Friday, February 22, 2008

Sex work - good or bad or what?

This is one of those topics... you won't make friends, whatever your views. I just read an interesting piece on the BBC's website. They interview clients of sex workers in the UK. Three blokes are questioned who unashamedly regularly hire sex workers for their sexual (and possibly emotional) gratification. Their reasons are quite diverse, as one would expect. One guy seems to be a typical city high roller. He claims to have insufficient time for romantic involvement and is looking more or less for quick sexual release. Another guy says that he hasn't had sex with his wife for five years and he gets from sex workers what's missing in his marriage. Another one goes on about getting better sex from sex workers.

Well, first things first, guess this is one of those coming out type moments: I have not paid for sex myself. My main reason really is that I think there's no 'fun' in that. I am probably sufficiently vain that I would want someone to have sex with me because of me as opposed to because of my credit card. So, paying to my mind defeats a central purpose of having sex. Shows you how simple-minded I am. Clearly, however, people hold different views on this.

Secondly, my take on the ethics of sex tends to agree with the view that sex causes no particular moral problems, ie there is nothing special at all about sex. There are certain types of sexual activities that are bad because they translate into harm, eg non-consensual sex, probably sexual acts involving seriously young children, things like that. The wrongness of such acts is related to the harm they cause as opposed to their sexual nature. Some feminists have argued that rape doesn't constitute sex at all, because of the violent nature of such acts. I am not convinced of that, but that's neither here nor there for the purpose of this argument.

Thirdly, I cannot see how sex work is different to any other type of bonded work where we offer our bodies to people hiring us to perform particular tasks. Unless we have good reason to think that it would be wrong, for instance for my assistant to work for me based on agreed-upon conditions, we have no good reasons to think that it would be wrong for someone to work voluntarily and informedly as a sex worker who also offers his or her body on agreed-upon conditions to a person seeking to pay for such services. There does not seem to be an in-principle difference between people selling their bodies for sex for an agreed upon fee or people selling their bodies to produce cars for an agreed upon fee.

Fourth, the illegal nature of sex work in many countries has arguably led to more harm than good, because it forced sex workers into the underground, making them more vulnerable to harm, including rape, STIs, and the illegal industry that goes with this. Arguably one of the reasons for why people in the illegal business of trafficking women for sex work get away with it all too often is precisely that they can threaten the women with deportation or jail should the women opt to inform police, simply because they are/were in an illegal line of work.

Fifth, reading thru the comments posted on the BBC website, I was bemused to note this one: 'I found some of the comments quite shocking, especially the comment about demanding oral sex from a partner and not getting it. I'm sure most women wouldn't dream of visiting a prostitute when their male partner doesn't satisfy their fantasies or demands.
Cheryl Evans, Oldham, Greater Manchester' Little does Cheryl Evans know...

Sixth, of the three men interviewed by the BBC, only one would would seem to be reasonably in the clear, morally, namely our city high roller. The other guys are acting in ways that are morally questionable, not because they hired sex workers but because they are dishonest to their partners. Which takes me back to my point that there is nothing ever morally special about sexual activities. These guys acted wrongly because they cheated on their partners, not because they had sex with sex workers.

It seems to me that everyone would be better off if sex work was a legalized, regulated industry.


  1. Two comments. First, I think it is dangerous to put this positive gloss over sex work. Although many women choose the work and find it empowering or pleasant or whatever, many are forced into sex work . And many find the act of charging for sex painful and degrading. Although there may be no metaphysical importance attached to sex, there are strong social views which render sex work shameful and degrading to many sex-workers forced into the industry. This is not a reason to keep it illegal, but it is a reason to avoid the factory work analogy. Social factors can make sex work far more humiliating than
    manual labor.

    Second, and tangentially, regarding argument six, what 'harm' is there in dishonestly cheating on your partner? If we go with this 'no harm no foul' schema, then so long as the cheaters aren't caught, they are only increasing the aggregate sum of happiness in the world. So long as they are good at cheating, all three are morally justified to utilitarians, are they not?

  2. Anonymous, thank you very much for your thoughtful comments. It's difficult for me to get my head around the notion of women who are 'forced into sex work'. If you mean by 'force' the type of force that we'd see in the context of the trafficing of women, for instance, that kind of force is illegal and unethical. I suspect properly regulated, legal sex work would actually reduce the incidence of this problem. If you mean by 'force' that some women might have chosen different jobs if they had had the opportunity. Well, that is true probably for many people who are unhappy in their jobs and who often can't find work that they find satisfying. So, I am uncertain what to make of this part of your argument. In any case, I am not sure how this contributes to the discussion on whether or not sex work should be legalised, other than by saying that some sex workers don't like their jobs.
    Well, and frankly, sex workers who have trouble charging their clients should reconsider their line of work, just like anyone else who kind of freelances and feels bad about asking for money for their work.
    You are correct, of course, when you say that the societal disapprobation of sex work makes my factory work analogy troublesome and something I should have avoided. As far as that fact goes, you're probably right. My point was that the societal disapprobation of sex work in itself isn't particularly sensible, and that we should accept it as just another kind of work that many who undertake that work find unpleasant.

    Your point on the harm done by cheating on partners is certainly correct from an act-utilitarian perspective (in those cases where the liar gets away with the lie). However, I have trouble seeing that a relationship can be meaningful and fulfilling if it is based on lies. Surely the relationships of the two cheaters are in trouble (and have been for some time). Would it not be healthier for their relationship if they discussed their problems (eg the bloke who hasn't had sex with his wife for I think 5 years), instead of likely creating ever more elaborate lies that in many cases will eventually be found out anyway? So, I guess I am concerned about the impact lying has on their relationship.

  3. I agree that sex work should be accepted and regulated like any other industry.

    I'm not sure that the concept of "cheating" is a very useful one. The guy having sex with a prostitute is not going to end up making a financial commitment to a kid who is not his wife's kid, so how is it "cheating"? What harm is being done to his wife's reproductive fitness by what he is doing? What reproductive advantage is he getting at her expense?

    It seems to me that the whole concept of monogamy is problematic in contemporary circumstances.

  4. Oh yes, Russell, I do think monogamy is kind of a thing of the past for very many, if not most people, at least in practice if not so much in terms of honesty about it. It seems to me though, as if our psyche hasn't kept up with our actual behaviour. So there is the monogamous pretext and the polygamous reality. I think the pretext is harmful. These people would be better off being honest to each other about their sexual activities. That's where I think the harm comes in.

  5. Sex is a good thing but I still believe there has to be a framework into when its right. Doing it as work is not moral to me. There so much wrong with that its hard to do with a simple comment.

    In the end, its good for people to be open about sex but at the same time have discipline in who its done with and for what purpose.


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