get for free. To satisfy this demand there are women who will offer their services for the right price. The demand for sex seems to have remained pretty constant but supply has been affected since the sexual revolution. The spread of free love has been very negative for this industry. If sex for free is more available, then prices for those services go down. It would be a different story if prostitutes were an influential lobby – they could have this unfair competition penalised.

In economic terms the reason for this market is clear but it is also a moral question. There are two very different perspectives on this question. We have the abolitionists who favour zero tolerance. Their ranks include radical feminists, such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. They see it as a social problem. For them prostitution is always a denigrating act, that reflects power relations.

Others see prostitutes in a different light. They reject the image of victimhood that is so often portrayed by critics of prostitution. Surely if the transaction is consensual, it is a victimless crime. Obviously if coercion is involved, then the evaluation will be different. But to describe all prostitution as coercion is erroneous. There is a widespread belief that any woman who is selling sex must have been misled; she could not possibly have wanted to do it. In recent years a new hysteria has grown up around prostitutes. This moral panic was driven by political opportunism. Once again, as in the case of pornography, an unholy alliance of evangelical Christians and feminist campaigners pushed the trafficking story to secure their greater goal – to eradicate all prostitution. This story began to take shape in the mid 1990s, when the collapse of communist economies saw a mass exodus of young women from Eastern Europe. Soon the media began to report that these women had been “trafficked”. This is the type of story that the media just laps up. It was linked to the fears about illegal immigration. But as a recent academic report has shown, the numbers involved have been greatly exaggerated.

There are also feminists who reject the passive victim model and who argue in a free society a woman should be able to use her body as she chooses. They argue that sex workers should be treated like ordinary workers. Holland has gone down this road. One advocacy group that defends prostitutes’ rights is COYOTE, (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), whose goals include the decriminalization of prostitution, pimping and pandering, as well as the elimination of social stigma concerning sex work as an occupation.

I am not sure I really buy into the idea that selling sex is somehow empowering or an affirmation of female sexuality. Sex and commerce, while in some ways perfect bedfellows, will always raise difficult moral questions. Maybe prostitution does perpetuate those clichés about sex being something women do for male enjoyment. But as a libertarian I cannot accept the idea this activity, if it is between consenting adults should be subject to criminal prosecution. Let’s keep politicians, the police and judges out of private bedrooms.

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