Rehashing Myths about Prostitution

Dianne Post and Steven Wagner are activists opposed to sex work, not social scientists, so it is not surprising that they recapitulate a host of common myths about prostitution. I and other social scientists have thoroughly demolished these fictions in our writings, but I can only tackle some of them here.[1] The central problem is that both Post and Wagner make metaphysical claims about what prostitution “is”—essentialist notions that are based not on empirical evidence but instead on each writer’s personal value judgments. According to them, prostitution “is” oppression, violence, male domination, exploitation, et cetera. The main reason they are so adamant about this is that they are alarmed that some readers might consider prostitution to be work, that it might be normalized like other economic transactions, that it might be regulated by the state like other enterprises, and that willing buyers and sellers might feel freer to engage in this kind of activity if it could be destigmatized. They are dismissive of individuals who actually engage in sex work, dismissing their views and experiences and treating them rather paternalistically—superimposing on them what they think sex work is really about.

Post does cite some “studies” to support a few of her claims, but almost all of these are writings by other anti-prostitution activists (Melissa Farley, Janice Raymond, Mary Sullivan). There is no way we can rely on the claims made by these writers, as their main goal is to abolish sex work—thus compromising their ability to do objective empirical research. When Post cites numbers, therefore, we must dismiss them because they are based on fatally flawed sources. Notions that the vast majority of sex workers were abused as children, began working as adolescents, that most of them have pimps, that they want to leave this work—all are myths when generalized to most or all prostitutes. The majority of research on prostitution centers on the street sector (and small, unrepresentative samples within the street sector), not on indoor venues and certainly not on upscale providers. The research we do have on middle- and upper-tier prostitution offers a strikingly different picture than what we find on the streets.[2]

A glaring bias: Post and Wagner refer exclusively to women, ignoring male and transgender sex workers, who comprise a sizeable segment of the trade. Their opinions about “prostitution” thus neglect a major sector of this world. These writers might also be surprised to learn that some female and male sex workers sell services to women! Is that about “inequality” as well, as Post claims is intrinsic to prostitution?

Post draws parallels between prostitution and other social problems, like domestic violence and marital rape. This is a false analogy. Violence occurs both in prostitution and in the family, but no one is advocating abolishing families because some of them experience violence. Violence occurs in prostitution, but this does not mean that prostitution is, in itself, a violent institution any more than domestic violence renders families inherently violent.

Apparently Post did not read my essay, where I provide some details on legal, government-regulated prostitution.[3] She rehearses a set of fallacies about a few of these legal systems. The city council in Manuklau, New Zealand has been critical of street prostitution because some residents have complained about nuisances. This is not an indictment of legal prostitution, but only one sector of the trade. Post’s claims about the Netherlands are anecdotal and lacking in source documentation. The situation there is much more complicated than she imagines. It is absolutely not the case that “experiments in legalization have failed,” as she thinks. As I point out in my essay, legal prostitution has manifested itself in a wide variety of ways around the globe—some better than others—and it is cavalier to claim that they have all “failed.” But I understand that Post needs them to fail in order to support her case against prostitution in general.     

Despite the way the Swedish system has been packaged, as a “success,” the evidence does not support this, as McNeill and I indicated in our essays. One must be careful to disentangle what advocates and the Swedish government say about the Swedish system, which criminalizes clients but not providers, and the empirical reality on the ground—which has been well documented.[4] Just because the French legislature is on the verge of replicating the Swedish approach—something that has generated a firestorm of opposition in France, by the way—does not validate this policy, as it will only force sex workers further underground and increase the potential for risks—as it has in Sweden.

Wagner’s essay deserves much less attention because he provides no sources for his claims. It is simply an opinion piece, lacking in evidence from research studies. Like Post, he embraces a package of myths. For example, even though he acknowledges that “there are no reliable figures” regarding age of entry, he nevertheless insists that “many if not most began as children.”  In other words, let’s draw conclusions despite the lack of evidence!  He insists, again without evidence, that most prostitutes experience “pathologies,” and when he hears from someone who hasn’t (McNeill, he thinks), he uses the common trick of calling them “atypical.” How does he know what is typical in this sphere? His only evidence is three anecdotal stories about individuals who were victimized and then formed rescue organizations—hardly a representative sample.

In order to generate support for his views, Wagner constructs an image of sex providers that is designed for shock value: “The life of the prostituted person is an unrelenting horror of serial rape, trauma, and violence.” This claim is contradicted by a wealth of social science data on the experiences of individuals who engage in sexual commerce. We know from this research that there is a broad continuum of pathways into prostitution, working conditions, relations with employers, experiences with customers, and job satisfaction.[5] On each of these dimensions, individuals’ experiences vary tremendously—from very negative to very positive to everything in between (i.e., mixed experiences). But it is understandable that Wagner, like Post, would accent only the negative and try to universalize it—because their agenda is to criminalize and ultimately abolish all forms of sexual commerce. This conflicts with the position of the National Organization for Women, which passed a resolution that “opposes continued prohibitive laws regarding prostitution, believing them to be punitive” and “therefore favors removal of all laws relating to the act of prostitution.”[6]



[1] Frances Shaver (2005) “Sex Work Research,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 20:296–319; Ine Vanwesenbeeck (2001) “Another Decade of Social Scientific Work on Prostitution,” Annual Review of Sex Research, 12:242–289; Christine Chin (2013) Cosmopolitan Sex Workers, New York: Oxford University Press; Ko-Lin Chin and James Finckenauer (2012) Selling Sex Overseas, New York: NYU Press; Ronald Weitzer (2005) “Flawed Theory and Method in Studies of Prostitution,” Violence Against Women, 11:934-949; Ronald Weitzer (2007) “Prostitution: Facts and Fictions,” Contexts, 6:28-33; Ronald Weitzer (2010) “The Mythology of Prostitution: Advocacy Research and Public Policy,” Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 7:15-29.

[2] See sources in Note 1 above, and the CNBC documentary, Dirty Money: The Business of High-End Prostitution, which first aired on November 11, 2008.

[3] Ronald Weitzer (2012), Legalizing Prostitution: From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business,New York:New YorkUniversity Press.

[4] See Ann Jordan (2012) The Swedish Law to Criminalize Clients: A Failed Experiment in Social Engineering, Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, American University, Washington, DC; Bob Wallace (2010) The Ban on Purchasing Sex in Sweden, Prostitution Licensing Authority; Susanne Dodillet and Petra Ostergren (2011) The Swedish Sex Purchase Act: Claimed Success and Documented Effects, The Hague; May-Len Skilbrei and Charlotta Holmstrom (2013), Prostitution in the Nordic Region, Burlington: Ashgate.

[5] See sources in Note 1.

[6] National Organization for Women (1973), Resolution Calling for the Decriminalization of Prostitution, Resolution 141.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.