Pillow Talk: Examining The Morality And Societal Impact Of Prostitution

by J Hellen

Pillow Talk: Examining The Morality And Societal Impact Of Prostitution

Prostitution is cliché’d to be the “world’s oldest profession”, and for as long as prostitution has existed, it has also been considered taboo. Even today, in the midst of the New Sexual Revolution, where there are about as many different sexual preferences as there are gender preferences and hardly anything comes as a shock –  prostitutes, and particularly female prostitutes, are still criminalized, ostracized, and stigmatized for plying their wares.

Here, we will examine the pros and cons of prostitution and discuss whether prostitution and the laws against it are moral, immoral, or nonmoral.

Pillow Talk

Proponents for prostitution believe that the stigma attached to it is sexist and unfair. As they seek social acceptance, they argue, among other things, that prostitution is empowering to women and they are fighting for legalization or decriminalization of sex workers.  After all, don’t women have the right to choose what they do with their own bodies?

Instead of jailing these women, they argue, why can’t we allow them to become productive, tax-paying members of society, lessening the burden of an already bursting criminal system? These same proponents also argue that decriminalization and regulation of prostitution would make it safer for the prostitute, her clients, and society as a whole, by lowering the instances of disease, as well as crimes such as rape, incest, and pedophilia.

vintage anti-prostitution poster, "Smash The Prostitution Racket"

Conversely, others argue that prostitution is a form of slavery or patriarchal oppression that harms women physically and emotionally, damaging them irreparably. They argue that legalization of prostitution would only see an increase of sexual slavery and the slave trade, claiming more innocent victims worldwide. 

Furthermore, they contend, legal prostitution would lure more girls – too poor for college – into the trade, bringing them into contact with a criminal element and knocking them off a positive track.

Still others, despite agreeing that consenting adults should be free to do whatever they like so long as no one is getting hurt, worry about the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and an increase in criminal activity, and feel that prostitution should remain illegal for public health and safety reasons, for the greater good of society.

Each of these positions can be supported by facts, statistics, and evidence, both empirical and anecdotal, so which is right?  I will examine the main arguments for and against prostitution in order to determine whether prostitution is immoral, or the laws against it are.

Money Can’t Buy Love

No discussion on morality would be complete without considering prostitution – and the general consensus is invariably that prostitution is wrong; immoral; taboo; evil.  Dorn Checkley, Director of the Pittsburg Coalition Against Pornography, says per ProCon.org, “Prostitution as an institution is evil. It doesn’t matter if it is the ‘world’s oldest profession’, it is still wrong.” But why?

To answer this question, we must first discern the purposes of sex which Thiroux and Krasemann enumerate as, “procreation, pleasure, an expression of love for other people, and an expression of friendship and liking,” and compare them to the purposes of prostitution which are pleasure, companionship, sexual release, and as a means of employment.

As we can see, the purposes of sex and prostitution are not exactly at odds with each other. The two only cross purposes when it comes to “procreation” and “as a means of employment.” Here, many might argue that sex as a means of employment removes love, liking, and friendship from the equation, cheapening the sex act and reducing it to nothing more than a bodily function similar to using the restroom.

However, that logic can be countered by asking the question, “What of in-vitro fertilization, sperm and egg donation, surrogate mothers, or even a loveless marriage?”  Sure, people who procreate using these methods feel love and affection for their offspring, thus supplying the prerequisite “love” factor, but donors and surrogates don’t necessarily. In fact, in many cases, donors and surrogates are using their pro-creative ability as a means of employment in the same way as a prostitute uses sex.

Nevertheless, the donor/ surrogate argument illustrates that money can, indeed, buy love. Yet, despite this fact, as well as other topic-irrelevant arguments against these activities, sperm/egg donation and surrogacy are generally socially acceptable and legal options whereas prostitution is frowned upon, even where it is decriminalized, legal, or regulated.

photo image of a sex worker soliciting a john in a vehicle

The Pros of Being a Pro

As previously mentioned, prostitution provides consumers with pleasure, companionship, and no-strings-attached sexual release, and, despite the strong taboo against prostitution (and the sex industry in general), it would be fair to assume that there is an up-side for prostitutes, profit notwithstanding, for it to have gained the title of “The World’s Oldest Profession.” After all, most prostitutes are willing participants, whatever their reasons.

On “American Underworld” Season 1, Episode 3, titled “Sex Trade”, host Mark Allen Johnson asks street prostitute “Laura” why she is so calm (while working) and she answers, “I’m used to it […] I’m addicted to it.”  Laura goes on to say that “the money; [the] “rush;” […] the attention; all of it;” is what draws her to prostitution, while prostitute “Seashell” cites financial security and personal protection as her motivation for selling sex: “If Daddy’s [pimp] tooken care of, I’m tooken care of; my daughter’s tooken care of.”

However, while financial security and physical protection may be considered weak arguments for the morality of prostitution, many women marry – and even remain in abusive or loveless relationships – for these same reasons without quite the same scrutiny. These women are viewed as victims or martyrs, whereas the prostitute, regardless of her hardship, is still considered “just a whore.” Nevertheless, “Seashell” and her pimp claim to be just like a normal married couple, and their arrangement seems to work for them.

Many prostitutes claim that they provide a public service by being an available sexual release for men which reduces crime – especially rape and child molestation –, although sources confirming this claim to be fact are ambiguous at best. However, many more prostitutes provide companionship, caring and intimacy, and even true friendship (with or without sex) to their clients.

photo of state regulated sex parlor in Amsterdam, Netherlands

“Samantha”, a prostitute in a high-end brothel in Sydney, Australia, admits to not only loving the sex, saying, “Personally, I do enjoy sex; that’s why I’m here, and that’s why I get paid to be good at my job,” but also likens prostitution to counseling: “We should get paid more cuz we’re like counselors, you know?”

High-end prostitutes refer to this type of work as “emotion work”, and it is beneficial on an emotional level for the clients, and sometimes the worker.

And in Holland, the government provides grants to the disabled that cover a prostitute’s services up to twelve times a year.

In her article “Sex: The Next Ethical Industry?” Anna Simpson, in an effort to challenge negative views of prostitution, posits the following scenario:

Charlotte gently closes the door and slips into the adjoining room, where her colleagues are having a giggle over a cup of tea. She flicks on her phone and scans her account. All the tabs are green: earnings high, health risks low, working hours reasonable, carbon footprint tiny, client feedback off the scale…

All that’s left for her to do is rate her own wellbeing. She thinks of the baths, massages, cuddles and caresses she’s given that week; the sweet, serene expressions breaking through from behind weary frowns – and gives herself a discreet pat on the back: she’s a do-gooder, and it makes her feel great.

While Simpson admits to prostitution having a “seedy side” caused in part by trafficking and exploitation, she claims that this view of the industry is highly exaggerated. She further points out the “trillion dollar cross-sector industry spanning live entertainment, pornography, pharmaceutical products, clothes and accessories.”

Enjoyment and business aside, prostitutes also enjoy the freedom and independence that their trade provides. As Asst. Professor Jill McCracken of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg explains, adding, “I do believe some women enjoy being sex workers because they’re more in control; they can set the boundaries; they can say, ‘This is a service that I am providing and I want to provide this service.’”

But perhaps the best argument in favor of prostitution is that it empowers women and strengthens equality. Prostitution allows women to break through the last vestiges of patriarchal gender norms and roles, turning traditional sexuality on its head, claiming the sexual freedom and independence that men have enjoyed throughout history.

Even the Pros Have Cons

Despite the alleged “perks” of prostitution, the sex trade is a lonely, dark, and dangerous profession – even where it is legal or more socially accepted. While some proponents of prostitution, like Hendrik Wagenaar and Sietske Altink, downplay the dangers associated with prostitution, contending that “inordinate emphasis” on violence and trafficking is the cause for its bad reputation; and while high end brothels and escort services can be relatively safer than street prostitution; the facts show that prostitution is still quite dangerous.

Most prostitutes don’t live past the age of 34, giving them “[…] a mortality rate forty times higher than the national average.”  Furthermore, “Only 20% of prostitutes work the streets, but they account for 90% of the arrests.”

Most, if not all, street prostitutes are either sold or coerced into it, or driven to it out of desperation as young children by physical abuse and incest, and many of those are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Most do not escape contracting terrible and sometimes deadly diseases, passing them on to others.

Another public concern stemming from prostitution is the criminal element that surrounds it. Often, where there is prostitution, even legal, high end prostitution, there are also drugs, gangs, violence, and poverty, and Gillian M. Abel says in his article, The Street’s Got its Advantages, “Findings suggest there is a growing private sector but little change in the size of the street-based sector following decriminalization,” negating the argument that legalization would benefit sex workers or increase public safety.

Abel says this is because women are “better able to maximize their earnings,” on the streets, thus making more money. Speaking of money, these findings also disprove the idea that legalizing prostitution would create more tax-paying citizens. Street prostitution is devoid of “emotion work,” and whether high end or low end, with or without a pimp, many are beaten, raped, robbed, and even murdered – having neither anywhere to turn for help, nor anyone to miss them when they’re gone.

Not Buying the “Pros.”  

Some morality theories can be applied in such a way as to justify prostitution, although for different reasons. For example, the ethical egoist would argue that by exchanging money or goods for services rendered, both prostitute and client are acting in their own self-interest, and the Utilitarian might reason that, if no one is being harmed and both parties are satisfied, prostitution serves the greater good. And indeed, both the liberal and moderate views could agree with either or both of these theories.

Nevertheless, the sustained taboo surrounding prostitution despite all the alleged arguments in favor of it, coupled with the fact that neither sex nor trade are themselves inherently immoral, suggests that the great majority of us, this author included, whether subscribing to Kantian theory or Divine Command theory, cannot overlook the underlying, dominating, and insurmountable immorality of prostitution – that it treats people as a means to an end – and that can never be moral.

photo of anti-prostitution protest on steps of California State Capitol in Sacramento

Personalizing Impersonal Sex

My own views concerning prostitution are admittedly conflicting and decidedly personal. The red-blooded, freedom-loving, Constitution-brandishing side of me cannot get past the disparity between the purveyors and the consumers of prostitution and application of the laws concerning it and I cringe at the suppression of free will and “Big Brother” intrusion into the lives of consenting adults.

I see little difference in pornography and prostitution, and, spurred on by feminist cry for equality and my love of autonomy, I would like to embrace – or at least tolerate – prostitution as a harmless, victimless vice and see it decriminalized.  I would like to …but I cannot.  I cannot because the former “homeless drug-addict” side of me has not only seen, but experienced, the dark, ugly side of prostitution up close.

Although I never worked as a prostitute myself, I have lived among those who do (including my own grandmother, who used to “turn tricks” in my room while I was in school during the day), and I was once kidnapped and raped in one pimp’s attempt to “corral [me] into his herd” (his words).

While living on the streets, I have heard women parrot all of the justifications listed here and then some as I dried their tears and shared their drugs, but that is all they were – justifications – made tongue-in-cheek in an effort to convince themselves that they were in control and happy with their lot in life.

Sure, they would tell me they enjoyed the sex and freedom; they relied on the protection of their pimps; and they loved the friendships they formed with their “co-workers” (other prostitutes), but I also witnessed the fear in their eyes. They all had it; the fear of harm, death, or disease; the fear of becoming incapable or unworthy of love; the fear of loneliness; and even the fear of hell.

These women invariably feel trapped, unwanted, unloved, inhuman, and un-savable, all sharing a deep sense of unworthiness and hopelessness, void of confidence and self-esteem. In the end, when it is all said and done, prostitutes sell more than sex, and they feel this fact acutely and painfully.

With or without their consent, the laws, or the stigma, they are selling their humanness, and once one realizes this, however one justifies it, one still cannot help but to feel raped.  I, for one, have never heard of a victimless rape, and therefore must conclude that prostitution is without any redeeming moral quality whatsoever.


Abel, G. M., & Fitzgerald, L. J. (2012). ‘The street’s got its advantages’: Movement between sectors of the sex industry in a decriminalised environment. Health, Risk & Society14(1), 7-23. doi:10.1080/13698575.2011.640664
Johnson, M., Andreae, L., Berg, P., Chinn, J., & Et al. (Producers). (2011). American Underworld: Sex Trade [Video file]. USA: Discovery Channel. Retrieved July 25, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pYbmYlKD1oA
Ives, M. (Producer). (2010). Taboo: Prostitution [Video file]. USA: National Geographic. Retrieved July 25, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6oe7Ksx8iEU
ProCon (Ed.). (2009, May 6). Top 10 Pros and Cons – Legal Prostitution – ProCon.org. Retrieved July 29, 2016, from http://prostitution.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000115
Simpson, A. (2010). Sex: the next ethical industry?. Green Futures, (78), 16-19.
Thiroux, J. P., & Krasemann, K. W. (2015). Ethics: Theory and practice (11th ed.). Pearson.
Wagenaar, H., & Altink, S. (2012). Prostitution as morality politics or why it is exceedingly difficult to design and sustain effective prostitution policy. Sexuality Research & Social Policy, 9(3), 279-292. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.snhu.edu/10.1007/s13178-012-0095-0      
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