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Argumentative Essay on Prostitution: Profession Versus Exploitation

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In October 2014, Sweden became the first country to launch a feminist foreign policy that was aimed at creating gender equality and full enjoyment of human rights for women and girls (The Government Offices of Sweden, 2018). In this policy handbook, they emphasized the importance of the Sex Purchase Act enacted in 1999. This act criminalized purchasing -but not selling- sex. They wanted other countries to consider putting in place legislation that is targeted at the person who pays for the sex while offering support to the person being exploited as they believe governments should not be creating legal markets for human trafficking (Sweden’s Feminist Foreign Policy, 2018). While some countries have followed the Swedish model, for example, Norway who adopted the policy in 2008 and Iceland in 2009 (Goldberg, 2014). Other countries have moved in opposite directions to Sweden, some have legalized prostitution, for example, Germany who legalized prostitution in 2002 and by 2014 had built an industry worth 16 billion Euros a year (BBC News, 2014) and some have begun to consider prostitution as a profession, for example, New Zealand who added ‘sex work’ to its list of skills for migrants (Bindel, 2018).

This essay will explore both sides of the argument. It will look at how we should respect the decision of sex workers and regard prostitution as a profession, while also exploring how prostitution is always exploitation as stated by the Swedish feminist foreign policy. To do so, this essay will explore various concepts such as choice, human rights, agency, exploitation and work conditions. It will then conclude that prostitution is always exploitation and therefore, can never be regarded as a profession. Next, this essay will explore the issues that occur when regarding prostitution as a profession and how this could affect our views of the body and gender in international relations. Lastly, this essay will summarise the arguments made as to why prostitution can never be regarded as a profession and how it is always exploitation while explaining further work that needs to be done in this area.

Firstly, on one side of the argument prostitution is not seen as exploitation. In some places like the Red-Light District in Amsterdam where prostitution is legal, it is seen as a symbolic and sexually liberating place (Deinema et al, 2012). It gives individuals the freedom to choose what they want to do with their bodies and how they want to make money. Some arguments suggest that anti-prostitution measures are weaponized to punish women sex workers for having control over their own bodies (BBC News, 2020). It is stated that telling women what they can and can’t do with their bodies does not come from a place of morality (such as teaching young women that their bodies do not exist for the sole purpose of sexual exploitation) but, it comes from a place of control as it is seen as amoral because it involves women (mostly) selling their bodies for financial gain (Forestiere, 2019).

An interview with current and previous sex workers by The BBC (2020) on their opinions on prostitution and anti-prostitution measures found that they find it silly that some people want to take away one of the few industries where women make more than men. Others during the interview also criticized the Swedish model as it operates under the false premise that women cannot consent to commercial sex and that they will never enjoy it (BBC News, 2020). For example, Parreira an occasional sex worker from Nevada USA stated ‘As long as there are men, there will be demand for sex. And that’s ok for the consenting adult women that choose to do this.’ (BBC News, 2020). This interview supports the claim made by Frostiere (2019) that some people are only against prostitution because it is an uncomfortable notion. It is too uncomfortable for some to believe that women should be allowed to have control over their own bodies and that there are women who would choose such a profession and would engage in prostitution voluntarily. This suggests that prostitution should not be regarded as exploitation as there are women who freely choose to become prostitutes and therefore, we should respect their decisions.

On the other hand, although there may be some women who freely choose to enter the sex industry, we can see that this may not be the case the majority of the time. The United Nations estimated that in 2009 nearly 2.5 million people from 127 different countries had been trafficked into 137 countries around the world and 79% of this human trafficking was most likely for sexual exploitation (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2009). Just because people do not see a girl being trafficked at gunpoint from one country to another, leads to many people decide that prostitution is a free choice (Farley, 2008). Furthermore, most prostitutes have a history of sexual abuse as a child usually by several people. A study by Silbert et al (1981) showed that 60% of the subjects were sexually abused as juveniles. Also, most of these individuals had to leave their homes at a young age leading to a few experiencing homelessness (Farley, 2008). These traumatic experiences and the inappropriate conditioning of many as a child, leave them vulnerable to additional sexual exploitation (Brownie et al, 1986). The sexually abused child might eventually view herself as good for nothing but sex. Many deals with this by starting to see the sexually objectified parts of their body as separate from their entire self (Farley, 2008). Therefore, for the majority of individuals involved in sex work, we cannot argue that they have genuinely consented as for this to happen both parties involved would have to act on the basis of personal desire, and both must be freely able to retract without economic consequences (Davidson, 2006). However, the conditions that make genuine consent possible (physical safety, equal power with customers and real alternatives) are absent in most situations for sex workers (Hernandez, 2001). If this is the case, instead of asking ‘did she consent’ the more relevant question would be ‘did she have real alternatives to prostitution for survival?’ (Farley, 2008).

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Therefore, if the nature of the sex industry transforms sexuality into a work duty that undermines an individual’s sexual agency, shouldn’t prostitution be a form of ‘commercial sexual exploitation (Jean, 2015)? Our present moral understanding suggests that a person should be entitled to both a decent standard of living and the freedom to choose his or her sexual activities and partners (Anderson, 2002) which isn’t the case when considering prostitution. Therefore, understanding that prostitution is always exploitation helps to support the assertion of a right to sexual autonomy. If prostitution was considered as a profession, this normalization would undercut sexual autonomy as a right but, instead, regard it as a choice and imply that a prostitute chooses her career on a matter on how much she values her sexual autonomy (Anderson, 2002) but, as we have seen this isn’t always the case. We cannot make a generalization on the few lucky individuals who may think they freely choose to be a part of the sex industry when the majority are forced, have no other choice or don’t know any better.

Furthermore, we have discussed how prostitution is not exploitation because it can happen freely, but there is also an argument that it should be regarded as a profession. If prostitution was regarded as a profession in most countries, there would be a great number of benefits that would come with this decision. Even in Sweden where only people who buy sex are criminalized, it may have the effect of further endangering street prostitutes. The increased policing would mean that prostitutes must conclude their negotiations under duress and may also have less time to screen clients (Weitzer, 2012). Moreover, in places where prostitution is legal such as 13 out of 31 states in Mexico, conditions for prostitutes have been improved. They now have a great deal of freedom and are able to exercise control over their work by deciding when to work, for how long, whom they will serve and their rates (Weitzer, 2012). Considering prostitution as a profession will increase the likeliness of it being regulated which will greatly improve conditions for sex workers and clients, for example, with an increased encouragement of safe sex practices and regular medical exams (Weitzer, 2012). It will also help sex workers feel safer from any violence due to the laws and regulations that could be put into place. Classifying prostitution as a profession will make a lot of women feel more empowered and they will no longer perceive their activities as degrading but, rather as uplifting and beneficial (Long, 2012). Furthermore, prostitution may be essential. Even at the lowest, women still gain some benefits from prostitution and it may well be the best overall employment option they have, therefore removing this option may make situations worse for the poorest (Anderson, 2002). It can be seen that prostitution should be regarded as a profession to make conditions better for those who choose to be involved in the sex industry and these arguments summarise why prostitution should be regarded as a profession and why it isn’t seen as exploitation.

However, stating that considering prostitution as a profession will increase work conditions for sex workers due to the increase in regulations may not always be the case. Relooking at the example of New Zealand who added ‘sex work’ as a skill set with the intention that decriminalization would bring less violence, regular inspections of brothels and a decrease in sex trade. It has been seen that the opposite happened. Trafficking of women in New Zealand for sexual exploitation in legal and illegal brothels has increased. Although prostitution has been decriminalized, illegal brothels continue to operate (Bindel, 2018). So, the benefits that come with legalizing prostitution and considering it as a profession will not be felt by everyone. Even in legal and regulated brothels, Sabrina Valise a prostitute who has been working in the sex industry since before it was legalized and added as a skill set in New Zealand stated that ‘men feel more entitled when the law tells them its ok to buy us’ (Bindel, 2018). Violence, this being sexual or physical and murders of prostitutes still occur in New Zealand after the decriminalization (Bindel, 2018). Considering it as a profession is like the government’s way of normalizing violence and sexual abuse and encouraging men to buy women for sex.

Moreover, we have seen why and how we can disagree with the arguments made that prostitution should be regarded as a profession and that it is not exploitation. We can also look at further problems involved when we ‘normalize’ prostitution and consider it as a profession. The pattern that leads people into prostitution is not unique to women, but these conditions appear to occur in a pattern that is gendered, to the disadvantage of women (Anderson, 2002). Economic factors are more of a push factor for women than for men, especially in poorer countries. The provider role commonly features in masculinity globally (Jewkes et al, 2012), meaning that women are more likely to be less financially stable than men because they are the ones who are meant to take care of the family and the home. Furthermore, the demand for female sex workers far outweighs the demand for male sex workers (Vanwesenbeeck, 2013). This can be explained by the male innate sexual urge and biological drive for sexual satisfaction (Bazz et al, 2013). Others believe that men have chauvinistic motives, such as the desire to dominate and control women (Westerhoff, 2012). Many authors have linked ideas of male sexual entitlement to the objectification of women’s bodies, denial of female agency, to sexual violence and patriarchy (Jewkes et al, 2012). If we want a fighting chance to achieve the feminist goals of women’s equality then we cannot regard prostitution as a profession but, instead, we must view it as exploitation. Sexual autonomy and the separation of sexuality from the workplace are important political changes to ensure that women have control over their own sexuality and are not forced to comply with sexual duties that are generally dictated by men’s demands (Jean, 2015). This is a crucial step in attempting to reach gender equality (Anderson, 2002). The removal of legalc barriers will also destroy the social and ethical barriers that exist in treating women like sexual merchandise (Weitzer, 2012). Considering prostitution as a profession will create greater abuse for women and will make it harder for prostitutes to get out of the industry. This will send out a message to young women that their bodies exist for the sole purpose of being exploited by men (Forestiere, 2019). The new generations will see women as sexual commodities and prostitution as harmless fun (Weitzeer, 2012). This brings great negative effects internationally on how we view the body, especially female-gendered bodies because we fail to understand how deeply problematic sexual relations are in our society (Anderson, 2002).

To conclude, prostitution should never be regarded as a profession, as prostitution will always be exploitation. Prostitution as a profession may increase the demand for prostitutes which leads to other issues such as increased sex trafficking and individuals being forced into prostitution because it will become an even more lucrative business. This affects the deeply rooted aspects that many people overlook when considering prostitution. The lack of sexual agency and how genuine consent is when an individual ‘chooses’ to enter the sex industry and become a prostitute, but also other deeper aspects are overlooked such as the traumatic experiences and conditioning as children (which occurs with the majority of women and those who enter prostitution at young ages) leaves them vulnerable to further sexual exploitation as they believe that it is all that they are good for. Furthermore, the innate problems and inequality of the genders that are stemmed and heightened when prostitution is normalized bring countries back many years. Considering prostitution as a profession and normalizing it, disregards the reasons why there is a demand for prostitution and why there is a market; simply because on average women are less financially stable than men and many times have no other options to survive and the fact that men will always feel like they are entitled to sex. Instead of attempting to normalize prostitution and considering it as a profession, countries should realize that it is always exploitation of those who are more vulnerable and should attempt to find solutions to the problems that lead to the exploitation, for example, therapy to those who have been sexually abused as children, providing more opportunities and jobs for women and becoming less acceptant of the mindset that ‘boys will be boys. Lastly, further research needs to be done on assessing the impacts on countries that have considered prostitution as a profession and how society and the institution of prostitution has changed over the years since it was normalized. Moreover, research on the reasons to why individuals enter the sex industry and become prostitutes and into the gender roles that are involved in creating a market and demand for prostitution must also be analyzed.

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Argumentative Essay on Prostitution: Profession Versus Exploitation. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 29, 2023, from
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