Prostitution is often described as the oldest profession. Not surprisingly, the ethics of prostitution have often been debated. In general, most people claim that it is morally unacceptable. Yet, like all such practices, it continues to thrive-as recent headlines will attest.
However, as a philosopher, what interests me is not the last media frenzy about prostitution, but the ethics of the practice itself. Rather than take the usual approach of simply asserting it is immoral, I will consider the various plausible reasons as to why it should be considered immoral and also argue that, under certain conditions, it can be just as morally acceptable as other forms of work.
One reason often given as to why prostitution is immoral is that it tends to involve coercion. In most cases, people do not freely decide to become prostitutes. In some cases, they are driven to the profession by desperation and a lack of other opportunities for employment. In other cases, they are forced into prostitution by others. In some cases, people are enslaved and forced to be prostitutes. For those who are unaware of this fact, slavery (both relating to prostitution and other forms) is alive and well around the world today.
Such coercion is clearly immoral, especially the sort that involves slavery. I agree with John Locke’s view of the matter. Roughly put, Locke argues that a person who would enslave another person should be regarded as a potential threat to the life and liberty of all. Hence, it is right and just to kill slavers. My own addition to this is that the death should be both cruel and unusual, perhaps involving a wood chipper. As you might imagine, there is little that I hate more than slavery and slavers. In light of this, prostitution that involves this sort of coercion must be considered immoral.
However, some people freely and knowingly chose to be prostitutes. In these cases, the coercion argument obviously fails.
It might be argued that no one would freely chose to be a prostitute and that all people are coerced into doing so. For example, feminists often refer to the coercive power of the patriarchy that is so powerful and subtle that women often do not even know they are being coerced. If these feminists are right, then all (or almost all) prostitution in a patriarchal society would be immoral.
Of course, if we accept this sort of view, then it would entail that almost all jobs are immoral. After all, everyone who is not the top of the power and economic hierarchy will be coerced into working by those above them and by the very nature of capitalism. This view has, of course, been argued for by communists, anarchists and others. It seems reasonable, but also shows that certain types of prostitution are just as moral (or immoral) as most other jobs. So, a prostitute who is no more coerced than a professor is thus morally on par in this regards.
If we accept that such coercion is morally acceptable, which is a common view in capitalism, then freely chosen prostitution would be morally acceptable on these grounds. This is, of course, what one would expect from capitalism.
The second main moral concern about prostitution is that it is exploitative. As presented stereo typically in movies, prostitutes typically work for a pimp or a madam who takes a sizable cut of their income. This is exploitative because the prostitute is doing the hard work while the pimp/madam is taking an unfair share of the proceeds.
Of course, almost all other jobs are exploitative in this fashion. Think, for example, of how much the typical worker gets paid and how much profits the industry in question makes. Profit, as Marx argues, typically requires that the worker is paid less than the value she adds. Of course, profit can also be made by exploiting the customer or the supplier of raw materials. But, profit by its very nature seems to require exploitation-someone has to be getting less than what they deserve.
It can be replied that such exploitation is acceptable when it is withing a certain degree. So, for example, the exploitation of the prostitutes by their pimps is exploitive because he takes far too much. The exploitation of the workers by Burger King is acceptable, because they do not exploit their workers as badly (and rarely, if ever, pimp slap them).
Now, if a degree of exploitation is acceptable, then prostitution that involves exploitation in this range would be acceptable. For example, working for a generous pimp or madam would be a morally acceptable job, on par with working for Starbucks. Once again, capitalism and prostitution can be bedfellows (and so often are).
Of course, if all exploitation is wrong, then almost all jobs would be immoral. This seems true-especially on Monday mornings.
A third reason that prostitution is regarded as immoral is that it is supposed to be degrading to the prostitute In most cases, this is true. To treat someone as mere sexual object is to fail to respect their worth as human being. Kant makes a good case for this as do numerous feminists, so I won’t rehash their arguments here.
Of course, many jobs are degrading and are still considered morally acceptable. For example, cleaning people’s toilets or working as a servant can be regarded as degrading. Working in a sweatshop is also degrading. In fact, a case could be made that most employment involves some attack on human dignity. Of course, the degree of degradation varies widely. But, if some degradation is morally acceptable, then prostitution that falls within that range would also be acceptable.
This, obviously enough, raises the question as to whether prostitution can be non-degrading or at least acceptably degrading.
it has been claimed that there are historical precedents for prostitution as a profession that is not degrading. One example is that of the dancers in Medieval Japan. Perhaps the most famous example is that of the hetaera of ancient Greece. These women were typically well educated and apparently enjoyed higher status than most women of the time (of course, women generally had very little status in that time). Based on what I have seen on the news, various “escort” services seem to strive to replicate the myth of the hetaera. For example, the service that provided women to Spitzer claimed to have highly educated and refined “companions.” The unfortunate DC Madam (Ms. Deborah Jane Palfrey) apparently strove to create a high class business: “the women had to be older than 23 with two to four years of college. ‘I was not interested in jaded, hard-core girls of any caliber,’ she said. ‘I wanted women who were strong and independent, who wanted to go on with their lives but they couldn’t get into grad school.'” (Newsweek) According to reports from the women who worked for her, Ms. Palfrey treated the women well and the women themselves certainly seemed to believe they were not being degraded.
It might be argued that having sex with people for money is inherently degrading. There are two replies to this.
First, there is the fact that all jobs involve a person selling himself/herself. A person who does manual labor is selling her body. A person who writes for a living is selling her mind. A person who performs is selling his talent. And so on.
Of course, one might reply, these people are doing something less intimate. Hence, the difference.
An easy reply to this is that people sell very intimate things. A writer sells her intimate thoughts. A therapist is being paid to be a friend (of sorts). If these sorts of jobs are acceptable, then so to is prostitution.
Second, it has long been argued that marriage is long term prostitution. The noted thinker Mary Wollstonecraft made this point. The idea is that women are trading sex for economic security. Dating can be, as the comedians do, looked at the same way:
Q: What’s the difference between going on a date and seeing a prostitute?
A: On a date, you spend money and hope for sex. When you see a prostitute, you spend money and know you’ll get sex.
Crude, yet informative. Many feminists thinkers have, as noted above, taken this view. If dating and marriage are 1) economic & sexual relationships and 2) acceptable, then prostitution would also seem to be acceptable. But, it also follows that if prostitution is unacceptable, then marriage and dating of this sort would also be immoral
Given the above discussion, it seems reasonable to accept that in our current society prostitution can be morally on par with acceptable professions. This says a great deal about our society.