On the Legality of Prostitution

The legality of prostitution is of course a common ethical and policy quandary. The difficulty here lies not only in developing a moral perspective on the issue, but also in reasoning the appropriate legal status of the practice. Here are the arguments as they seem to me:

1.) The classically liberal argument I’ve heard for legalization is made along the lines that the state should remain morally neutral, at least as far as possible. So long as it is a consensual agreement between reasonable adults, individuals should be free to choose whether or not they will buy or sell sex.

2.) A response to such thinking is that a large percentage of people who sell sex do so because of coercion, because of some skewed power dynamic, often subject to violence of many kinds. To protect these victims of exploitation the practice should be prohibited outright.

3.) A pragmatic liberal might respond to #2 by arguing that because the claim in #2 is true, prostitution should be legalized so that the practice will be brought out into the daylight, no longer relegated to the underground, which could help to curb abuse and prevent exploitation. Such an argument can be found here. In fact, Amnesty International just proposed a policy along these lines.

4.) A virtue thinker like Michael Sandel wouldn’t think this reason is good enough. Sandel, for instance, argues instead that there is something intrinsically immoral about the buying of sex because it commodifies and objectifies both sex itself and the person, whether or not the ‘labor agreement’ was consensual. Prostitution rather significantly degrades the dignity of the individuals involved and is corrosive of the common life. Thus the practice should be discouraged in all ways in every hope that it’s eradicated.


My own moral views align with argument #4. I think that the buying of sex is dehumanizing and objectifying, commodifying both the person and the act to perhaps a uniquely intense degree.

The argument #3 is compelling because of, and thus only insofar as, it actually helps curb abuse and exploitation. And yet #3 doesn’t take a moral stance on the issue of prostitution itself, which I find problematic. My own moral position is closer to #4, and so # 3 is problematic because it permits prostitution and its reasons are on consequentialist grounds alone. I’m uncomfortable with consequentialist reasons alone providing the force of an argument, mostly because I think our estimations of consequences are quite often wrong and inevitably always remain far, far short of certainty. Too much is at stake to decide big ethical questions on the grounds of what we *think* might happen alone. I think consequences should be taken into consideration, but they shouldn’t function as the only reason to decide something. That is, consequences should help support a case but never be the sole reason for a decision.

My stance on decisive consequentialism aside, it seems there is a decent bit of research that rebuts the claims in #3. Therefore not only should #3 not determine our decision alone, the strength of its claim has been considerably lessened.

Because I side essentially with #4 above, I’m interested in reducing the instance of prostitution as much as possible.

Sweden’s current law (which of course isn’t perfect), to legalize the selling of sex but criminalize the buying of sex, seems like a good idea in that it prohibits the occurrence while providing a way for those who sell sex to get any assistance they might need (i.e. medical care) without risking arrest. While the transaction itself is problematic, because of the complexity of issues around a person selling sex it seems a good law would attempt to protect those people who are from further victimization and exploitation.


3 thoughts on “On the Legality of Prostitution

  1. Did you finish your thought here? I have spent quite a lot of time with prostitutes. I’m impressed, often, with their humanity. I’m saddened, very often, by the pain they carry. I’m not sure what to do about “prostitution” – but I know what to do about prostitutes. Learn from them and love them.

    1. Thanks – you’re right, I hadn’t finished my thought! Accidentally clicked ‘post’ before I meant to…

      I think I share your sentiment here, and it seems good legislation can be a way to do that, even though good policy is of course far short of enough. One reason I like Sweden’s law is that it goes a way to focus on the buying of sex rather than the selling (this is why I tried to refer almost solely to the buying). Indeed it should be prohibited to sell others for sex, and anti-pimping laws could be a complement to the Sweden law (or may already be a part of it). But it seems to me that the reasons someone might sell (their own) sex are complex and very frequently entangled with exploitive circumstances and/or economic deprivation, and I like how the Sweden law tries to account for this. By doing so it attempts to protect the dignity and safety of prostitutes as much as possible.

      It can’t escape notice that any effectiveness this law might have is most likely connected in some way to Sweden’s economic and political structure, which is far more effective than ours in guaranteeing the sufficient provision of resources for all of its citizens.

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