posted on 2 Mar 2021

This post is part of a series on the ethics of buying services:

Paying for Sex

In the previous post I argued that paying a person to provide you a service is wrong iff they see no alternative way of subsisting. I also wrote that I thought the badness (or goodness) of the act depended on how bad (or good) the nature of the work is generally for a person who is compelled to do it. Now I will argue that there is one case where the wrong is especially egregious, where the stakes are higher, so to say. That case is prostitution[1].

Of course there are many different varieties of prostitution & sex work, from upscale escorts who can choose their own prices, services, clients & work hours on one end to trafficked street prostitutes who are at the mercy of a pimp on the other. I leave open the possibility that there exist wealthy prostitutes who choose that occupation in spite of the many alternatives available to them & who therefore are able to meaningfully consent. Having said that, there aren’t a lot things that abolitionists & sex worker advocates agree on, but they do seem to agree that the situation of many prostitutes & other sex workers today is, excuse my literary language, not good. Prostitution & sex work is correlated with increased risk of violence & murder, increased risk of HIV & other sexually transmitted diseases, worse mental health, police violence & harassment & so on.[2] Often those who become prostitutes have grown up in difficult circumstances: there’s the poverty of course & also evidence that many prostituted men & women have experienced childhood sexual abuse.[3] In Germany, where I live, the majority are migrants coming from poorer countries, mainly from Eastern Europe.[4] The list goes on & on. And the plague is making everything worse.

It follows from my previous argument that paying for sex is wrong in the same way that paying somebody to clean your house is wrong. But I think that paying for sex is worse than paying somebody to clean your house. In fact, I think it’s a great deal worse. I have three reasons for thinking so.

(Content warning: prostitution, sex work.)

Reason No. 1 #

The first reason is something that I can’t quite put my finger on. But it has to do with the fact that sex is supposed to be a reciprocal act. If two people want to have sex, they have sex. But you don’t hear of people offering to clean somebody else’s house for free, nor for that matter of people reciprocally cleaning each other’s houses.[5]

I think one consequence of this is that many people, if somebody should clean their house for free, would still insist on paying. They feel that they owe something to the person who helped them. But those same people, when somebody has sex with them, don’t insist on paying. That’s because the latter is a reciprocal act, one meant to be intrinsically good for both parties, whereas the former is just a service.

In my view, this shows that the person who pays for sex is interested purely in what is good for him, viz. sexual satisfaction (for if he could get her to have sex with him without paying her for it, voluntarily, he would do so). It shows that he is ignoring the ends that she has chosen for herself, the ends that she has decided to pursue.

Reason No. 2 #

The second reason begins with the common-sense observation that there’s something special about our bodies, because, in a sense, that’s all we are: without our bodies we are nothing. The well-functioning of our bodies is our own well-functioning; what is good for our bodies is also good for us. That is why we feel pain & discomfort & seek to avoid it. That is why we eat, drink, sleep & exercise. That is why we recoil at the thought of buying somebody’s organs or paying another person to tattoo something on their skin.

There is something special about sex, too. I know some would argue that this is just a convention, that sex is only significant for historical & societal reasons. Of course views on sex are different in different cultures. But nowhere that I am aware of do humans look upon it without conferring on it some special importance. Humans have desired, with very few exceptions, privacy in sex everywhere & at all times. If that is a convention, it seems a powerful enough convention as to be indistinguishable from human nature. But even if it is a convention, it is still that & until we can drag sex down from the privileged place we accord it in society today (should we even desire to do so) it will stay in that privileged place & we will need to take its importance into consideration.

Prostitution involves doing something with or often to another person’s body, intimately. Prostitution means giving up one’s bodily privacy all the time, usually for the benefit of strangers. To whatever extent prostitution is bad for our bodies, it is also bad for us.

Reason No. 3 #

The third reason to think that paying for sex is an especially egregious wrong is that prostitution carries a powerful stigma. The work itself is sometimes humiliating. But even when it isn’t, there is in most societies a mark of dishonour imprinted on those involved in it. If, in a happy future, the stigma against sex workers is diminished or removed, the harm will of course be reduced or gone accordingly. But until that time we need to account for it.

Sex worker advocates mean to remedy this situation through decriminalisation, which they argue will weaken the stigma & improve sex workers’ conditions by making sex work more similar to other kinds of work. Abolitionists mean to remedy it by outlawing the purchase of sex – in other words outlawing johns – & at the same time providing help for prostitutes to be able to support themselves in other ways, by which they intend to abolish prostitution entirely.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am not a consequentialist. I wouldn’t expect either of the two solutions to fully remedy the problem anyway. But, for reasons I’ve hopefully made clear here, I lean towards the abolitionists’ position, because I think that paying for sex is very often wrong & that this is a good norm to enforce. I also think it’s possible (& in my opinion desirable) to have a situation where the act is stigmatised while being subjected to the act is not, as is already the case with robbery & being robbed, assaulting & being assaulted, lying & being lied to. These acts are all illegal to do but not illegal to be subjected to; for all of them, it is chiefly the doing to which the stigma is attached.[6]

Whither All This? #

Those are some reasons to think that the work in sex work & especially prostitution is worse than most other work. Now consider the thought that it’s probably because of these reasons that prostitution for many (though not all) becomes a kind of last resort. Because it’s stigmatised, because it involves sex, because it turns what is supposed to be a reciprocal act into a mere service many people would not even think to undertake it unless their situations were very dire indeed. That means we should be extra sceptical today that any prostitute in practice has meaningful alternatives, especially if we keep in mind the fact that prostitution usually pays relatively well (which, as I concluded in the previous post, make the offers involved more coercive).

I mentioned that I lean towards the abolitionists’ position. But an even better solution to the problem is to end the sorts of poverty & destitution that limit people’s choices in the first place. Under a universal basic income, for example, nearly everyone would have alternatives to prostitution & it would be much harder to coerce somebody with money. We are a long way from that now. But in other ways we are not.

  1. I’m using the word prostitution here to refer to paying & being paid for sex specifically & the word sex work to refer to any sex-related work, including that of strippers, cam girls, glamour models & so on. I know that different people use these terms differently. I also know that abolitionists & sex worker advocates prefer different words; I don’t want to take a side in that battle.

    I will also sometimes use the masculine pronoun to refer to a person who pays for sex & the feminine for a prostitute, or prostituted woman if you prefer. That’s not because all johns are men & every prostitute a woman. But I think it’s fair because the vast majority of johns are men & the large majority of prostitutes are women. ↩︎

  2. Platt, L., Grenfell, P., Meiksin, R., Elmes, J., Sherman, S. G., Sanders, T., Mwangi, P., & Crago, A.-L. (2018). Associations between sex work laws and sex workers’ health: A systematic review and meta-analysis of quantitative and qualitative studies. PLOS Medicine, 15(12), e1002680. ↩︎

  3. Abramovich, E. (2005). Childhood Sexual Abuse as a Risk Factor for Subsequent Involvement in Sex Work. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 17(1–2), 131–146. ↩︎

  4. See here & here. ↩︎

  5. Actually I have heard of people doing this for free: I think it’s a kink. Good for them! But they are rare enough that we can bracket them for the purposes of this argument. ↩︎

  6. Of course there are situations where this is not true or where the reverse is even true. For instance, in some cultures victims of such acts may be blamed & shamed even more than perpetrators. Or in some gangster cultures wrongful acts may be glorified & being subjected to them stigmatised (because of perceived weakness, say). But that only shows that these perceptions are highly malleable, such that it should be very possible for a society to stigmatise paying for sex but not being paid for it. ↩︎