By In Applied Ethics, Ideas, Normative Ethics Comments (8)

Sex Work is Different

This post was inspired by a story in the WaPo, the relevant detail of which is that, due to the economic hardship in Greece, some young Greek women are selling sex for the price of a sandwich they cannot otherwise afford to buy. Also, the argument I want to make may be old news; this is not a topic where I have a lot of familiarity with the literature.

There are basically two moral views about sex work, which I will define for present purposes as the exchange of money for some form of sex in short-term, one-off transactions. (So, here, sex work is prostitution.) One view is that sex work is a lot like other kinds of work, except it is mostly performed by women and, due to various kinds of sexism and discrimination, has historically been stigmatized and exploited labor. The right course is to learn to treat sex work as normal work, and enact appropriate regulation that protects the sex workers, in the same spirit one would legally protect other kinds of workers.

The other moral view, which I take to be encoded in most state laws in the US (I can’t speak for elsewhere), is that sex work is morally problematic in some deeper way. The usual thought, I believe, is that it degrades the sex worker; sex work is intrinsically undignified. The proper way to handle sex work is to proscribe it entirely, where this is practical, and in any case discourage it.   What follows is an argument in favor of this general view.


Suppose there is a hungry person who would like a sandwich, and you run a sandwich shop, so you are in a position to provide them with a sandwich. Other things being equal, it does not seem morally problematic to me to require this person to work for their sandwich, doing more or less whatever needs to be done that they can do. I say “other things being equal” because there are circumstances in which no work should be required. For example, maybe they are disabled, or have already worked fourteen hours that day. Maybe they have responsibilities, like the care of an infant, that prevent them from working for pay. In those cases, just give them the sandwich. But if we consider the case of, let’s say, a healthy able-bodied young woman, without dependents, who is not otherwise employed, who has nothing in particular preventing her from working, it does not seem unjust to me to require her to do some work, about a sandwich’s worth at prevailing wages, for her sandwich. That might mean sweeping the floor of the shop, or wiping down tables, or washing a window or two, or making a few sandwiches for customers, or basically whatever you, the prospective employer for sandwich-wages, wants done.

And a social version of this principle also seems just to me. If a person needs a living and can work for one, it is reasonable for society to expect them to work, rather than be supported by the welfare state (i.e. other people). This principle is compatible with all sorts of labor regulation, protection of workers, finite amounts of unemployment insurance, pensions for the disabled and the elderly, and so on. It is chiefly concerned to prevent the existence of a class of able-bodied spongers who refuse to do useful labor and expect to be supported by everyone else.

Now, if sex work was normal work, then it would fall into the category of labor that an individual, or a society, could expect a person to perform in order to make a living. If sex work was normal work, and the only jobs on offer for able-bodied young women were jobs as prostitutes (as seems to be the case in parts of Greece), it would be reasonable, by the principle above, to expect the women to take up these jobs. Failure to do so should be viewed as shiftlessness, an unwillingness to support oneself and an expectation of sponging off others.

However, I have the strong intuition that this is the wrong reaction. If a hungry young woman refused to sweep a shop floor to earn a sandwich (imagine, for example, an aristocrat newly fallen on hard times) my reaction would be that this is a person who thinks rather too highly of themselves and needs to learn to do some honest labor. If they get hungry, too bad; maybe that will change their minds. On the other hand, if a hungry young woman refused to perform a sex act to earn a sandwich, my reaction would be quite different. This young woman thinks more highly of herself than that, perhaps—and admirably so. Nobody should have to prostitute themselves to earn their daily bread. This is compatible with compassion for those women who are hungry enough to sell sex for food.

So my conclusion is that sex work is not normal work. Sex work is different.

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8 Responses to Sex Work is Different

  1. Hi Heath,
    I agree with your argument that sex work is “different” in the sense that it can’t reasonably be expected or demanded of one in the way that “normal” work arguably can.
    But I don’t think this supports the idea that it is “intrinsically undignified”, or anything like that. A weaker (and, I think, much more plausible) conclusion would simply be that (i) sex work may be associated with especially high risks of being experienced as (severely) degrading or emotionally traumatic, particularly if one is pressured into it, and (ii) we have strong moral reasons to try to avoid causing people to feel (severely) degraded or emotionally traumatized, and hence strong moral reasons to prevent anyone from being pressured into sex work (“against their will”, so to speak). But these two claims are jointly compatible with the recognition that some individuals may instead find sex work to be empowering (or at least neutral) rather than degrading, in which case there is nothing morally wrong with their freely pursuing this line of work.
    In other words: isn’t there a sensible middle ground between the “two moral views” you mention?

  2. Dallas Amico says:

    There are jobs that it is permissible for one to have, that it would be impermissible to force someone to do for a sandwhich (or for a living). For example, it would be permissible for you to procure a job securing sky scraper beams. Nevertheless, it seems impermissible for me to require you to risk your life in order to earn a living wage. Of course, what’s at issue here is a bit different than what is at issue in cases of prostitution.
    An example closer to the case of prostitution is as follows. It would be permissible for you to procure a job where doctors in training used you to practice invasive procedures (e.g., colonoscopies or pap smears). Nevertheless, it would be impermissible for me to require you to allow a doctor in training to perform such procedures on you, in order for you to earn a living.
    I am not sure what justifies such intuitions, but it seems plausible to me that prostitution will be captured by whatever principle captures these intuitions. There are some jobs that, because of risk or invasiveness (and perhaps other things), it is impermissible to require someone to perform in order to secure a living wage. This does not, it seems to me, show that it is impermissible to perform such jobs for a living wage. If I’m willing to undergo weekly colonoscopies, so be it! Good for science!
    This suggests three types of work: normal work, abnormal but permissible work, and abnormal and impermissible work. Society could only permissibly force people to perform normal work in order to earn a living, but it would be permissible for one to decide to engage in abnormal work for a living if they freely chose to. It would, of course, be impermissible to force someone to perform abnormal and impermissible work (perhaps engaging in organ trade on the black market) for a living wage, and it would be impermissible to engage in such work.
    My suspicion is that prostitution, like the weekly colonoscopy job, is abnormal but permissible work.

  3. Jack Woods says:

    (Nearly all of) what Richard said. I agree about that it’s different, but worry about the claim that it’s intrinsically different. In particular, we might worry about the comparison since, after all, there are good reasons to think badly of the aristocratic privilege that underwrites what the too-good-for-us-common-folk jackass is whining about.
    How do you feel about someone refusing to wear a sandwich board for their sandwich? I’d be pretty willing to back their play, personally; that position is likely to make them feel degraded, given sociological facts. It also seems plausible to me that wearing a sandwich board isn’t intrinsically degrading. It’s just degrading given the sociological facts as they are and as they affect many of us (this is compatible with the SUPER PLAUSIBLE claim that it’s to be expected that certain jobs like this are likely to produce feelings of degradation.) A similar point might be made about jobs which, otherwise ordinary, tend to be historically associated with people of a certain group and play a role in a negative stereotype of them. I can see a reasonable case for refusing to participate in them even though the work isn’t intrinsically degrading.
    One quick related comment on Richard’s point; it might be fine, it might not. This depends also on whether pursuing this kind of work also has pernicious side-effects of, say, perpetuating some awful social structures, right?

  4. Susan G. Sterrett says:

    The view in this post is consistent with the view of the group of survivors of sex trafficking I am familiar with. Their view is basically that “the job” consists of things that are considered violations of a person were they in any other job. So, yes, it is different, for the reasons you give.
    I agree. I was glad to see the post, and the reasoning given for the conclusion.

  5. Dale Miller says:

    Of course, even someone who denies that prostitution is different will be opposed to sex trafficking, at least so long as this is defined (as I assume that it typically is) to include a lack of consent. Survivors of sex trafficking are absolutely entitled to feel violated.

  6. Heath: I haven’t looked back at the paper, but I think that Scott Anderson makes very similar arguments in his “Prostitution and Sexual Autonomy: Making Sense of the Prohibition of Prostitution” (Ethics 2002).

  7. Heath White says:

    Thanks to all my commenters.
    Sergio, I looked at the Scott Anderson paper and it does make the argument I did, as part of a suite of other arguments. I recommend anyone interested in this topic read that paper. The gist is that in proscribing prostitution we are restricting the sorts of reasons (e.g. to non-financial ones) that people have to consider about engaging in sex, and that this is an important kind of autonomy.
    Susan, thanks for your input. Dale has a point that sex trafficking involves lack of consent, whereas prostitution need not. However, I think there is a deeper issue here. Susan says “[Sex trafficking victims’] view is basically that “the job” consists of things that are considered violations of a person” and it does not seem to me that consent removes this feature. That is, my view would be that one can consent to having one’s person violated, and that the fact of consent would not make it non-degrading or morally unproblematic.
    Thanks also to Jack, Richard, and Dallas for their comments. The central point they all agree on is that we need some third category of “jobs that it is permissible for one to have, that it would be impermissible to force someone to do” in Dallas’ words. I was initially sympathetic to this idea but upon further reflection I’m more doubtful, though not fully convinced either way. The central difficulty is that, in a capitalist economy, it is extraordinarily difficult to create a category for “yes we trade this for money, but the conditions of the trade are never exploitative or coercive.” Scott Anderson’s paper is in many ways a long riff on this basic point.
    Even if there were such a category, however, I would be dubious about the suggestion that what makes a job degrading is just that it makes a person feel degraded. Feeling degraded is a function of psychology and sociology, and by my lights anyway these feelings can go awry. For example, apparently, some Gulf Arabs feel degraded by doing anything approximating manual labor. This does not mean it is degrading, or that it would be wrong to make a hungry Gulf Arab do manual labor for his sandwich. Conversely, just because a person feels empowered does not make them empowered. To make this kind of suggestion work, one would have to talk about the feelings (of degradation or empowerment) of some idealized person, and then it is the idealization doing the theoretical work, not the feelings.
    Again, thanks to all.

  8. Jack Woods says:

    Interesting; I agree that feelings about degradation can go (even wildly) awry. I also agree that it’s worth worrying about whether there really is a significant third category here. To be clear, my worry was more about the claim that these jobs are intrinsically degrading instead of degrading-because-of-contingent-but-important-social-and-historical-factors. I don’t have a principled stand on whether they’re permissible to engage even given this fact (though I suspect some, but not all, such cases are like this.)