Sex work is always controversial, largely because anything to do with sex is always controversial. Within this term I am including pornographic actors, professional doms and submissives for hire, strippers, prostitutes, rent-boys, escorts and other related professions under the whole common cause of being shamed and blamed for various of society’s ills.
Currently the big conflict is the confusion between people’s concept that prostitution is synonymous with sex trafficking, and the impression of voluntary sex workers that they’re acting of their own accord. It is fair to say that there is a problem with sex trafficking issues, but it is unfair to think that everyone who sells sexual services is forced, coerced or otherwise wrangled into doing it. There are many women, and men, who are quite vocal on the topic and assert that they enjoy their work and have chosen to participate in it – for any number of reasons. There’s no good reason not to take them at their word.
What can a strictly rational approach tell us about sex work, its societal effects and what might be the best approach to it?
What are the Facts?
- Statistics in this area are notoriously unreliable and incomplete and many of the studies undertaken are intended to be biased to confirm one point of view or another. As a grey/black trade getting hard data is going to be notoriously difficult. We must, then, proceed without the benefit of reliable statistics.
- One study believes that there are, or were, some 80,000 street prostitutes, that is, those not working in a brothel or out of a flat/house. Whatever the number, these are the most vulnerable and exposed.
- Prostitutes, especially street prostitutes, are vulnerable to rape and abuse from clients especially given how hard it can be to go to the police for help.
- Sex trafficking does exist and is an horrific abuse of men, women and children.
- Other forms of trafficking also exist and possibly/probably on a much larger scale than sex trafficking. Illegal workers are an issue in many countries, often little more than slave labour and controlled in a similar way to those who are trafficked for other reasons. Many of these workers end up hurt or even killed.
- Voluntary prostitutes and other sex workers should be taken at their word when they say they are not coerced and/or that they enjoy their work.
- A driving factor for many lower-end prostitutes is economic. You could frame this in the form of economic coercion, or you could see this as a way to make ends meet when no other is available. Sex industry work is also common amongst people in higher education, helping to pay fees while they work through college. Such economic factors also drive people to take less than ‘ideal’ jobs of all kinds just to make ends meet.
- STDs are of concern and the clandestine and ephemeral nature of commercial sex contact provides a possibility for STDs to spread unknown.
- The potential damage to existing relationships when someone pays for sex is a concern, albeit a moralistic one. Affairs are essentially the same thing, and may be more damaging being more emotional. On the other hand, access to commercial sex may enable relationships to continue despite sexual or physical problems in one partner, allow partners to explore their sexuality in different ways or to provide an outlet that prevents someone straying in a more significant manner.
- Sex, physical relief, is a basic human need. Sexual contact promotes physical and mental health. Relationships are not viable for everyone and many people spend a lot of time outside relationships. There are people with various physical and mental issues that mean they cannot access the ‘singles scene’ and these people too have a need for physical intimacy. People who care for severely disabled partners also have needs and these can be served physically at a distance from intimacy.
- Legality is variable and ill defined, depending on national and local laws. This makes for a confusing mish-mash that serves no-one and is often contradictory or inconsistent. For example, it being illegal to purchase (or ‘dispense’) sex for its own sake, but it being legal to do it in the production of pornography.
What can I conclude?
The truth is that we have long known what the best approach to the ‘problem’ of sex work is. The problem is not that we have no idea what to do about this, but that it is politically unpopular. This is the same issue facing drug legislation and even much broader problems such as crime. As such the issue is one of educating the general public and reaching a critical mass of voters, rather than simply knowing what to do.
The current harmful sides of prostitution – the presumed risk of STDs, the hotly contested degree of trafficking, money going to criminal organisations etc – are minimised or eliminated by bringing sex work (of all kinds) out of shadiness and darkness and into some sort of legal and regulatory basis. Trafficking would be undermined, licensed premises and sex workers could have to fulfil certain criteria for licensing, medical aid and free contraception could be targeted and provided where most required.
The only real reason, that stands to scrutiny, that anyone might be against full legalisation and legitimisation is ‘moral’, which is a rather slippery and subjective way to go about making any sort of policy. With it fully legalised people would be free to partake and participate, or not, as they wished.
Ultimately it does no real harm that people do not bring upon themselves. It provides many goods. Could contribute tax revenue, aid social mobility and despite all that what people do with their own bodies should be up to them (provided that it causes no real harm). People sell their bodies and talents in innumerable other ways without the same judgement or comment (manual labour) and there seems to be no reason that stands to critical examination to disallow people from buying or selling sex.
With pornography, including ‘extreme’ pornography, so long as everyone involved is consenting I see no reason to censor it or make it illegal. With strip clubs, lapdancing and so forth it seems peculiar to me to fixate upon the paid-for nakedness when alcohol is on sale. Clearly we’re willing to accept the unquestionable societal ills of booze in exchange for the comfort and business it brings with responsible use.
Full legalisation and responsible regulation of any and all of these professions will remove the involvement of the criminal element and create a safer environment for both customers and sex workers. It’s a complete no-brainer.