Towards an ethical stance on sex work

I’m finding it tricky to make sense of all this. Here are some starting premises:

  • Any assessment of sex work needs to take place in the wider context of exploitation inherent in labour. Much work is dull or damaging. No doubt some sex work is too – but that doesn’t mean that all work – including sex work – is, or necessarily must be.
  • Plenty of jobs require workers to feign interest, enthusiasm, and other positive emotions. For instance psychotherapy: “Just as prostitutes, for the good of their business, will often have to fake an erotic enthusiasm far from their actual feelings, so psychotherapists will spend many hours of boredom, frustration and at times even irritation, that they will, quite properly, be at pains to conceal from their clients” (Smail, 1995. Love for Sale: ‘Psychotherapy as Prostitution’ Revisited.)
  • There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with body-work. Take the examples of builders and life models.
  • There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with benefiting financially from arousing emotions in people – including sexual emotions. Take musicians, performance artists, ballet dancers, writers.
  • Stigmatisation is one of the main causes of emotional distress – including that experienced by sex workers.
  • We just don’t know how most sex workers feel about their work.
  • Also it’s not clear how sex workers could feel, if working circumstances were improved and sex workers offered the same rights and opportunities as workers with “respectable” jobs such as hedgefund managers.
  • Some people enjoy sex work, e.g., participant 532 in Rhoda Grant’s consultation:
    • “I chose to escort for money. I enjoy it. I do not feel exploited or dehumanised. I feel liberated, excited, expressive, creative and earning good money. I am one of very few people who ACTUALLY enjoys their job. This job has allowed me to support myself, allow myself to explore things i wouldnt have been able to otherwise and opens opportunities for me for further education. I feel that i am able to do so much more with my life in every sense since i chose to work in this line of work. I have a mortgage, i’m supporting myself, i went full time when i got made redundant in march. I haven’t claimed benefits and putting additional pressure against the welfare. I work hard and proud. I have NEVER been in danger with my job as i use the necessary precautions along with an advice network of working girls across the UK. I work as a stand alone worker and not for a pimp/organisation and pay my taxes. I would also like to add that by doing this line of work, it does not make me feel any less equal to the opposite sex. By me acting as an escort i very much have dignity and sexually empowered. I believe that any negitive perceptions about what i do is from people who are not in my line of work and are either threatened or are simply judgemental of something they know nothing about.”
  • Some people hate non-sex-work. (Listen to most conversations in most pubs.)


  1. Alison Cummins

    Do we need an ethical stance on sex work? If I were to employ a sex worker I would do my best to treat both them and myself ethically, just as I do in any transaction with any person whether or not it involves money.

    We need an ethical stance towards worker protection generally. People making worker protection legislation have an ethical obligation to engage the workers being protected and sex workers are no different.

    We also need to understand pragmatically what effects legislation (and the lack of it) has in different countries — in any area where legislation is being proposed or reviewed. Where I live, most sex workers are Canadian-born but strippers may work in clubs supplied by organized crime who move their girls around from city to city so that they can’t settle in and develop their own resources easily. In Europe, many sex workers are migrants being managed unwillingly by gangs. Some evidence suggests that legalizing prostitution (as in Holland) results in tolerance generally for sex work, including that performed by abused migrants. Legal sex workers are better protected than they are in countries where it is illegal but there is also more human trafficking.

    If the concern is human trafficking, that overlaps with but is different from sex work. If the concern is underaged sex workers, there’s a whole set of concerns around that, including education and resources for youth who don’t have safe homes.

    If people have access to good alternatives, they won’t be in sex work if it’s a bad alternative. (Ditto any kind of work they assess to be a bad alternative.)

    What is your specific concern about wanting an ethical stance on sex work as opposed to (say) an ethical stance on finance or carpentry or housework?

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