Eros & Ethics
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Eros & Ethics

The Ethics of Prostitution

A New Politics of Intimacy

The Purchase of Intimacy

I owe the consideration of this topic to a good online female friend, Madame Roosevelt, a publicly proclaimed whore, who recently posed a question about the ethics of prostitution. Let’s just say that she and I disagree. So, to the question:

Can one engage in the world’s oldest profession in an ethical way? In a word, “yes.” However, ethical prostitution can happen only under certain limited conditions and assumptions. As such, I want to argue that we cannot consider prostitution broadly or generally ethical; rather we can only speak of prostitution as ethical for the individuals involved in that particular transaction. In this sense, it is the specific context of the transaction that determines its ethical status.

To speak of prostitution as broadly or generally ethical it would have to confer a benefit to society at large. The benefits under a generally ethical model would have to apply equally to both clients and providers. Within the context then, of heterosexual prostitution, these benefits would have to fall equally on women, as the primary providers of sexual services, as well as on men, the primary purchasers of sexual services. From the perspective of the utilitarian argument I am making here, I don’t believe there is sufficient evidence of a net benefit to society to justify any claim that prostitution is generally ethical.

But let’s first consider the condition under which prostitution might be ethical. This condition is what I’m going to call “the purchase of intimacy” condition. I owe the name of this condition to a fascinating book by the Princeton economic sociologist Viviana Zelizer. Her 2005 book The Purchase of Intimacy argues that money is habitually used to get a hold of and sustain many different kinds of intimate relations. Zelizer argues that human relations are nurtured by a variety of forms of payment that recognize and preserve different forms of intimate relations, so for example, an alimony payment functions as a recognition of a previous relationship and the enduring obligations that result from it.

Zelizer’s concern in her book is less morality and ethics than the recognition that money can and does serve as a proxy for our feelings. Her argument, in essence, is that since we do use money as proxy for emotional investment, we shouldn’t be so hung up about maintaining the distinction between money and morals. According to this argument payments of money for pain and suffering, for example, are ethical and really the only question becomes: “how much?”

While this is not an explicitly feminist argument, Zelizer’s assumption, when it comes to the ethics of prostitution, is that the primarily male buyers of prostitution services are seeking straightforward connection with another person. This way of thinking supports one of the standard feminist pro-prostitution arguments — that men seeking out a prostitute are paying for a woman’s time as opposed to paying for any particular service. This correlates with the reports from many prostitutes that what the client was seeking was not sex, but just someone to be with.

The “prostitute-as-therapist-who-might-also-have-sex-with-you” view that results also supports the “sex as work” and legalization arguments made by many feminist supporters of the sex trade. In the purchase of intimacy condition, prostitution, and the payments delivered for it are ethical primarily because they have happened. Zelizer’s economic mind sees the interactions around prostitution as evidence that the significant moral concerns raised about the ethics of prostitution are really not that significant; the fact that prostitutional transactions were completed, functions, in her argument, as an ex-post-facto proof of mutual consent.

So, yes, if the individuals involved meet Zelizer’s general conditions for the purchase of intimacy, that is, if the man is seeking simply the physical presence of a woman and is wholly content with just having her around without any expectation of anything else and is furthermore content to pay whatever rate she deems her presence worth, then we can agree that, under these conditions, prostitution is ethical.

But effectively the purchase of intimacy approach solves the question of whether prostitution is ethical by begging it, by assuming that qualms are not really qualms, thereby rendering the ethical question moot. Zelizer’s answer to those who might raise such qualms would be to suggest that they seek different amounts or forms of payment as restitution for their suffering. To those who might argue that no amount of money could relieve their pain or suffering, Zelizer and the purchase of intimacy perspective has no answer.

Punishing the Purchaser: The Equality Model

When most people worry about the unethical nature of prostitution they are concerned almost entirely with how prostitution affects women. Prostitution advocates share with those who find sex work profoundly unethical the idea that women are victims and men the exclusive perpetrators of various harms. Whether they support or oppose prostitution on ethical grounds both camps share important concerns about women’s safety, preventing rape, and raising the economic status of economically marginalized women. Both groups are also concerned about preventing sex trafficking.

The anti-prostitution movement has a long history. Anyone reading literature of the European 18th and 19th centuries is aware of the concept of the fallen woman. To be impregnated by a man and then abandoned was all too common and often left women no choice but to become prostitutes. To become a prostitute, however, was to be consigned to homelessness, violence, poverty and an early death. If the prostitute had children, which was often, these same children would grow up in orphanages or poor houses, unparented and a ward of the state, depending on the meagre and inconsistent generosity of the public. It was, to put it mildly, a terrible life.

The understandable response to the extreme suffering of women who were forced into prostitution was outright criminalization of selling sex. However, much like the mostly female and feminist led temperance movement of the mid 19th century that tried but ultimately failed to ban the sale and consumption of alcohol, the full criminalization approach did not achieve its aims; sexual desire, like the desire for intoxication, proved too strong to suffer complete restriction.

And so the “prostitution is evil” movement took another tack, one that aligned well with one strain of second wave feminism—it criminalized the purchase but not the sale of sex. This movement, variously termed the Nordic Model or the Equality Model, could be seen as a pragmatic response to the problem: selling sex is unethical but also inevitable. The Equality Model, perhaps the most revealing name for this approach, seeks to make women more equal to men by punishing male sexual desire while at the same time supporting the financial transfers from male clients to female providers.

The Equality Model remains controversial. The question of whether it has achieved its aims remains under debate; but few would argue with the claim that it has not been an unqualified success. Male solicitation of sexual services may have declined in some countries where the Model has been adopted, but the demand persists. Research for escort services in Canada, where I live, and where the Equality Model went into effect in 2014, shows no sign of the law; arrests for solicitation are essentially unheard of and providers advertise their services openly online without concern that purchasers might suffer consequences. Probabilistic wagering would argue that significant demand will always exist.

In contrast to supporters of the Equality Model, purchase of intimacy advocates believe the ethical problems that continue to bedevil prostitution can be addressed by strengthening the rights of and respect for women in the sex business; this group sees prostitutes as entrepreneurs, solo practitioners of a legitimate, perhaps even important business. Many prostitutes themselves have adopted this view. Selling sex is “empowering” they argue; it promotes financial and emotional independence. Prostitution should therefore be rebranded as “sex work” and given full status as a generally unregulated business.

In line with Zelizer’s approach, sex trade supporters believe that beyond legalization, the key tool for protecting women in the sex business is raising prices. Raising prices has the effect of allowing women to be selective; in the purchase of intimacy view, the more a man pays, the more he cares for the particular woman he’s with. The man’s wealth, therefore, functions as a proxy for his ethical character. Paying thousands of dollars up front, immediately upon entering the premises, perhaps even before he has seen the provider face-to-face, functions as a form of insurance for the prostitute and is therefore more than simply ethical; it may even be necessary. A man investing a high proportion of his income on a prostitute has risked too much to rape, harm, or otherwise treat the provider inappropriately.

In Search of Intimacy

If researchers on prostitution have spoken extensively to male purchasers of sexual services I haven’t heard about it. If they had, I would find it hard to believe that men described the experience in glowing terms.

When asking about the ethics of heterosexual prostitution why do we care only about what female providers think? Yet this is the situation we find ourselves in. Feminism, which apparently is about justice and inclusion, has effectively erased male viewpoints on the experience of paying for sex. Can prostitution be ethical if those men who create it have no role in determining its ethical status?

Perhaps, to be fair, men don’t want to talk about these experiences. Feminist empowerment has helped legitimize being a prostitute; at the same time it has worked hard to encourage male shame in patronizing a prostitute.

Certainly, this has been my experience when paying for sex. While I’m sure not all men feel this shame, I’m also reasonably sure that I’m not alone in my feeling. The one article I found on men’s experience of paying for sex, from The Guardian, begins with the experience of someone called Alex, who says: “I don’t get anything from sex with prostitutes except a bad feeling.”

It is undoubtedly possible to construct contexts where men feel wonderful about paying for sex with a woman, for example, if you go with the blessing and encouragement of a female partner, or if you’re seeking to explore a particular fantasy. These, however, I would submit, are not the average experience of men seeking paid sex, though they can usefully be cherry-picked by prostitution supporters to argue that their male clients are generally happy with what providers offer.

Rather, the typical experience, I submit, is that of poor Alex. My own feelings correlate exactly with his. Like him and other men, who come from all walks of life, many men come to a prostitute seeking a simulacrum of a real relationship; they want the feeling of being in love, of intimacy, though most know quite well this is not that. One man cited anonymously in The Guardian article describes himself as “disappointed — what a waste of money.”

This feeling of paying for sex as disappointing and generally worthless is, I think, common enough to be nearly universal among men who are aware enough of their own emotions to label them in this way.

Why then do we keep going? For us, paying for sex is about engaging in a fantasy, trying to find a place of acceptance without judgement, a place to relax, a place to be ourselves and finally truly be seen. We all wear masks that hide our true selves and we all desperately want to take them off, for just a minute. At the same time we cannot; we are always playing a role.

For a man this profound misalignment between reality and desire can be bridged only by paying for sex. As research on men’s sexuality has shown, we feel deeply inadequate because of our general inability to provide the women we love with the same level of pleasure they provide us. Yet it feels as if the responsibility for closing the orgasm gap falls exclusively on men. This fact only increases our own anxiety around sex with women we want to please and exacerbates the problem the term “orgasm gap” was invented to solve.

The experience of trying over and over and over (can I add a few more “overs”?) to provide equal sexual pleasure to women we want to be loved by and continuously failing leads in the end to giving up. Why bother trying if the only result is to have to continually confront our profound inadequacy?

Paying for sex seems to solve this problem; the financial aspect lets us believe that we are adequate. Relieved, we hope for one brief moment, of the expectation to provide pleasure where we cannot, we fool ourselves into believing that the prostitute will see us; will listen to us.

For a man, paying for sex with a woman involves a profound and deeply harmful splitting of the self. He desperately wants the woman to say: “This is not about me. For once, for one brief moment, this is just about you and your pleasure.” Yet we all know that such a statement is impossible. Not only is it profoundly selfish on the man’s part, but it is also a way of recreating his own loneliness. We want to be independent selves AND we want to be connected; it is not possible to have both at once.

Intimacy and Dignity

Prostitution is unethical, should be unethical, because the encounter nearly always requires a fundamental objectification of both people involved. Zelizer, for all of her interesting theory, is profoundly wrong when it comes to prostitution. True intimacy cannot be purchased. Prostitution sells men a lie— that money can buy us love.

Money is necessary and important, it sustains human relations; but its social effects are complex. If we’re going to mix sex and money across gender lines we had best understand the divergent and apparently incompatible ways we often understand and use it.



Eros & Ethics is devoted to exploring questions about how personal desire affects public morality.

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Writing at the intersection of left-wing economics, conservative culture, and libertarian social structures.