Decriminalizing prostitution: the right of women to sell their bodies, or the right of men to have unlimited access to women’s bodies according to their economic power?

Sandrine Birkeland is a Philosophy student, interested in poetry and Hannah Arendt.

In May 2017, Amnesty International adopted a policy supporting the decriminalization of prostitution, removal of laws criminally targeting practices within the sex industry: solicitation, brothel keeping, and living off the proceeds of prostitution. Amnesty claims decriminalization best defends the human rights of sex workers. Under this model, prostitution is to be treated as a legitimate form of work, sex workers are to work with authorities for their protection.

80% of the 42 million prostitutes in the world are females. Amnesty denies believing that “buying sex is a human right”[i], yet the sex industry exists to provide female bodies available for men. Amnesty claims it neither supports nor disapproves of the sex industry. Is the existence of the sex industry in the society we live in consistent with Amnesty’s aim of defending human rights? A question that has not been addressed enough is: why is there a demand for commercialized female bodies? And why should this demand be addressed? Deconstructing the male desire for a sex industry is required for providing a full picture of the social and political forces that shape the current sex industry.

It is sometimes said the structures of male sexuality ‘require’ the existence of the sex industry, that there will always be a male demand for this industry, that such unsatisfied desires can manifest themselves aggressively in other contexts. But there is no biological ‘need’ for sex. Men’s sexual desires are cultivated to be a certain way; social and political forces as well as the individual are active in this cultivation. Sexuality’s meaning and practices are social creations that can evolve and change through time.

A survey done in Scandinavia[1] in fact showed the reason mentioned by men for going to prostitutes were mostly not a mere desire for a sexual experience, instead depended on the male’s ideology surrounding prostitution and women generally. Male sexuality in prostitution is “male masturbation in a female body”[ii][iii]: in the act, the customer is not relating to another human being but to his fantasy-created perception of her, “dirty whore[iv], “another kind of woman[v] or ‘true femininity’, a sexual object, the male is living out his sexist fantasies inside it. He is emptying himself out. In a 2009 report on ‘Men who buy sex’[vi], almost half of customers interviewed believed most women in prostitution are coerced by pimps – still they chose to go to them –. Most believed the women they were buying sex from were not only not enjoying the sex, but also feeling “disgusted”[vii], “dirty”[viii], “scared”[ix].

This data shows what desires and ideologies surrounding women give rise to a male demand for commercialized female bodies. It depicts a particular objectifying look during the act that legitimizes her being treated in a certain way, her enjoyment not relevant to this treatment.

The normalization and industrialization of the sex trade since the 70s contributes to reproducing the social and political conditions that create male desires for commercialized female bodies.

Part of this analysis of ‘male demand’ must be the violence that dominates the industry. A 2009 survey[x] showed active prostitutes in the UK to be almost 12 times more likely to be murdered than women of similar age and race, 75% of sex workers interviewed had been sexually assaulted and more than 50% had been raped or seriously sexually assaulted.

The link between this degree of objectification, the psychological experience of the male and the prostitute within the act, and the psychological and physical harms so present in the industry, determine whether governments should enable the male demand for a sex industry to be satisfied.

The lived experience of the prostitution act by prostitutes show the sexually liberating character of current prostitution to be a myth. The forms of prostitution are moulded by the social conditions at different times in history. Racism and sexism illustrate how society’s perception and treatment of a person’s body, shape her relation to others and her sense of self. The socially created meaning of embodiment, and the forces that shape the objectifying look of the customer, have impelled a strategy of ‘dissociation’ frequently mentioned by prostitutes. ‘Dissociation’ is the phenomenon of dis-attachment from reality into emotional and physical numbness. The prostitute sets boundaries as to what parts of her Self will be accessible to the customer. Drugs facilitate this. This is the same strategy mentioned by rape victims.

A 2007 German survey[xi] shows the psychological damage caused by the working conditions in prostitution: half of active prostitutes showed symptoms of depression, 25% had contemplated suicide, and 68% had suffered from PTSD.

What sort of legitimate ‘work’ forces the worker to escape the reality of her working conditions in order to protect herself from psychological damage? Giving up on one’s sense of self becomes possible when there are no social conditions to support and promote survival.

The fact the industry is so violent is a consequence of the socio-economic and political forces that create the desire and offer of particular female bodies on the market. Men of privileged economic backgrounds pay for the most economically vulnerable women of society: of those working in prostitution in Europe, 75%[xii] have been homeless, and 70%[xiii] are immigrants. Where white skin is valued, darker-skinned women are those that are ‘accepted’ into the industry; colour and culture are advertised and sold (“Another kind of woman”[xiv]).

The classist and racist structure of the ‘male desire to buy sex from females’ legitimizes this ‘work’ from the most oppressed groups in society.

Decriminalization not only tolerates but enables the sex trade. It does not work towards the abolition of these male desires that create the harms of the current sex industry, it legitimizes them. The physical and psychological harms of the current industry illustrate what desires and perception of women shape customer demand. We could imagine a utopian society in which females offering their bodies for money would be empowering for them, but the current social and political causes for the sex industry prevents this act from being empowering.

Prostitution policy is a fight against the marginalization of specific members of society that pushes them to make themselves further psychologically and physically vulnerable. Just as prostitution is the oldest profession in history, sexism is the oldest oppression in history. We must work towards the abolition of an industry existing solely as addressing of perverted male sexual desires.



[i] 7. Does Amnesty International believe that paying for sex work is a human right” in, ‘Q&A: Policy to Protect the Human Rights of Sex Workers’, Amnesty International

[ii]The prostitution of Sexuality’, Kathleen Barry

[iii] ‘Men’s practices in prostitution and their implications for social work’, Sven Axel Maansen

[iv] First discourse identified, ‘Men’s practices in prostitution and their implications for social work’, Sven Axel Maansen

[v] 5th discourse identified, ‘Men’s practices in prostitution and their implications for social work’, Sven Axel Maansen

[vi] Men who buy sex, who they buy and what they know’, Farley, Bindel and M. Golding, 2009

[vii] Ibid, Farley, Bindel and M. Golding, 2009

[viii] Ibid, Farley, Bindel and M. Golding, 2009

[ix] Ibid, Farley, Bindel and M. Golding, 2009

[x]Statistics on prostitution in London and the UK”, June 2009, Toynbee Hall -For a future without poverty

[xi] Study carried out in 2007 by the German Federal Ministry

[xii] “Prostitution and Trafficking in Nine countries”, 2003, Harley

[xiii] EU-funded Tampep report, 2006

[xiv] Men who buy sex, who they buy and what they know’, Farley, Bindel and M. Golding, 2009
Picture is Falkland Road, Prostitutes of Bombay, Mary Ellen Mark



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