Prostitution Reinforces the Subordination of Women

Those in favor of prostitution can call me names, deliberately misread my words and criticize my citations all day and no further light will have been shed on the issue because one fundamental truth is being ignored  – each person from birth is born with inherent freedom, dignity, integrity, and equality. 

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that there is absolutely no harm to women in prostitution. Let’s assume everyone is treated well every time, that no stigma or psychological harm exists, and that every prostituted person makes a decent living and works in comfortable surroundings.  If that were true, should prostitution be normalized in society?

I would still say no.  Why?  Because it does not comport with the fundamental heritage of freedom, dignity, integrity, and equality that each person is both with.

To see why, let’s take slavery. Suppose all African slaves had been treated as part of the family (as sometimes claimed), had good living and working conditions, and had decent pay. Some people even argued that African slaves were better off because in Africa they were ignorant savages, and here they were exposed to civilization, especially the Bible and Christianity.  Some people argue today that prostituted women from poor countries or who were living in poverty are, in fact, better off.  If that had been the true condition of African slaves, would slavery have been acceptable?

No, it would not.  Why?  Because it did not respect the human rights and dignity of each person; because it set up a structure of oppression – a hierarchy – in which every white man was better than any slave no matter their individual attributes.   

But, you say, prostitution is not like slavery because the women are not owned.  The facts are not so.  The pimps, brothel owners and criminal gangs do in fact believe they “own” those women.  They do buy and sell them even at auction in a market.  They brand them and they kill them if they rebel or try to escape.

But even if none of that happened, would prostitution be acceptable?  No, because though the subordination of women did not start with prostitution, prostitution reinforces it. It doesn’t matter if the prostituted person is female, child, male or transgender – the structure of “power over” is the same; the person is put into a position of subordination. 

The subordination of women is in fact the prototype of discrimination. Discrimination against women is the only discrimination that occurs from, and even before, birth.  (Babies born with a visible handicap or a Black person if hue distinctions exist might also experience discrimination from birth.)   But most black or Jewish children for example do not experience discrimination in the family because the family is like them.   Not until leaving the family or the neighborhood, at preschool or kindergarten or even later, does a boy experience discrimination. 

But girls are discriminated against at or even before birth.  When the child in utero is female, the difference in treatment may be a variety of acts from less pre-natal care to femicide.

Girls learn from birth that we are different and “less.”  The structure of prostitution exacerbates that structure of subordination for all women by claiming some women can be bought and sold.  This reinforces the Madonna/whore dichotomy that imprisons both the Madonna and the whore in man-made boxes surrounded by stereotypes.

Prostitution is wrong as slavery was wrong for the same reasons.  No amount of regulation or oversight will fix it.  A kinder, gentler slavery is still slavery.  When you set up a dichotomy between people, you set up a system of discrimination and oppression.  “Separate but equal” is neither separate nor equal. 

A true belief in the humanity of each person that includes that person’s freedom, dignity, integrity and equality requires extending that humanity to all people. A person cannot believe in a system that reinforces a distinction and a structure of power over any segment of society, particularly not over the female half of it. To fail to understand that means you don’t want to.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Treating Sex Work as Work by Maggie McNeill

    Sex work is ubiquitous. Where a substantial demand exists, some people will inevitably try to meet that demand for a price. Retired call girl and madam Maggie McNeill reviews the various legal regimes that have been set up to regulate and/or prohibit sex work. She concludes that many approaches, particularly the most restrictive ones, increase the likelihood of harm to all participants. They tend to infantalize women and invest law enforcement with arbitrary and dangerous powers. She argues that the best approach is a regime of simple legalization, without licensing or heavy restrictions.

Response Essays

  • Prostitution as a Legal Institution by Ronald Weitzer

    Prof. Ronald Weitzer argues that prostitution should be treated as a legal commercial transaction. He finds that much of the conventional wisdom on the sex trade is the result of generalizing from experience under legal regimes where it is criminalized. He argues that in a legally tolerant regime, many of the problems we observe today would vanish. He argues for a set of “best practices” that would entail some government regulation of sex work, including subjecting business owners to background checks and licensing, zoning regulations, and restrictions on advertising. These measures would make decriminalization politically palatable and protect against a possible backlash. He also finds, contrary to McNeill’s claim, that no country has fully deregulated sex work.

  • Prostitution Cannot Be Squared with Human Rights or the Equality of Women by Dianne Post

    Dianne Post argues that prostitution is a form of exploitation, and that the only proper response is to abolish it. Prostitution, she argues, only exists because of material inequalities. Worse, it tends strongly to produce further inequalities – material, social, and political in nature. Prostitution traps women in economic dependency on men, and it encourages men to view women merely as commodities. Following this strong normative case against prostitution, Post looks at the empirical evidence, where she concludes that experiments with legalization have all been failures. She praises the “Nordic Model” approach to sex work, in which in which sex workers’ clients are prosecuted, rather than the women involved in prostitution.

  • Prostitution is Exploitation by Steven Wagner

    Steven Wagner argues that the large majority of prostitutes are not workers at all, because they are not acting voluntarily: they are enslaved. The personal experiences of Ms. McNeill notwithstanding, many others have suffered horribly in prostitution, and even left-leaning governments like that of France under the socialists have justifiably outlawed the sex trade. Wagner likewise prefers the Swedish approach, in which prostitutes are not treated as criminals, but those who attempt to buy sex are.

The Conversation