The Philosopher's Eye

News and brain candy for the philosophy community

The Morality of Sex Work

The Policing and Crime Act became effective this April in the UK. Given its difficult nature, it has been the focus of stimulating debates on the subject of prostitution. The act further criminalizes sex clients and sex workers, what comes as a direct offense to those who defend the unconditional value of freedom. Criminalizing prostitution would be seen as reinforcing “the idea that sex workers are too stupid, lazy, without any skills, and without consciousness of their alienation”, as put by Schaffauser in his comment in The Guardian. This view represents one side of the criticisms.

Cari Mitchell illuminates the other side of the criticisms in her comment, also in The Guardian. She takes a more pragmatic view on the issue, emphasizing the reasons why and the context in which women choose to sell sexual services. Her disapproval is not directed to prostitution, but to the real miseries and injustices to which women are subjected. In her own words, “the financial reasons driving many women, especially mothers and young people, into prostitution – debt, inadequate benefits, low wages, homelessness and high rents – have been ignored”.

Given that we live in an economic context where some women actually choose prostitution as a way of making a living, and also given that – at least in the short run – we are not engaging in any effective changes of this context, further criminalizing prostitution is likely not to enhance women’s dignity, but to endanger women’s safety. “Sex workers’ warnings – that driving prostitution further underground endangers safety, as women will not report violence if they risk arrest – have been dismissed”.

More philosophically speaking about the matter, Anderson presents an interesting view about the morality of prostitution. She deals with the subject through the following perspective: what are the limits of market transactions? Anderson assumes that we value goods in different ways and, as a consequence, we need different spheres that are appropriate to these modes of valuing. She concludes that market transactions are fit for goods that have certain characteristics, which are: (1) impersonality; (2) excludability; (3) rivalry; (4) being the object of mere tastes (rather than rational valuation); and (E) permitting exit.

In prostitution the “goods” being “traded” are trust, loyalty, love, etc. – goods that cannot be purchased, but only given freely. Anderson believes that letting market transactions coexist with this sphere will corrupt the sphere. In the end, our conception of the goods will come to change and we will thereby lose these goods. Thus, we should not legalize prostitution.

So, what do you think about the problem?

Related Article

Recent Work on Free Will and Moral Responsibility
By Neil Levy and Michael McKenna, University of Melbourne Florida State University
(Vol. 3, December 2008)
Philosophy Compass

6 comments on “The Morality of Sex Work

  1. adam
    April 17, 2010

    I disagree with Anderson when she implies that ‘In prostitution the “goods” being “traded” are trust, loyalty, love, etc. – goods that cannot be purchased’
    Firstly, I’m positive that trust and loyalty are a commodity, that can be bought. We’d all hope that these values were given freely but in some cases ie the workplace, they are definitely a commodity.
    Secondly, in prostitution i always thought the goods being traded were sexual intercourse! Is my field of vision too narrow, probably, considering my understanding of philosophy, lol.
    In my opinion – the positives of going legit with prostitution far outweigh the negatives, to clarify – by removing the criminal aspect of it, we are likely to improve the lives of many women, who will chose this profession whether it’s legal or not. The illegal trafficking of women for prostitution is a sickening pandemic and hopefully by legalising prostitution you’d remove this problem.

  2. stephenpaterson
    May 4, 2010

    These new gratuitous offences are numbers 3,601 onwards added to the statute book since 1997 in no less than 66 criminal justice bills. Our prisons are at bursting point and we corrently have the biggest prison building programme in Europe. Vote Labour and get incarcerated!

    We know from numerous studies that sex workers are a great deal safer indoors than on the street. We also know that they are a great deal safer in numbers than alone. However, we now penslise anyone owning or managing a place where they can work together with up to no less than seven years imprisonment, steal any of their earnings under the Proceeds (should it be Perpetuation?) of Crime Act, and close the building concerned for up to three months.

    Enough! Be off with them! Let us hang the inhabitants of that cesspool of Whitehall known as the Home Office from Tower Bridge!

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  4. asp
    June 28, 2012

    In Sweden the prostituted and the sex workers are decriminalized, while the johns and the pimps are prosecuted. At the same time real efforts are made by the government to help those who want to leave the sex industry. Trafficking people have become extremely difficult in Sweden; traffickers prefer the Netherland, where prostitution is legal….

    • stephenpaterson
      July 2, 2012

      Asp – The idea that the Swedes decriminalised anything when they criminalised clients of sex workers has been established as myth. Their other laws on the sex industry remained in place. And if you really think it has made an iota of difference to the size of the Swedish sex industry, try Googling “Stockholm + escort” and be prepared for a rude awakening.
      What it has done is make it impossible for clients to report trafficked sex workers if and when they come across them, thus making it much easier for traffickers in the unlikely event of anyone choosing Sweden to traffick people to in the first place.

  5. asp
    June 28, 2012

    I meant the NetherlandS

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