The problems with prostitution: Inherent or relative?


Prostitution is defined as selling the private performance of specified acts of a sexual nature with intent to cause sexual arousal in the client. This involves both implicit and explicit agreement regarding access to the body of the seller.

The sale must involve a contract specifying the items of exchange, such as the specific services and costs.

While prostitution as an experience will differ depending on the cultural context and will be better or worse, there is nothing essentially wrong with the act of prostitution under consensual conditions where the woman is not coerced through force or monetary need. That greater stigma of prostitution leads to greater harm for feminist concerns even if it may sometimes enact a system that perpetuates harm and gender hierarchies.

There are problems within prostitution, however criminalising it will lead to far worse consequences for the victim (the prostitute) and the problems within prostitution must be solved rather than targeting the concept as an intrinsic wrong.

It has been glamourised in series like Harlots and movies like Pretty Woman , warped into a cheesy fairy tale full of scandal, sex and an ultimately happy ending with Prince Charming in tow. We’ve all joked about wanting a sugar daddy at this point, but the reality is far uglier.

However, the real question remains; what is actually wrong with the concept of prostitution in itself?

The Asymmetry Thesis and Essentialist Objections to Prostitution 

A frequent criticism of prostitution ties the act up as inherently wrong because there is something intrinsic to the nature of sex which constitutes a distinction between ‘commercial sex’ and other types of labour (Satz, 1995).


This essentialist approach to prostitution feeds into the main premise of the ‘asymmetry thesis’; it uses the putative intuition that some things such as love or sex shouldn’t be commodities. Markets in reproduction and sex are asymmetric and incomparable to other labour markets, such as sex counselling or therapy. Therefore, the commercial modification of sex itself constitutes harm, rather than merely being the cause of it.
This view holds that sexuality must be market in-alien (Satz, 1995) in order for one to preserve their selfhood.

A woman, by commodifying sex, literally sells herself very differently from how one employs the self in other occupations (Pateman, 1988). Although the prostitute may benefit economically from the consumer, the sale leads to self-alienation and thus limits her full capacity of self-expression which is often realised from a healthy sexuality. While other occupations may involve the body, some bodily boundaries must be protected from violation. Our bodies are vital to realise our sense of self. Widespread prostitution promotes inferior forms of personhood as, by selling herself, the prostitute transforms from a person to a thing, rather than an employee.

A Liberal Response: Prostitution is not inherently wrong


However, I will now argue in agreement with the likes of Kuo, Satz and Nussbaum that the prostitute does not sell herself and there is nothing inherently wrong with the act of prostitution. The asymmetry thesis is wrong because its premise and conclusion rest on the idea that there is either a ‘self’ or ‘soul’ which is hurt or sold.

The moralising of prostitution rests on integrated religious ideals which incorporate one’s morality or ‘soul’ (Kuo,2002, 42) and there is no strictly secular way to argue that prostitution violates personhood. Regulated, consensual prostitution cannot be equated to the literal sale or damage of body parts such as kidneys because one’s sexuality is a capacity. If traditional ideals of feminine purity were dismissed and female sexuality was normalised, commercial sex would be comparable to other occupations.

Many partner jobs have aspects that are just as invasive in similar ways. Irrespective of the sex itself, prostitution is analogous to occupations like chiropractic, massage or even something as normalised as hairdressing. Intimacy is established between the consumer and the seller, who means to please through a hands on approach to ensure the customer’s pleasure. Kuo(2002) and Nussbaum(1999) offer various vignettes of pairwise comparisons to self-employed prostitution with a number of other jobs along the dimensions of autonomy, consensual physical contact, health risk, working conditions, levels of pay and production of pleasure.

Some people will emphasise that the prostitute is penetrated, yet this is not a sufficient condition of prostitution as there are cases of medical test subjects paid to be experimented on through penetration. For example, a gynaecological practitioner could teach medical students how to perform vaginal inspections by volunteering her own body as a test subject.

In this case, she is allowing physical contact to her private parts for money but is not considered a prostitute. Her position facilitates the kind of mental detachment also common in prostitution where a woman participates in a sexual act solely for money rather than pleasure. Likewise, penetration is not a necessary condition of prostitution either as male heterosexual prostitutes are not themselves penetrated.

To argue that prostitution stands uniquely from other forms of work due to penetration is to operate on a narrow, heteronormative definition where a female prostitute provides her body for use by a male. Nussbaum’s influence on Kuo leads to the conclusion that there isn’t a physical aspect of sex that is unique and to argue for the unacceptability of prostitution is to also rule out other occupations.

Problems with Prostitution: Loss of Autonomy Due to Coercion and Alienation


However, even if prostitution is not technically different to other occupations, some women report that it is alienating as they struggle with their sense of self. In the documentary Tricked (Wasson and Wells, 2013), a former prostitute refers to her past self as someone other than herself. Pateman (1988) argues that female prostitution contrasts from other jobs as it expresses the political and social inferiority women face, aligning with Phillips’ point that it is an intrinsic, rather than contingent, feature of sexual service markets that they arise only under conditions of social inequality.

This is due to an obvious pattern of prostitutes where they commodify their sexual capacities due to particular background circumstances of low income and abuse rather than compassion, which is what compels others to engage in sex without charge (Phillips, 2011, 738). Someone with normal background conditions is not likely to enter the occupation and those that do ignore the weight of the separation between one’s commercial sexual life and their personal one, which consequently involves the dysfunctional detachment present in sexual abuse survivors (Kupfer, 1995, 82). A former prostitute’s mentality leads to a dysfunctional sexuality directly caused by the emotional and physical abuse she has experienced (Anderson, 2006). With money often being given to her pimp rather than to her, she may feel she literally sells herself. Usual jobs do not involve such alienation to one’s fundamental human capacities (their bodily use).

Sexuality and one’s body is fundamental to one’s identity and in this sense a woman sells her womanhood, and therefore herself, through prostitution (Pateman, 1988).
Furthermore, a majority of prostitutes lack autonomy because they do not choose to sell their sexual services and are either coerced or do it because of need, such as money or drug dependence. For example, even in the UK, explicit Craigslist adverts have offered rooms in exchange for sex (Townsend, 2013) which incite prostitution for women that have no alternative. They are in no position to freely choose and their vulnerability is taken advantage of. Women of colour have historically been forced into prostitution due to narratives of subordination where racism and sexism produce an extreme silencing and fetishization (Butler, 2015, 277). An example narrative is that of Asian women raped and beaten in the Vietnam war after camps were set up around prostitution bases (Lamothe, 2014). Persistent racism obscures autonomy and removes genuine alternatives so that prostitutes are frequently alienated and dehumanised.

Possible Response: Prostitution is Not Harmful in the Right Conditions

However, it is not a necessary condition of prostitution that a woman loses her sexuality after she stops prostituting. It is possible that she can rehabilitate her life and even have a family (Wasson and Wells, 2013). The objection is an empirical point concerning the nature of a prostitute’s experience which involves constant fear, abuse and trafficking; not the kind of prostitution Kuo and Nussbaum protect.

In the most extreme cases, the prostitute is controlled by others and may often be terrorised, locked away with little means of communication and tricked into the business at a young age. However, not all cases of prostitution require a failure to treat others as morally significant (Satz, 1995). In consensual cases, it can be compared to forms of labour where one allows invasion of bodily space, health risks and the satisfaction of clients.

There is less freedom and autonomy in some jobs than in others, such as factory workers who suffer monotony and boredom or athletes required to eat certain food (Satz, 1995). Furthermore, a singer does not alienate her voice by commodifying it, so why should this be the case for sex? A self-employed prostitute involves a degree of autonomy. Control is not destructive of our dignity and there is no strong reason to condemn the act of prostitution.

Alienation or ‘self-distancing’ is not essentially objectionable (Shrage, 2016) and banning prostitution is not the answer because not all sexual exchanges can be classed as ‘desperate’. The element of self-distancing is not alienating; it is essential to many professional activities. Schwarzenbach’s (1991) Hegelian account of self-expression includes the possibility of a professional detaching themselves from their actions or product when subjecting themselves to others.

For example, a writer or dancer expresses themselves through their craft and gains a sense of identity without fully immersing themselves in how others receive their work- a reformed prostitute may do so with her body without losing herself even if others make temporary use of it (Schwarzenbach 1990-1991, 114).There is nothing fundamentally wrong with prostitution itself and the harm caused to either party is usually due to problems with the regulations of the present prostitution system.

Objections to Prostitution for endorsing Patriarchal Capitalism:

Yet, while Satz argues that there is nothing essentially wrong with prostitution, she does not endorse it. The contemporary system perpetuates inequality because, like other typically subordinate positions that women occupy, it reinforces already present disempowering images by associating corresponding stereotypes with femininity (1995, 78).


For example, ‘female jobs’ stereotyped as menial may include babysitters, waitresses, secretaries and cleaners. This may effect the gender balance of other labour markets (Satz, 1995). Due to society’s largely essentialist views, prostitutes are seen as morally corrupt. This produces a stronger image of inferiority associated with women portrayed as objects that lack free will.

Prostitution is a more exaggerated stereotype of menial jobs which feed into “patriarchal capitalism” (Pateman, 1988) as, by commodifying the female body, women’s status as the sexual servants of men re-affirms the pervasive belief that the female sexuality is objectifiable in contrast to the male sexuality (Pateman, 1988). The male right to female bodies is captured in contemporary prostitution due to the explicit link between the inferior social status of women and commercial sex (Satz, 1995). Widespread prostitution societally degrades women by acknowledging the ‘right’ of sex to men. Many feminists (Mackinnon, Dworkin and Shannon Bell) view straight women as collaborators in a sphere of penetration and violence integral to heterosexual intercourse. The woman becomes a prostitute, who is viewed as merely a passive “hole” (Kuo, 2002, 39).

Furthermore, Prostitution is dominated mainly by heterosexual intercourse. There is no equivalent ideology which represents male sexual service to women. While there are male escorts, the majority serve other men and are ultimately portrayed as successfully alienating their sexuality without becoming sexual servants. Increasing male prostitution would not theoretically remove this perception as there exists the common implicit bias that women can gain sex whenever they desire, have more at risk (such as pregnancy) and have an innate, emotional attachment to sex.

In contrast, male sex drives are presented as so naturally strong that they must be satisfied by the woman’s body, hence the idea that prostitution is the world’s ‘oldest’ profession (Pateman, 1988). Therefore, even if the sale of sex is not morally questionable, the negative aspect of prostitution is its third-party effects and the sexism it reinforces. It is wrong in virtue of the way it shapes how women are seen, resting on the empirical hypothesis that, while under other circumstances prostitution may be admissible, the inequality it perpetuates strengthens the asymmetry thesis by tying up the intuition that prostitution is wrong with traditional gender norms and the sexual roles which follow (Satz, 1995).


What is wrong with prostitution is that it supports the engrained belief that women service men who have higher sexual appetites. Prostitution perpetuates gender imbalance and inequality despite the fact that some women freely choose to prostitute, and perhaps it is not as easy to normalise as Kuo hopes.

Response: Prostitution Gives Women Autonomy and Female Sexuality Should Not be Stigmatised

While one cannot deny the history of male domination over women in prostitution, banning prostitution itself perpetuates patriarchal constructs. Prostitution represents uncontrolled, unregulated female sexuality that is a threat to men who seek to control it through criminalisation (Nussbaum, 1998). This male control centres on the basis that women’s worth is established by their sexuality; they will be reproached whether they partake in sex or abstain.

The gender hierarchy produces persistent stigma that objectifies women due to a cult structure (Nussbaum, 1998) against prostitution linked to both sexism and class. By subverting the idea that women should be monogamous and embracing prostitution on women’s terms, women gain sexual power as they are actually at odds with the stereotype of intrinsic sex slaves (Shrage, 2016), whereas the majority of women follow the social codes created for them in regard to their sexual autonomy.

From an intersectional perspective which ties up gender and race by interrelating patterns of oppression, to criminalise prostitution for black and ethnic minorities who usually have lower income households could be to decrease their options. Some argue that it is a form of empowerment (Butler, 277) as the stigma against prostitution is linked to the upper class who could afford leisure time and criticised the working class for monetising things they believed should be done for free.

Artistic talents such as acting or dancing were stigmatised similarly to prostitution centuries ago, yet this social stigma has now died away (Nussbaum, 1999) while that of sex work still stands. Other socially accepted practices also perpetuate male dominance, such as marriage, but are tolerated as social norms. If female sexuality and prostitution were normalised, both women and their sexual activity may cease to be so stigmatised (Kuo, 2002).

While Satz rightfully argues that prostitution does perpetuate patriarchal beliefs, Nussbaum’s argument is stronger because a feminist should oppose the reason for stigmatising prostitution rather than the catalyst of the stigma (prostitution itself). If the prostitution industry and society was restructured to be less sexist, the social impact of sex work would be different (Nussbaum 1999). Therefore, to eliminate gender hierarchies, prostitution should be normalised.

The Problem within Prostitution and Possible Solutions:

The primary objectification of women stems from the contemporary system of prostitution, an aspect which Kuo seems to turn a blind eye to in her arguments. One should be concerned with cases of prostitution where women lack choice, especially in the trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable women.

Trafficking is a problem which must be addressed separately because criminalising or abolishing prostitution would not exterminate it. As prostitution happens anyway, the loss of autonomy would be worsened by the stigmatisation a ban would cause as less women would seek help. Decriminalisation is consistent with the reduction of human trafficking (Shrage, 1996) since in places such as Sweden, where pimps are criminalised, trafficking has decreased (Hagstedt, 2009) because women are protected and it is easier to report sex slavery (Gauthier, 2011).

Amnesty International agrees that all parties should be beyond reach of the law (Bolton, 2015) in a consensual, destigmatised situation with sufficient protection and regulation, but it is nevertheless worrying to make a living out of prostitution due to the potential harms endangering the prostitute.



By normalising and regulating prostitution, female sexuality should be de-stigmatised due to the moral right to self-sovereignty (de Marneffe, 2013). If we regulate prostitution and thus protect female autonomy, the asymmetry thesis is invalid and prostitution is comparable to other labour markets. Coercion is a problem in prostitution, but is not necessarily problematic for prostitution and it should be addressed separately at the source through state programs that unveil harmful practices and prosecute pimps (Kuo, 2002).

The correct response is to change prostitution laws rather than outlaw the practice as the problems with prostitution lie within the system. As long as there are sufficient numbers of willing prostitutes, women should have a legal right to sexual autonomy as there is nothing inherently wrong with the act of commercial sex. By inhibiting this, we create a double standard between views towards male and female sexuality as the male prostitute faces far less policing.

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Phillips, A. (2011) “It’s My Body and I’ll Do What I Like With It: Bodies as Objects and Property”, Political Theory, 39: 724–48.
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Townsend, Catherine (2013) ‘’I’m not a creep, just looking to help out’: The men using Craigslist to offer free rooms in exchange for ‘maid service’ and sex’ [Online] Available at: Read more: [Accessed 8 May 2018]
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Images are film stills (Malena, Pretty Woman, Pretty Baby, Secret Diary of a Call Girl) and sourced from Instagram. Artwork by Ege Islekel.



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