On Prostitution

I recently read a book called ‘Ceremony’ by Robert B Parker, in which the hero, a principled and moral private eye named Spenser, encounters a teenager who has run away from home and gone into prostitution. She was exploited by a pimp, and ended up in a bad situation, but he rescues her. However, her home life was also awful, and instead of sending her home, he sets her up with a high-class madam, and she continues as a prostitute.

Now, this story did not change my opinions upon prostitution one bit, but I thought it was a good reminder that I should talk about prostitution, and my views of it.

First, I have nothing against prostitution. It is just another profession. It is a service profession, meaning that a prostitute sells services. Now, in some cases, prostitutes are exploited and in very bad situations that I believe are unethical and illegal – but I do not believe prostitution itself falls under this category.

  1. What do prostitutes sell?

There is a prevalent notion that prostitutes ‘sell themselves.’ In truth, they do not. In fact, it is not really possible to ‘sell oneself.’ Apart from, perhaps, selling full-on slavery – and even that might not be selling oneself. After all, a slave obeys their master, on pain of punishment or death – but does that really mean belonging to them, or selling oneself to them? It is an interesting philosophical question – namely, what is the nature of slavery? And who is a slave? But in any case, fundamentally, a prostitute is a person who performs sexual acts in exchange for money.

Now, such a person could be a slave. However, in principle, such a person could decide whether to perform the service on a case by case basis. And in fact, each sex act is a service.

By comparison, when I work as a professor, I sell my knowledge and give lectures. And in fact, I am not allowed to decide to whom I will lecture. My university decides who can take my class. So, I am forced to sell my services to customers, and I have no choice in who those customers are. Am I a prostitute? The only difference between myself and a prostitute is that I sell mathematics lecturing as a service, while a prostitute sells sexual contact as a service. Similarly, some people claim prostitutes ‘sell their bodies.’ Do I ‘sell my mind’ because I give lectures to people (people I cannot choose, cannot veto, whom I required to lecture)? No more than prostitutes sell their bodies or themselves when they give sexual services in exchange for money.

2. Prostitutes are often in bad situations.

This is absolutely true. Many prostitutes are in awful situations. The stereotypical prostitute in an American city is a woman who has nothing of her own, who ‘belongs to’ a pimp who takes all her earnings and gives her nothing of her own, but does provide a place for her to stay and protects her from legal ramifications and from violent customers.

Now, I am the first to say that such pimping is unethical and should be illegal. But notice that the problem here is that the pimp is treating the prostitute as a slave. Imagine if a woman worked as a professor, but there were some man who took her paychecks for himself, beat her if she disobeyed him, and in exchange, only provided her a place to stay and protected her from potentially violent students. Or consider that many sneakers are produced by children in sweatshops in Asia. Does that make shoemaking unethical? Is it unethical for a person to produce shoes and sell them for money, just because some children are exploited into sweatshop shoemaking labour? No more than prostitution is evil just because pimps exploit prostitutes.

For that matter, the fact that prostitutes can be exploited by prostitutes is only exacerbated by the fact that prostitution is illegal. When something which is in demand is illegal, fulfilling that demand attracts people who are otherwise criminals anyway – during Prohibition, violent criminals turned to providing liquor, not because liquor is evil, but because there was a demand, and there was no legal way to meet that demand. Now, there is a demand for prostitutes, but no legal way to provide it in most places, and as a result, it is easy for violent criminals to work to fulfill that demand.

So, I have no objection to prostitution. In fact, I am pro-prostitution. I am opposed to pimping, insofar as the pimps exploit prostitutes rather than working as bodyguards for the prostitutes (I can see how prostitutes could use bodyguards, but the bodyguards should be employees of the prostitutes, not the other way around).

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