Prostitution: The Morality of Selling Sex

Prostitution: The Morality of Selling Sex

By Adyasha Mishra, B.A student of Philosophy, Political Science, and French in University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Considered to be one of the oldest professions, prostitution is a well-hidden and a deeply stigmatized form of employment in India. Sex itself is a tabooed topic in our society, and the idea of sexual autonomy seems foreign despite the enormous population of this country. Exchange of bodily services for money is often up for debate in terms of the morality of this ‘job’, and, by extension, the legality of it. In a country where premarital sex or even sex education is highly controversial, prostitutes are often viewed as ‘used goods’, and this mentality helps in propagating a dehumanizing treatment of prostitutes. One often hears the words ‘whore’ or ‘prostitute’ in a severely negative context, and in general, a woman being referred to by such words is considered unworthy of respect in the eyes of the society, however, one never wonders about the multifaceted nature of the morality of prostitution. The commodification of sex is an uncomfortable topic for many people, hence, sex workers are often vilified and shunned, which is why they have suffered in silence and have often been let down by the justice system that favors public sentiment over basic human rights. Having said that, the deep rooted stigma around prostitution can mainly be analyzed by looking at the moral and socio-legal framework that is used in the formation of our views about it. In order to understand the complexity of what prostitution entails, it is vital to analyze both sides of the argument clearly. 


To understand why prostitution is so controversial, one first needs to understand the mentality surrounding ‘sex’ in general. In our country, talking about sex openly is not considered approriate, however, most of our slangs and swear words are sexual in nature. This shows that ‘sex’ in itself is viewed as something dirty and impure, moreover, there are strict parameters as to when ‘sex’ is considered to be pure and a righteous act. Marriage is strongly valued in our culture, and pre-marital sex is not only heavily tabooed but can also cause physical, psychological, and emotional harm to the people who participate. In a society where ‘love’ and sex are valid only when there is a purpose that needs to be fulfilled, prostitution is seen as an act of evil as the idea of recreational sex and the commodification of sex is not morally appealing since it serves no societal purpose. Many argue that commodifying sex reduces the humanistic value of it, and by extension it leads to the objectification of women as ‘products’ that are meant to be consumed and used for merely deriving sexual pleasure. From a philosophical perspective, this argument corresponds to Kantian ethics, wherein the main argument is that morality revolves around treating people as an ‘end’ and not as a means to an end. This means that people should not use other people, especially in a dehumanizing way, in the process of achieving a personal aim. Many claim prostitution to be an unethical practice based on this Kantian logic, and this is because people consider prostitutes/sex workers to be a means to achieving an end and not an end themselves, which is why they are objectified and commoditized in the process. Having said that, an alternative theory is that women are always ‘forced’ into this job, even when they choose to do it in their own terms. Feminist abolitionist theory claims that the society is structured based on the power imbalance between the genders, and due to the societal disadvantage that women have, they are strained in terms of making choices and hence have to resort to selling their bodies to survive. In this case, as men are considered to be more privileged, feminist theory propagates that prostitution is by default a form of exploitation and hence is immoral. Lastly, from a larger perspective, one can also argue that legalizing prostitution or claiming that it is morally valid could disrupt the society in terms of belief in marriage and fidelity, and could also be seen as a sign of encouragement to actively seek services from sex workers. 


Arguments for prostitution often neglect or choose to overlook the large number of non-consensual and forced cases in prostitution mainly because they dissociate the two issues and consider them in separation. A specific theory that morally justifies prostitution is by Martha Nussabaum, wherein she claims that the use of one’s own body in exchange for money is seen in many jobs other than prostitution, and the only reason why prostitution is regarded as a ‘dirty’ job is because of the prejudice and sexual conservatism present in the society. For example, she compares the premise of the job of a bar singer with that of a sex worker: a bar singer exchanges her body’s ability to sing aesthetically for money, and he/she does this with the aim of providing pleasure to the consumers of their ability. Nussbaum says that, in its very simplified form, prostitution resembles the job structure of bar singers, factory workers, or even philosophy teachers, and the only differences that are there revolve around the sex worker’s control over her working environment. Nussbaum claims that if there is a sex worker who has less control over her working conditions, it does not make prostitution morally wrong, it just makes that overall process unethical (hence ruling out human trafficking and forced prostitution). She argues that as long as a sex worker has the maximum amount of control and command over her working conditions, prostitution is not only a morally valid for of employment but also a justified career choice for women of a lower social class. Coming to the argument against Kantian ethics surrounding prostitution, many argue that ‘valid consent’ eradicates the wrongness of using people as a means to an end. For example, when a sex worker engages in the exchange of sexual services with her client, in an ideal situation, she would do so by giving her valid consent, hence she is allowing herself to be treated as a means to an end, hence making the entire process morally justified. 


The morality of prostitution has been an ongoing debate, and it shows no sign of ending any time soon. Prostitution is not illegal in India, however, sex workers are grossly discriminated and are at a higher risk of abuse and harm. Furthermore, they are not supported by law enforcement and the judiciary system, which is why it becomes harder for them to come out and talk about the troubles of their trade. Moreover, the number of sex workers who have been forced into prostitution is very high in India, hence legalization might take a lot of time, money, and effort as it would require heavy crackdowns on sex rackets. Another aspect to consider is the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic; the right kind of medical help is not being given to those who require it due to the stigma around the job and sexual health in itself. Overall, prostitution is an industry that requires more attention and acceptance, it is not a secret and should not be treated like one. The morality of this form of employment can be up for debate for eternity, however, workers’ health should not be jeapardized in the process. 

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