Thursday, April 5, 2007

Pro/Positions: Guide to Positions on Prostitution

Radical feminists demand the abolition of prostitution, Christians decry the moral degeneration that sex work represents, and libertarians say "let 'em do what they want."

Prostitution—commodified sexual relations—is one of the most fraught issues in Western society. Discursively, it is a minefield of opposing arguments and positions. For my research, I have had to engage with a vast literature on the subject. And I've engaged in many fruitful discussions with academics, sex workers, and other interested parties. I'd like to briefly discuss some of the major viewpoints that currently shape our understanding of this field.

There is no neat way to delineate the various positions, but for convenience, I divide them into feminist and non-feminist approaches. This bifurcation recognizes the powerful role of feminism in changing the nature of discussion about sex work over the last few decades.


The broad feminist camp would include abolitionists, romantics, sex worker rights activists, and harm reductionists.

ABOLITIONISTS believe that prostitution violates women's human rights, it is inherently violent and abusive, it is categorically harmful. They represent women as "victims" and men as "abusers." More than any group, they have raised awareness about the perils of prostitution, about its link to international trafficking, and the post-traumatic legacy that "survivors" often endure. For abolitionists, there is no reforming the sex trade; it must be wiped out. The women must be "rescued" from the abhorrent trade. Melissa Farley's Prostitution Research & Education, plus many others, reflect this perspective.

ROMANTICS see prostitution as a field in which women can express their aggressive or "transgressive" sexual feelings. They highlight the agency women demonstrate in their choices, their strategies with men, and their stubborn refusal to abide by "polite" social conventions. "Johns" are seen as dupes in the hands of savvy prostitutes who manipulate male desires for their own financial gain. Romantics use such striking images of "independent" women to battle the pathetic and helpless images promoted by abolitionists.

SEX WORKER RIGHTS ACTIVISTS believe that sex work should be decriminalized and reformed into a legitimate trade. Through this, sex workers should be guaranteed adequate rights and protections. Activists borrow metaphors from the trade union movement: women are to "organize" as sex "workers" in the sex "industry" and have women "represent" their needs to official structures. Sex workers should be able to count on legal protection and access to health care, treated like any other laborer in a legal workforce. In South Africa, this perspective is represented by SWEAT (Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce).

HARM REDUCTIONISTS take a pragmatic interest in the safety and health of sex workers. They believe that, given the general ineffectiveness of policing or regulating of prostitution, society should guarantee that the women can at least operate without fear of harm, disease, abuse, or treachery. As many prostitution sectors expose women to high levels of violence and viral risk, reductionists believe their protection and empowerment is a crucial first step in addressing their needs. To the extent that societies recognize the vulnerability that sex workers face from clients, cops, pimps and other locals, reductionists believe we need to at least keep them safe from foreseeable harm.

As these positions illustrate, feminist positions are far from monolithic. But they all recognize the vulnerability of the women in the trade. Their differences revolve around strategies for empowering them.


The non-feminist camp would include religious moralists, patriarchal legalists, libertarians, and chauvinists. There is no ideology that ties them together except their relative indifference to the health of the women.

RELIGIOUS MORALISTS argue against prostitution through religiously coded language, often seeing it as a sin, a pollution of one's body ("temple"), and an abuse of the "God-given gift" of sexuality. They believe that uncontrolled sexual expression—especially female—goes against God's design of sex within the bounds of marriage. They deem prostitution an abomination, but they are also keen to "save" and "redeem" the women who have been "lost" to this "sinful" activity. Male purchasers are rarely targets of moralists' campaigns, but most believe that anyone involved in that exchange needs to repent and seek "God's grace."

PATRIARCHAL LEGALISTS support historical legislation that criminalizes the selling of sex, but not its purchase. In South Africa, this is codified in the apartheid-era Sexual Offences Bill of 1957 which is still in force today. Parliament is currently debating the bill in hopes of changing certain clauses; but many "law and order" types believe that the basic tenets of the old law should remain. They promote the status quo which places the burden of social stigma and legal vulnerability on female sellers of sex. Few explicitly claim that men deserve more rights than women, but their promotion of current legal standard reinforces a tradition of gender bias. Legalists believe that the government must be actively involved in "controlling" or at least "regulating" vice.

LIBERTARIANS see commodified sexual relations between two consenting adult as fine. They believe that the government should not interfere in the "private" realm of non-coercive sex. To the extent that such activity is free of harm, they say let the market regulate it.

CHAUVINISTS believe that "boys will be boys," that male sexual urges are natural and inevitable, and that they need outlets for their passions, including prostitution. This perspective comes through from so-called cultural traditionalists and through masculinist forms of popular culture. Cultural traditionalists place the onus of sexual moral probity on females, relieving men of responsibility for their sexual actions. Women are deemed the moral bedrock of the community, of morality, of domesticity, of family, etc. Traditionalists leave women to face public opprobrium while they praise men for going about their "natural" ways.

Young people under the influence of American rap music—depicting sexually expressive females as "bitches" and "hos"—often reveal a double-standard in their values. In the popular Usher track, "Yeah," Ludacris concludes his rap with the statement "we want a lady in the street but a freak in the bed." The idea here is that the qualities of a "lady" and a "freak" are oppositional, or at least non-coterminous. Such binaries derive from classic Victorian oppositions, like the "Madonna/whore" complex.


Most people identify with different positions depending on the context. In the face of abolitionist arguments, we may insist that not all prostitutes are hapless victims. But in the face of romantic arguments, we may highlight the ways in which women can be victimized through the trade. Ultimately, most of us sympathize with certain elements of a number of positions, especially when we are confronted with the sheer diversity of prostitution experiences, sectors, and contexts. We should be cautious of asserting blanket recommendations for all prostitutes. The industry is just too diverse for one-size-fits-all solutions.

Clarifying the ideological foundations—and limits—of each position is crucial for formulating intelligent responses to this fraught issue. Understanding the distinctions between each perspective—and what is at stake between them—can help us better communicate with each other about our own thoughts on this question. Even a rudimentary appreciation of other people's position will allow us to better determine whether we want to abolish, reform, preserve, or embellish prostitution in our society. Or some combination thereof.

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