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What's Wrong with Prostitution?

  • Igor Primoratz (a1)


Over the last three decades the sexual morality of many Western societies has changed beyond recognition. Most of the prohibitions which made up the traditional, extremely restrictive outlook on sex that reigned supreme until the fifties–the prohibitions of masturbation, pre-marital and extra-marital sex, promiscuity, homosexuality–are no longer seen as very serious or stringent or, indeed, as binding at all. But one or two traditional prohibitions are still with us. The moral ban on prostitution, in particular, does not seem to have been repealed or radically mitigated. To be sure, some of the old arguments against prostitution are hardly ever brought up these days; but then, several new ones are quite popular, at least in certain circles. Prostitution is no longer seen as the most extreme moral depravity a woman is capable of; but the view that it is at least seriously morally flawed, if not repugnant and intolerable, is still widely held. In this paper I want to look into some of the main arguments in support of this view and try to show that none of them is convincing.



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1 I am concerned only with prostitution in its primary, narrow sense of ‘commercial’ or ‘mercenary sex’, ‘sex for money’, and not with prostitution in the derived sense of ‘use of one's ability or talent in a base or unworthy way’. The question I am asking is whether prostitution in the former, original sense is a case of prostitution in the latter, secondary sense.

2 Engels, F., The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, trans. West, A. (Harmondsorth: Penguin, 1985), 102.

The point was made as early as 1790; see Wollstonecraft, M., Works, Todd, J. and Butler, M. (eds) (London: Willam Pickering, 1989), V, 22, 129.

3 Here I am drawing on Davis, K., ‘The Sociology of Prostitution’, Deviance, Dinitz, S., Dynes, R. R. and Clare, A. C. (eds), 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975).

4 Ibid.,328.

5 Dworkin, G., ‘Paternalism’, The Monist 56 (1972), 65.

6 Ericsson, L., ‘Charges against Prostitution:An Attempt at a Philosophical Assessment’, Ethics 90 (1979/1980), 357.

7 Richards, D. A. J., Sex, Drugs, Death, and the Law: An Essay on Human Rights and Overcriminalization (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1982), 113.

8 Ibid., 146 n. 251. The study referred to is described in Pomeroy, W. B., ‘Some Aspects of Prostitution’, Journal of Sex Research 1 (1965).

9 L. Ericsson, loc. cit.

10 For an analysis of the two kinds of paternalism, see Feinberg, J., ‘Legal Paternalism’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 1 (1971).

11 Many authors who have written on prostitution as a ‘social evil’ have claimed that it is virtually never a freely chosen occupation, since various social conditions (lack of education, poverty, unemployment) force innumerable women into it. This argument makes it possible for Mrs Warren (and many others) to condemn prostitution, while absolving the prostitute. But even if the empirical claim were true, it would not amount to an argument against prostitution, but only against the lack of alternatives to it.

12 Mill, J. S., On Liberty, Shields, C. V. (ed.) (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956), 93.

It was clear to Mill that his rejection of paternalism applied in the case of prostitution just as in any other case, but the way he says that is somewhat demure; see ibid., 120–122.

13 Walzer, M., The Spheres of Justice (New York: Basic Books, 1983), 100103.

14 Ibid., 103. (The parts of the quotation I have deleted refer to religious prostitution, which is not the subject of this paper.)

15 Augustine, , Concerning the City of God, trans. Bettenson, H. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), Bk. 14, Ch. 16, 577.

16 Mandeville, B., The Fable of the Bees, Kaye, F. B. (ed.) (Oxford University Press, 1957), Remark (H.), I, 9596, 100.

Mandeville discusses prostitution in detail in A Modest Defence of Publick Stews: or, an Essay upon Whoring, As it is now practis'd in these Kingdoms (London: A. Moore, 1724) (published anonymously). The argument I have quoted from the Fable is elaborated on pp. ii–iii, xi–xii, 39–52.

17 Schopenhauer, A., ‘On Women’, Parerga and Paralipomena, trans. Payne, E. F. J. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), I, 623

18 Lecky, W. E. H., History of European Morals (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1869), II, 299300.

19 Russell, B., Marriage and Morals (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1958), 116.

20 Augustine, St., De ordine, II, 4;St. Aquinas, Thomas, Summa theologiae, 2a2ae, q. 10, art. 11.

21 Benjamin, H. and Masters, R. E. L., Prostitution and Morality (London: Souvenir Press, 1965), 201.

22 See Goldman, A., ‘Plain Sex’, Philosophy of Sex, Soble, A. (ed.) (Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams & Co., 1980);Vannoy, R., Sex without Love: A Philosophical Exploration (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1980).

23 Op. cit., 99–104.

24 Ibid., 103–104.

25 For examples of this kind of reasoning and a detailed discussion of its structure, see Wilson, J., Logic and Sexual Morality (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965), 5974.

26 See Richards, J. R., The Sceptical Feminist: A Philosophical Enquiry (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), 198202.

27 Russell, B., op. cit., 121122.

28 Here I find Russell's version of the principle of respect for human beings as such more helpful than the classic, Kantian one (Paton, H. J., The Moral Law: Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (London: Hutchinson, 1969), 9093); for Russell puts it forward as an independent principle, while in Kant it cannot function on its own, but only when accepted together with other tenets of Kant's ethical theory, which one may well find problematic (cf. Jones, H. E., Kant's Principle of Personality (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1971)).

29 Ericsson, L., op. cit., 342.

30 Archard, D., ‘Sex for Sale: The Morality of Prostitution’, Cogito 3 (1989), 4950.

31 Pateman, C., ‘Defending Prostitution: Charges against Ericsson’, Ethics 93 (1982/3), 562.

32 But see Appiah, A., ‘“But Would That still Be Me?”: Notes on Gender, “Race”, Ethnicity, as Sources of “Identity”’, The Journal of Philosophy 87 (1990).

33 On the arguments pro and con see Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology (London: HMSO, 1984), Ch. VIII;Warnock, M., ‘The Artificial Family’, and Lockwood, M., ‘The Warnock Report: A Philosophical Appraisal’, Moral Dilemmas in Modern Medicine, Lockwood, M. (ed.) (Oxford University Press, 1985).

34 Report, 45.

35 de Beauvoir, S., The Second Sex, trans, and ed. Parshley, H. M. (London: Pan Books, 1988), 569.

36 By ‘our society’ Shrage most of the time seems to mean contemporary American society, but toward the end of the paper claims to have discussed ‘the meaning of commercial sex in modern Western culture’ (Shrage, L., ‘Should Feminists Oppose Prostitution?’, Ethics 99 (1989/1990), 361).

37 Ibid. 354.

38 Ibid. 355.

39 Haft, M. G., ‘Hustling for Rights’, The Civil Liberties Review 1 (1973/4), 20, quoted in Jaggar, A. M., ‘Prostitution’, Philosophy of Sex, Soble, A. (ed.), 350.

40 See Baker, R., ‘“Pricks” and “Chicks”: A Plea for “Persons”’, Philosophy and Sex, Baker, R. and Elliston, F. (eds.) (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1975).

41 Ibid. 50.

42 Ibid. 61.

43 I have not discussed those arguments against prostitution which I think have been effectively refuted by others. See L. Ericsson, op. cit., on the arguments that prostitution exemplifies and reinforces commercialization of society, that it is an extreme case of the general inequality between men and women, that sex is much too basic and elementary in human life to be sold, and on the marxist critique of prostitution in general, and Lomasky, L. E., ‘Gift Relations, Sexual Relations and Freedom’, The Philosophical Quarterly 33 (1983), on the argument that commercial sex devalues sex given freely, as a gift.

44 That is, there is nothing morally wrong with it as long as the term ‘morally wrong’ is used in its robust sense, nicely captured e.g. by Mill: ‘We do not call anything wrong unless we mean to imply that a person ought to be punished in some way or other for doing it—if not by law, by the opinion of his fellow creatures; if not by opinion, by the reproaches of his own conscience’ (Utilitarianism, Sher, G. (ed.) (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1979), 47). This is the sense the term usually has in everyday moral discourse. When we say, e.g., that stealing is wrong, we normally do not mean to say merely that stealing falls short of the ideal way of relating to other people's property, or is not part of the good life, the best use one can put one's fingers to, or something one would recommend as a career to one's teenage daughter; we rather express our condemnation of stealing and imply that it is appropriate to apply the pressure of the moral sanction on those who steal. Of course, those given to using the term in some wider, watered-down sense may well come to the conclusion that prostitution is wrong after all.

45 Simons, G. L., Pornography without Prejudice: A Reply to Objectors (London: Abelard-Schuman, 1972), 96.

46 I have benefited from conversations on the subject of this paper with Carla Freccero and Bernard Gert, and from critical reponses from audiences at Hull, Liverpool, Newcastle, St. Andrews and York, where I read this paper in December 1990/January 1991.

My greatest debt is to Antony Duff, Sandra Marshall, and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, who read an earlier version of the paper and made a number of critical comments and suggestions for clarification and revision.

The paper was written during my stay at the Morrell Studies in Toleration project, Department of Politics, University of York, in the Winter and Spring terms of 1990/91. I would like to acknowledge with gratitude a research grant from the British Academy, which made that possible.

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