The non-legal argument in favor of abortion is that its a woman's body, therefore it should be the woman's choice. Why isn't that argument applied to prostitution?

It seems to me that we as a society are:

  • dictating to women how they can earn and how they cannot
  • removing the choice of what they can and can't do with their bodies
  • increasing the chances of a secondary effect arising: the international sex slave trade

It is discussed on Feminist views on prostitution but given the increased visibility of female issues and the massive amount of female empowerment that we have seen recently, why is this not discussed alongside other prominent feminist issues?


4 Answers 4


There are countries which legalize prostitution, citing an argument just like yours. The line between serving a drink in a sexy outfit and serving a drink and a lap dance is thin. However:

  • Some people believe that not all contracts with free and informed consent are acceptable. A gross example would be a guy selling his own heart for a lot of money -- that's no enforceable contract. The contract between the prostitute and the customer might not be acceptable, either.
  • Experience in countries with legal prostitution shows that in addition to prostitution by legal residents, there is prostitution by illegal immigrants from the slave trade. These prostitutes offer lower prices and more often agree to unprotected sex, and they find it hard to escape their pimps. The best way to protect them may be to "drain the entire swamp."
  • Experience also shows that for legal residents, the free consent is a questionable issue. Many people in the business would like another job, but they cannot find one that would put food onto the table. Of course that might also apply to people in other McJobs.
  • 3
    Its also worth noting that where prostitution is legal you often get exploitative "gig economy" style arrangements between brothels and prostitutes: the brothel rents space to prostitutes but does not provide any employment benefits or job security. Sep 11, 2018 at 8:29
  • 7
    While there's still human trafficking in countries with legal prostitution, it appears to be decreasing. At the same time, prohibition does not stop human trafficking.
    – janh
    Sep 11, 2018 at 11:29
  • 3
    @o.m. I gathered some from european countries a while ago in comments under politics.stackexchange.com/a/27132/17324 and read up some more on the topic in the meantime. In germany, prices plummeted because of the legalization, leading to well-regulated mega-factory-brothels much smaller profit margins (and, some argue, worse conditions for the legal workers because of lower salaries for the average worker). Crime pays when it's illegal, it's hard for crime syndicates to compete with capitalism ;)
    – janh
    Sep 11, 2018 at 15:12
  • 7
    These seem more like problems with exploitative capitalism than prostitution, even though these are probably the arguments most people will use.
    – Erik
    Sep 12, 2018 at 5:03
  • 2
    I know - I just found it an interesting observation about where the real problem is coming from versus where people are seeking the solution.
    – Erik
    Sep 12, 2018 at 15:10

This exact premise was analyzed in a 2011 paper in Hypatia, A Journal of Feminist Philosophy:

This debate over the relationship between prostitution and autonomy turns on a more basic disagreement concerning the definition of sexual autonomy itself. Writers such as St. James, Richards, and Schulhofer assume a broad definition according to which sexual acts are self-determined so long as they find their origin in some desire of the agent performing them. On this definition, the choice to act sexually on the basis of a desire for economic gain can be an expression of sexual autonomy. By contrast, writers such as Elizabeth Anderson and Scott Anderson define sexual self-determination more narrowly. On their view, an agent’s sexual autonomy is violated when she enters into a contractual agreement to satisfy another’s sexual desire in exchange for a non-sexual good, irrespective of her own sexual desire. On this narrower definition, an act counts as sexually autonomous only if it is sexually self-expressive, engaging the sexual desire of the agent. Accordingly, a right to sexual autonomy requires that the right to govern one’s sexual acts on the basis of one’s sexual desires be contractually inalienable. On this account, if a prostitute ‘‘knows that what she does for money is not an expression of her own sexuality,’’ her action cannot be sexually autonomous (Morgan 1987, 26).

[p. 176. Emphasis by author]

The author goes on to find a compelling reason for feminists to prohibit prostitution as follows:

...although the workplace subjects both women and men to forms of exploitation that involve alienation of a right to self-expression in labor, women face a distinct and discriminatory set of pressures to alienate a right to sexual self-expression. In this sense, prostitution has not been an exceptional case imperiling a valued right of women to sexual self-expression, but rather the explicit form of a pervasive and discriminatory system of sexual bargaining.

p. 178

Regarding the claim that prostitution provides prostitutes a liberating source of income, the author finishes that section with this:

(note that the author has described "a prostitute's performance" as her pretending to be a willing sexual partner)

...blurring the distinction between what is chosen authentically and what is driven by the constraints imposed by a stereotyped role is always an effective means for obscuring the harmfulness of the stereotype. In her early work on prostitution, Laurie Shrage insightfully compared the performance of the prostitute with that of the ‘‘Uncle Tom.’’ Shrage located the harm of such performances with their suggestion that subordinated groups can benefit economically from oppressive systems (Shrage 1989, 357). It would seem, however, that the tendency of such performances to reinforce sexist and racist beliefs concerning the agency of oppressed people is more significant. Uncle Tom not only demonstrates that servile roles are economically beneficial for blacks; by giving a credible performance he affirms—for blacks and whites alike—the white supremacist belief that the desires and ambitions of African Americans really do conform to a stereotyped role. Although there may be good reasons to refrain from heaping scorn on the person who is compelled to act out such a role, let alone to criminalize his performance, this does not mean that we should have no problem with it.

p. 181


There is some sort of misconception in the question. Let's try to sort it out.

First of all, prostitution and prostitution may be two different things. There is a large difference between self-determined, legal sex work and a factory brothel with below-minimum-wage workers that mostly don't speak the local language and have been forced into prostitution by making them indebted for the transport to the current country or abusing their drug addiction. Typically, one side criticizes the latter, while the other side praises the former, so often different sides don't talk about the same things.

That is also already an answer to the title: If we talk about the latter, it isn't really the choice of the women (or men, in some cases) to be a prostitute. If we talk about the former, it is. So what are we talking about?

But the rest of the points are also worth a comment:

It seems to me that we as a society are

  • dictating to women how they can earn and how they cannot

The society of course limits the way one may earn money, and it limits this not only for women, but also for men. For example, you may not earn money by criminal acts, or without paying taxes, or under abusive working conditions. Prostitution - or better, some types of prostitution - are problematic especially concering the last point.

  • removing the choice of what they can and can't do with their bodies

You may not choose to construct a high rise without safety measures. Prostitution is often even more dangerous than that, with a severe risk of getting raped or infected with dangerous diseases. You can in principle try to regulate that, but that often doesn't go down well with customers. When it comes to dangerous behavior, the state often limits the choices of what you do with your own body. You may not sell parts of your body, you may not consume drugs like heroine or cocaine, etc. From a radically libertarian point of view, this may be inacceptable, but that's the way it currently is. It is not restricted to prostitution or women.

  • increasing the chances of a secondary effect arising: the international sex slave trade

This is a very bad argument, although often brought up. But think about it: If it really would be an argument to allow something just because it will happen illegally anyway (and then under worse conditions), what about child prostitution? Shouldn't we legalize this as well as it would happen anyway and we could reduce international child sex slave trade by allowing this?

I think most people would rightfully abhor this idea and declare it absurd. But the logic is no less absurd for prostitution in general.

  • 1
    Your examples apply more to a pimp, not a prostitute. While you cannot force an employee to work 70 hours / week, there are no laws making it illegal for self-employed people to work 70 hours / week. Child prostitution is a bad argument. We do differentiate between children and adults in most things. A child cannot consent, an adult can. Should we criminalize sex between consenting adults just because we criminalize sex between adults and children?
    – janh
    Sep 12, 2018 at 9:19
  • 2
    @janh You misread my argument. The point is not that children and adults are different things, the problematic argument is that something should be legalized because it will happen anyway illegally. You could change the example to legalizing rape if you like. My main point is that it is invalid to argue that legalization prevents illegal behavior. You can only do so if you view the behavior as acceptable in the first place, but then the main argument is that you don't see any major problem with the behavior and thus it should be legalized. But that is a completely different argument.
    – Thern
    Sep 12, 2018 at 9:26
  • 1
    But they are totally different things. Child abuse or rape include victims who do not consent, legal (that is: not forced) prostitution does not. It's more like drug use, where prohibition has demonstrably failed time and time again and de-criminalization suggests good results (see Portugal for example). Criminalization of such behaviors strengthens crime syndicates, increases harm to participants and removes the society's ability to regulate (enforce safety, minimal standards, and steer consumption through taxation).
    – janh
    Sep 12, 2018 at 10:05
  • @janh We can use the drug example as well, because there is the same argumentation line as you have shown, and it is invalid there as well. The true argument is that you don't find taking hard drugs problematic. All the rest is irrelevant, because if you would find it a real problem, you wouldn't want to allow it. The rest is obfuscation. (And of course, you could argue against it. Drug addicts are as unable to rational consent as children; the Philippines, parts of the US or Indonesia have made bad experiences with unrestricted drug/medication abuse etc. But, as I said, that's not the point.)
    – Thern
    Sep 12, 2018 at 10:17
  • 1
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drug_policy_of_Portugal#Observations read this. If you care about the drug user's health (which is usually the no1 argument for criminalization), the secondary crimes etc, criminalizing the use hurts your objective. I do find hard drugs problematic, but I care about the users more than about the idea of them using.
    – janh
    Sep 12, 2018 at 10:23

Prostitution is de facto renting of human being, it borders on slavery

Unlike regular work, where employers hire someone to do something, in prostitution "customers" pay to have someone (for a time period) . Prostitution is not "sex work" as proponents of prostitution often mislabel it. In regular employer-worker relation employers nowadays do not even care if worker does his job remotely and they never meet him, if the job is done well enough. Prostitution involves most intimate contact, and prostitute cannot just do her thing and walk home like nothing happened (i.e. psychological scars are inevitable) .

Prostitution also creates poisonous situation in whole society, where people become commercial goods. If I could rent legally Jane for let's say two hours, why could not I rent Mary or Jack for a proper price? Legalizing prostitution reduces any human to some monetary value, and with right amount of money you could do practically anything. Thus, gradually, wealthy would have less and less limits in their behavior (because they could buy anyone), and those without money would do anything to get some.

In countries with legalized prostitution (Germany is good example), as a rule we have symptoms of decay and dying society : low birth rates, need for foreign workforce which creates problems on its own, general egoism and cynical worldview . And on top of that , problem of illegal prostitution has become even worse after legalization.

  • 10
    Prostitution in Germany was legalized in 2000, the low birth rates and mass immigration etc have been going on for decades earlier. And from the article you mention: "Statistically speaking, Germany has almost no problem with prostitution and human trafficking".
    – janh
    Sep 12, 2018 at 18:29
  • And Germany has far lower rates of STD infection, family breakdown, teenage pregnancy, and countless other social ills than does the United States.
    – WS2
    Oct 7, 2023 at 9:53

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