Four Positions:

(1)   Conservative (“Traditional”) View:  Prostitution is morally wrong. It is mainly the prostitute herself who is seen as the person who is “doing wrong.” She is a “bad woman” or a “dirty woman.”


(2)   Liberal View (Ericsson): There is nothing inherently wrong with prostitution. It can be shown that there is no good reason to think that prostitution is wrong. Once we clear away all of the old taboos, we will be better off.

It is certainly the case that in society today, there are a lot of social ills that attend much prostitution. And certainly prostitutes are subject to exploitation, violence, harassment, and so forth. But this is due to negative social attitudes towards prostitution. Once they are eliminated, there will be no problem.

(3)   Feminist View (Anti-Prostitution) (Pateman): Prostitution is wrong because it is oppressive to women, or because it degrades or objectifies women. Prostitution is not merely accidently problematic. It is inherently problematic and needs to be eradicated. In this view, prostitutes themselves are not to blame – rather (patriarchal) society is to blame.


(4)   Feminist View (Pro-Prostitution) (Fraser?): The view that prostitutes are “victims” is disempowering to women who work as prostitutes. Prostitution can be seen as a viable form of feminist resistance to patriarchal society.

Note: Sometimes I have found that conservative and feminist views (against) prostitution have  (somewhat bizarrely) blended together. I have also found that the pro-prostitution feminist view is sometimes in danger of collapsing into the liberal view.

 Let’s start with Ericsson’s Liberal Position.

While we start with our moral intuitions that we’ve picked up along the way, once we start thinking critically (philosophically) about morality, we need to do more than to merely rely on them.

We need to justify the view that an act is wrong by appeal to a general moral principle. This moral principle should explain what makes the act wrong. Consider the following example:

Moral Intuition: It is wrong to spray mace at people

 In order to explain this we might propose

General Principle: It is wrong to hurt people.

We now have the argument:

(1)   Spraying mace at people hurts them

(2)   It is wrong to hurt people

(3)   Therefore spraying mace at people is wrong


And we have the explanation of what’s wrong with spraying mace at people. Answer: It HURTS them!!!


However, we are not necessarily done. We actually engage in a process that  John Rawls (a famous political philosopher) calls ‘reflective equilibrium.’ ‘Reflective equilibrium’ is the balancing between general moral principles (intended to explain the rightness or wrongness of particular cases) with our moral intuitions about a variety of situations (most of them hypothetical).

For example: Is it wrong to use it mace in self-defense? Is it always wrong to harm a person? If our moral intuitions tell us that it is sometimes ok, then we need to go back and find a new principle. For example:

General Principle: It is wrong to violate a person’s right not to be harmed. (We can say that a person who attacks somebody else for no reason waives their right not to be harmed).

So what happens when we try and we try and we find that we cannot come up with a general principle that explains the wrongness of an act that we intuitively think is wrong? We need to give up on our intuition.  

For example, consider the moral (cultural) intuition: It is wrong for women to engage in “promiscuous” sex (while it is not wrong for men to do so).


It is very hard to imagine a general principle that explains this. A “gender-sensitive” moral principle makes no sense in this case. Either is wrong for both men and women, or it is wrong for no one.  This means that the moral intuition above should be rejected.

Ericsson’s entire strategy is to argue that there is no successful argument for the view that prostitution is wrong. That is: There is no general moral principle that explains its wrongness. So we have to give up the view that prostitution is wrong.



But now let’s consider the following argument:


1.      It is wrong to “sell yourself” (or your body)

2.      Prostitution involves “selling yourself” (or your body)

3.      So: Prostitution is wrong.



Ericsson: Premise Two is false. Prostitution does NOT involve selling yourself (since the woman does not become a full-time sexual slave). Rather, he argues, the prostitute provides a sexual SERVICE.


My point: Ericsson’s dismissal is too fast. There are important issues here that need to be better understood. Perhaps in reply to Ericsson, one might argue that prostitution involves “renting yourself” (or your body). It is true that one is not allowed to do ANYTHING to a prostitute. Rather she negotiates the transaction. But this is also true in other cases of rentals. So is there anything to this idea?


Pateman thinks so. She thinks that “labor” and “service” are abstract ways of talking about what is happening. She thinks that service in this case cannot be abstracted from the body, and therefore the self. In particular, she thinks the client gets the right to control the body (and therefore the self) of the prostitute. She thinks this sexual arrangement of dominant/subordinate gives us the very meanings of femininity and masculinity.


Problem: But it seems that bodies are involved in many services. What about the masseur who uses his hands to perform a service? Is he selling his body? It seems odd to think so.


That said, Pateman raises important questions (that Ericsson obscures): WHY is there a demand for prostitution at all? WHY do men in particular demand it? These questions are important because they get to the issues of what is really being sold. According to Ericsson, prostitution satisfies a “basic need” (like food and shelter). But this is silly – first, nobody has died from not having sex. Second, everybody has the solution to their need “ready at hand” (for free!). Pateman’s answer is that what is being sold is a sexual relation of dominance/subordination.