Addressing Two Dogmas on Prostitution

August 17, 2015

Back in May, I promised (threatened, some might say) to write a few blog posts on issues where I think too many humanists base their views on preconceptions, preconceptions that in some instances border on dogmas in the sense that they are resistant to conflicting empirical evidence. I’m a bit behind schedule, but this is my second post in that series.

(In May, I said I would next write on male circumcision, but given Amnesty International’s recent resolution on the decriminalization of sex work, prostitution seems a timelier topic.)

I reference “two dogmas” in the title to this post because in my opinion there are dueling preconceptions that govern the thinking of some humanists on the issue of decriminalization or legalization of sex work. (Decriminalization and legalization are not quite the same, but for purposes of this post, I’ll ignore the distinction.) One of the traditional mantras of humanism is that there is nothing inherently wrong with sex between consenting adults, whether or not they’re married to each other, gay, straight, polyamorous, or so forth, nor does such private consensual conduct cause harm to others. Accordingly, there should be no legal restrictions on such activity. And if someone wants to sell sexual services to someone else, what business is it of ours? The freedom of the individual takes precedence over unjustifiable sexual taboos.

A key problem with this preconception is that, to put it mildly, it is predicated on an ideal of freedom that may not align well with empirical reality, especially when it comes to selling sex. Many sex workers are really sex slaves, forced into prostitution against their will and trafficked like human cargo. Many other sex workers are constrained in their choices by their circumstances, with the exact level of situational pressure varying, of course, just as much as their individual circumstances. Only a distinct minority of sex workers freely choose to pursue their trade because they find it lucrative or in some other way personally rewarding. (These categories are obviously outlined with a very broad brush. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to know “the parameters of the population of prostitutes,” as one scholar has noted.) So the premise that we shouldn’t interfere with “sex between consenting adults” doesn’t effortlessly support the inference to “let’s decriminalize prostitution.”

The opposing preconception is that prostitution is nothing more than an especially vile manifestation of the exploitation of women by men. Those whose thinking is guided by this preconception typically oppose criminal penalties for selling sex—this just exacerbates the violence against the victim—but want to maintain criminal penalties on the customers, often characterized as predators.

But leaving aside those women who are literally sex slaves, it’s unclear what empirical grounding there is for the claim that prostitution is always a form of “sexual violence and rape.” Sex workers are in a dangerous line of work and they are not infrequently victims of real violence, but to conflate real, physical violence with the metaphorical “violence” allegedly imposed on all sex workers by the insidious patriarchy is to both minimize the real harm inflicted on some sex workers and to allow ideology to obscure our understanding of sex work.

Most sex workers would probably prefer to earn money doing something else, but the “something else” option is not readily available to them or doesn’t secure as much or enough money as engaging in sex work, either as an alternative or as a supplement to other work. But to conclude from the fact that sex workers are confronted with very unpleasant choices that they have no agency whatsoever is unwarranted. As the United Nations Global Commission on HIV and the Law stated, “Sex work is not always a desperate or irrational act; it is a realistic choice to sell sex—in order to support a family, an education or maybe a drug habit.”

If we are to address sex work as critical thinkers, we should put aside preconceptions, carefully define the problems we are trying to address through our policies, and then review the empirical evidence related to the policies under consideration. Presumably, a major objective of any responsible policy on prostitution would be to reduce human trafficking as far as possible. Another objective would be to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Finally, a third important objective would be to reduce the harassment of/violence toward sex workers generally.

Some maintain the Nordic model (adopted in Norway and Sweden) pursuant to which the client but not the worker is criminalized helps accomplish these objectives. However, the Nordic model has been severely criticized by many, including the above-referenced UN Global Commission on HIV and the Law, which concluded that, “Since its enactment in 1999, the [Swedish] law has not improved—indeed it has worsened—the lives of sex workers.” (See page 38 of the report, and notes 163–168.)

In advocating for decriminalization for both sex worker and client, Amnesty International has been ridiculed for worrying about the “right of men to buy sex.” However, there is nothing in the AI resolution that references the supposed right. In any event, I don’t think there is a “right” to contract for sex. But that’s not the issue. The issue is whether imposing criminal penalties on the customers of sex workers is justified because these penalties are necessary to achieve some important objective. Punishment by the state is a serious harm and requires compelling grounds. The claim is made that punishing the buyer will significantly reduce demand, but critics of the Nordic model argue that it merely serves to drive the sex trade further underground. Moreover, even if we were to assume that demand could be significantly decreased, where does that leave the sex workers who need that money? Talk about providing alternative employment to these workers is mostly just that, and even if some massive, global project were set in motion to provide everyone with desirable employment, what would sex workers do to meet their financial needs in the meantime?

So what should our approach to sex work be? I’m not sure myself, in part because neither the data from Sweden and Norway nor from those countries where both the buying and the selling of sex is legal (e.g., New Zealand, The Netherlands) is conclusive. That said, given the evidence compiled by various UN bodies and respected nonprofits such as Anti-Slavery International, a reasonably persuasive case can be made that decriminalization/legalization may better serve the important objectives set forth above. In any event, one t
hing is certain and that is an approach that relies on preconceptions, whether derived from the imaginary autonomy of sex workers or the bogeyman of patriarchy, will be of no assistance in addressing this complex issue.