Prostitution: the oldest profession. For centuries we have used our bodies as consumer products to gain money, to deliver a service. Many have claimed that such is immoral, it dehumanises the action of sex, and women, in a way that is improper. It is the unspeakable profession. But what really is all that bad about the service? I will argue here that it is a mistake to demean prostitution, and instead we should aim to decriminalise the act.
While unspeakable, it’s certainly not unpopular; figures, published by The Telegraph in 2014 and checked by the National Office of Statistics, show that female prostitution contributed 5.7 billion to the UK economy in 2014, up from 5.3 billion pounds in 2009. This arises from an estimated 61,000 women whose profession is prostitution in the UK, who on average charge £67 a session. This, also, ignores ‘new’ forms of prostitution, such as web-caming or escorting. Equally – and interestingly – male prostitution has also boomed, rapidly contributing to the UK economy; in 2014 an estimated 3.3 billion pounds.
There is, however, another interesting statistic. In surveys, only 800,000 men admitted to using prostitutes but studies carried out by the Royal Statistics Society show that this does not add up with the UK income. This shows that many people who have used prostitutes have not admitted such. Is this because it as seen as this unethical taboo? If such, is this really that accurate? It actually seems not, and both the philosophical and social arguments against decriminalising prostitution are unconvincing.
One fundamental worry is the philosophical issue of what prostitution makes sex. Many have deplored prostitution for reducing the value of sex, seeing it as removing the emotional or unitive elements that should be present during sexual intercourse. But is it really that wrong to reduce sex to a commodity? If we own our bodies then why can we not use them however we see fit. As long as we consent to sexual intercourse, it seems rather bigoted for one to say that another is using their body incorrectly. Just because I have a long-term partner, I have no right to say my sex is of greater value than another’s gained through prostitution. Equally, there seems little difference, in terms of what sex is being classed as, between this and students that sleep around. They are seeing sex purely as an activity, stripped – often – from emotion. Does that make this ethically wrong too? This argument has to appeal to some sort of transcendental ideal of sex that is achievable but idealistic in terms of an approach where all sex should be like this. After all, is it even true that sex happens in relationships to build emotional bridges? I’ll admit my philosophical view on sex is liberal, but I see no convincing reason to take this transcendental, emotional view of sex as somehow morally superior.
Prostitutes are also fulfilling a sexual desire that pornography cannot fulfil but at the same time ensuring that such men are not led to rape or sexual assault. Professor Kirby R. Cundiff of Northeastern State University led a study called ‘Prostitution and Sex Crimes’ which found that if prostitution were legalized ‘the rape rate would decrease by roughly 25% for a decrease of approximately 25,000 rapes per year’
“[T]he analysis seems to support the hypothesis that the rape rate could be lowered if prostitution was more readily available. This would be accomplished in most countries by its legalization.”
This shows that social arguments pro-prostitution are effective on a pragmatic level. Also if we decriminalise prostitution we can then regulate it, in a way that protects the women that are involved. Prostitutes currently rely on either pimps or themselves to ensure they are protected, but this is not good enough. Prostitution is not going to end, so we need to actually approach this issue properly. Since 2005, the Royal College of Nurses has petitioned for decriminalisation to ‘protect the health of vulnerable women and men who feel unable to access NHS and social services’. If decriminalised we could provide social care on a broad level, as well as help treat STI’s in a more-effective way, and provide condoms for prostitutes specifically. The RCN also note that 95% of street prostitutes have a history of drug abuse and many enter the profession under the age of 18. We can’t do anything about specifically attacking that issue until prostitution is decriminalised and then regulated; leading the RCN to vote 355 to 83 in favour of decriminalisation. If such a professional and significant body are supporting it in this way, should we not listen? The social implications are clear and through decriminalisation we can regulate the service of prostitution in a way that ensures women are properly protected. Until we do so, we are neglecting our general duty of care.
Anti-decriminalisation arguments, however, seem less convincing. Dr Katherine Akim argued in August 2015 that the current de-criminalisation movement just makes women ‘pick up the pieces’ for the fact that male sexual desire ‘is manifested at least twice as often as female desire’, so male’s desire for sex outweighs non-commercial female desire two-fold. This, however, is as silly as it is flawed. Firstly, what allows such a crude generalisation? There are many men and women who have equally strong sexual desires; and equal numbers who are asexual in each gender. Dr Daniel Bergner, through a series of sociological experiments, came to the conclusion that women want sex as much as men do. Less women may use prostitutes, but this does not mean they have less sexual desire or – indeed – that there is a deficit apparently negatively filled by prostitution.
Equally, even if you granted Akim’s slimly-supported generalisation, why would it be so wrong for commercial sex to fulfil the deficit? Prostitution is, after all, just an industry like any other. I understand this is a very positive view of the industry (that many oppose) but I mean this in a sense that strips ‘dishonest’ prostitution, i.e. underage or curb-crawling. But these are reasons for demeaning not related to the act of sex as commodity itself [remember my previous argument for not saying porn is wrong because of negative sections of it, like rape porn, that are wrong for alternative reasons]. Therefore, social arguments against don’t seem to stand up and, in fact, we can provide social benefits by decriminalising.
So are we moving in the right direction? It seems so. Liverpool council has proposed a managed zone for prostitutes in an effort to reduce curb while Scottish executives have also started a legal review of the policing, health and social issues raised by prostitution in Scotland. But there is still a long way to go, a big push is still required. And now is that time to make that push. Philosophical, but more crucially social, arguments against decriminalising are un-effective whilst the argument for is strong. It’s time to approach prostitution in the right way. It’s time to decriminalise it.