Stacey Swimme

Innovative Thinking On The Sex Industry & Social Justice

Ethicist Reports: Prostitution is Not Harmful

Aspiring philosopher and ethicist Ole Martin Moen of The University of Oslo, Norway published a paper last week entitled “Is Prostitution Harmful?” in the Journal of Medical Ethics. It seems this question has been asked repeatedly in many academic and social environments. Moen’s 8 page response to this question revisits many of the same tired arguments that academics, activists and feminists have already discussed ad nauseam, however, he has a fresh framing of a few perspectives that I find are useful to repeat over and over again until academia, feminism and society at large are able to accept them as truths, despite their moral and philosophical resistance to the facts. I’ll highlight some of them here and if you’d like to review the full article, here’s the PDF.

I believe food and sex are related, if not directly then metaphorically. Regarding casual sex and the “cheapening” of sex if not for romantic purposes, Moen writes:

When a romantic couple dines at a lovely restaurant, their eating might well be romantically significant for both parties. What is, biologically, the mere satisfaction of a nutritional need is given deep personal meaning because of its social and psychological setting. It is not clear, however, the advocate of the ‘casual view’ might argue, that one degrades eating as such and destroys one’s capacity for appreciating romantic meals if one has earlier engaged in ‘casual eating’ or has been ‘eating around’, occasionally catching a cheap hotdog on the run. If this is right, then engaging casually in an activity that has the potential for romantic significance needs not destroy that activity ’s romantic significance on other occasions. If we accept this, then we would need a separate argument to explain why casual sex destroys sex even though casual eating does not destroy eating. (Page 2)

There’s a tendency to believe that the harm done to sex workers is from an acute, strictly defined group of men who exploit, rape and beat sex workers. It’s rarely acknowledged that entire societies are actually responsible for the outcomes sex workers are subjected to:

A client cannot rightfully beat up a prostitute any more than he can beat up a hairdresser or a plumber. (It is true that in many societies, violence against prostitutes is taken less seriously than violence against non-prostitutes. That, however, should speak against those societies, not against prostitution.) (Page 5)

And this:

…imagine that we were all brought up told that good girls are not hairdressers, that many of our common derogatory terms were synonyms for ‘hairdresser ’, and that most people, upon seeing a hairdresser, would look away. Imagine that hairdressers had to live in fear of social exclusion if friends or family found out how they struggle to make ends meet, that no one would knowingly employ ex-hairdressers, and that landlords would terminate housing contracts if they discovered that their tenant is a hairdresser. Imagine that most hairdressers had to work on the street, in cars, or in the homes of strangers, and that if their work were organised, it were organised by criminals offering no work contracts, no sick leave and no insurance. In such a society, hairdressers would very likely suffer significant harms. There would be two reasons for this. Most obviously, the social and legal maltreatment would be a heavy burden to bear for those already engaged in hairdressing. Less obviously, but statistically just as important, the maltreatment would skew the sample of who become hairdressers in the first place. If hairdressers were maltreated, then only (or almost only) people who were already in serious trouble would find it worthwhile to become hairdressers. As such, if hairdressers were treated the same way prostitutes are treated, we should not be surprised to learn that hairdressing correlated with depression, suicide attempts, drug abuse and so on—even if, as we all know, hairdressing is not a harmful occupation. (Page 8)

Elsewhere in the paper Moen acknowledges that there are some risks associated with the profession, but demonstrates that the benefits outweigh the harms, then he closes with the synthesis of his argument: that if the role of prostitutes in society is compared to the role of homosexuals in society, we can see that social harms far outweigh occupational risks and change can indeed lead to better conditions for sex workers:

In less than two centuries we have, in large parts of the world, ended slavery, given men and women equal rights, and accepted homosexuality. It is important to remember, moreover, that these changes were made possible because some people dared to be a little utopian and abstracted away from their present context. We can all too easily hear the voice of someone opposed to homosexuality half a century ago proclaiming that homosexuality is deeply interrelated with various complex social and psychological factors (such as youth uncertainly, depression, exploitation, rape, disease, drug abuse and unstable families), that these form part of what homosexuality is, and that trying to assess homosexuality apart from them is hopelessly utopian. Today, we are glad someone dared question their assumptions and look beyond their immediate social context in their assessment of homosexuality. If my arguments in this paper are sound, we should approach prostitution in a similar manner, and be open for the possibility that prostitutes are harmed, not because prostitution is harmful, but because society at present seriously wrongs prostitutes.  (Page 8)

Overall I applaud Moen’s report here and I hope it’s reigniting some more creative debates in academia around the issues of prostitution and social stigma. I’d especially like to see more academic explorations that question how societies or specific groups within societies benefit from, and therefore have a vested interest in, maintaining and propagating myths that keep sex workers at a second class status.  In particular, looking at societies’ need for a group to embody a symbolic demon to loathe and fear and make suffer. To achieve real change, we desperately need a better understanding of the motivations and incentives that drive not only the prohibition efforts, but also the apathy from those who have no moral objection to prostitution, while at the same time having no moral objection to the ostracism of sex workers.


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  1. Pingback: BMJ Group blogs: Journal of Medical Ethics blog » Blog Archive » Stacey Swimme reports that: Ethicist Reports: Prostitution is Not Harmful

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