Advocates for the complete decriminalisation of prostitution and all aspects of the sex trade often deride abolitionists and others against the legalisation or decriminalisation of sex work for being “moralists.” Being moral used to be a good thing. What they mean by this is that those who disagree with them are coming to the discussion from a religious, prudish, and puritanical point of view, and that it is their dim opinion of all things sexual which motivates them to cast judgement on the prostitute qua sinner. In fact this could not be further from the truth. The only real religious puritanism in the debate comes from the permissivist position.


The argument that decriminalising the sale and purchase of sex as an interim measure until the socio-economic causes of prostitution have been addressed is nothing more than a messianic dream. Religious people coming to the debate – especially those from a Christian background – have come to a better understanding of the messianic timescale, and we’re not talking years, or decades, or even centuries. Messianism operates in millennia and eons. When we speak of the causes of prostitution we are talking for the most part about poverty, and notions of decriminalisation as a stopgap in lieu of a solution to poverty relegates the protection of the prostituted to the never-never.


Getting back to the point of moralising, there is nothing wrong with confronting social problems from an ethical or moral standpoint. Yet those who dismiss the “moralistic” argument do so in an attempt to paint its defenders as people sanding in judgement over prostitutes, and this could not be further from the truth. Morality has always been the spoilsport at the hedonistic party of Libertarianism because it puts the human person – as an end in itself – before the desire of those who would see others as means to their own ends.

Nowhere is this better seen than in the language of those supporting the legalisation of prostitution. In an attempt to rehabilitate and normalise the exploitation of women’s bodies prostitution has been reframed as the “sex trade,” and those involved – from the traffickers to the pimps to the prostituted themselves – as “sex workers.” The difference between being prostituted and flipping burgers in a fast food restaurant, as Rachel Moran points out, is that in prostitution the “worker” is the meat. The fact of the matter is that, from the moral position, human beings cannot be reduced to things, and any reality that does this can only be described as deeply immoral.


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11 thoughts on “‘Moralising’ and the Fight for Women in Prostitution

  1. Gaye, that is a remarkably good point. You are perfectly right. Criminalising prostitution in either its sale or purchase or both without a fundamental change in the social and economic structures which cause it is a disastrous move and would have catastrophic consequences. The temporary solution of decriminalisation is not adequate because it presupposes the permanence of poverty, and stems from a political and economic system of thinking that creates and sustains the conditions of poverty. In fact all interim solutions are meaningless.

    Ending poverty for its own sake, however, is not a messianic dream, and it is precisely this that I am advocating. Poverty in the midst of our Western opulence is the real immorality here, and solutions are available. Even in the depths of economic recession our countries are awash with money. The problem is that this wealth has been concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people. If we can enact legislation to criminalise or decriminalise prostitution, then we can also – and just as easily – enact legislation giving everyone a basic income and social security.

    What makes this a “messianic dream” is that those who possess the money and so cause the social suffering at the other end of the economic scale will do everything in their power to stop this from happening. So we must discard the messianism and take the struggle into our own hands and force the money – our money – from them. This eventually will happen. It is inevitable. Yet until we do make it happen we will see prostitution, homelessness, and all the vicissitudes of poverty and destitution gradually worsen.

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  2. I would have thought that the most responsible criterium in any debate on prostitution is what evidence based research presents in a full and neutral manner to show the benefits and detriments.in terms of the known size and environmental effects of the respective prostitution market. After all ,one person’s ‘sex work’ is another ‘prostitution’ so moralising generally only serves the whimsical thoughts of the privileged rather than any material effect for the subject matter who are often mere pawns to the saviour complex of their ‘superiors’ .

    So its hard to take the authors eloquent piece that seriously when he seems obliviously aware of the amount of damning Swedish reports and police media interviews that are hushed up by the pro-Swedish Model lobby group that he defers .

    Perhaps the author should cast a more responsible, critical eye regarding claims of Swedish success by examing for example , Swedens 2012 official Trafficking Report

    Which admits a 3 fold increase in Stockholm Thai massage parlours selling sex in 3 years, unknown levels of trafficking ,high levels of criminality and disturbing tales of the selling of women and girls into Sweden for between €300 and €1,500 to serve the Swedish sex trade.

    or perhaps Police Ignore Slave Trade

    or indeed, Swedens growing child prostitution problem:

    Link One and Link Two

    And that’s before even dealing with the increased margianlisation of people who sell sex within socety and the deterioration in the relationship with the police which of course ,pro-Swedish Model-ites typically ignore. That pro-Swedish Model activists NEED to cover up ‘inconvenient’ findings to market Sweden as a success is one thing. That those activists are WILLING to cover up such abuses is quite another.

    But ,hey, at least ‘moralisisng’ allows us to feel better about ourselves rather than dealing with the reality of how the Swedish Law actually plays out,right?

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    1. Thanks for those thoughtful insights John. I’m not sure, however, that you have read my article. You appear to have missed the fact entirely that I have not mentioned or advocated the Nordic (or “Swedish”) model. My comment, on which we both seem to agree, is that moralising over the prostituted is wrong. What I have said is that the truly moral (rather than “moralising”) position is one which puts the rights of the human person first.

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    2. “after all ,one person’s ‘sex work’ is another ‘prostitution’…”
      er no. One person sells (submits to sex with the buyer) and the other buys (prostitutes the seller). So it’s not the same thing at all: the whole transaction is asymmetrical in its meaning. That’s why using the term ‘sex work’ to cover the prostitution system as a whole is so misleading. Buyers don’t do sex work. Pimps don’t do sex work. (And buyers don’t ‘see prostitutes’.) Prostitution is a brutal system, not just two lonely people coming together in the night, one for solace and the other for money.
      As for proponents, like me, of the Nordic (Swedish) Model allegedly hushing up criticisms or problems of its implementation, now why would we do that? I know it might seem strange to you to hear this, but we want this approach to succeed in working towards the abolition of prostitution. ‘Hushing’ up problems would not help in any way. As abolitionists, we need to know the problems so that they can be addressed – as they have been addressed over the past 15 years, with various minor & major changes being made in the Swedish approach in particular, both in terms of the law itself and in its policing.
      Geez, can it only be 15 years? Given that our critics are always on about how prostitution always has and always will be with ‘us’, 15 years does seem quite a short time to pronounce so confidently on how doomed our approach is, John. 15 years after Somersett’s Case, in 1787, there were still huge numbers of people scoffing at the very idea of abolishing slavery, and pronouncing so confidently on how doomed the abolition of slavery was. We still haven’t abolished slavery completely, but that would hardly be a reason to give up on doing so, would it?

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  3. I understand perfectly what you are saying Gaye. Where you see that social pendulum swinging from one socio-political extreme to the other, I see and income inequality graph. In many respects – I think – we are thinking of the same thing.

    Where we differ is in whether or not a more equal, just, and free society can ever be created. We both agree that it will be a massively difficult task, and those like the British Conservatives will do everything they can to subvert it. Everything is impossible until it has been done.

    I will not insult you by pretending that I have the answer. I do not, but I do have some ideas, and that is pretty much what this entire blog is about. Prostitution and all the ills of social inequality, poverty, and destitution must be made things of the past – and there are more than enough resources to make this a reality. The pessimist in me sees no end to prostitution in legislation in one direction or the other, the underlying issue is poverty, and it is this that must be dealt with.

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  4. HI Jason,
    firstly, thanks for publishing my rather caustic( my apologies) response to your blog and thanks for your reply.

    You’re entirely correct to state that you provided no explicit support for the Nordic Model but your inclusion of pro Swedish Model proponents ONLY speaks volumes.
    That neither of those individuals featured ever publicise either the quantitative failures(and theres many Swedish police admissions of failure online , confirmed by the PSNI who in their 2014 NI Submission stated concern over the ‘significant levels of prostitution and trafficking’ they found in Sweden) but also the qualitative failures in terms of lack of trust in the Swedish police and societal stigmatisation .
    Consequences which undoubtedly you ,like most people would find deeply concerning. If indeed selling sex is the last viable option for many of these women to avoid destitution , then such laws penalise such women twice : (a) for their poverty and (b) for their practical if dangerous choice of work to overcome their poverty.

    But its also your particular choice of language that betrays impartiality . ‘expolitation of womens’ bodies’ , ‘prostituted women’ , ‘being prostituted’ , ‘worker is meat’ ; your use of quotation marks to scorn the notion of “sex worker” all serve to degrade, victimise and infantilise the women who made that choice and who are entirely comfortable with that choice (notwithstanding that there are many many women who virulently hated what they did/had to do to survive and viewed prostitution in such cold terms as is their earned right)

    As expressed by Gaye Dalton ,its unbelievably degrading to someone to tell them that their choices are borne out the ‘false consciousness’ syndrome which is strongly propagated by Swedish Model supporters to deny the ,dare it be said, comfortable relationship that some people have with selling sex.

    On an upbeat note, I would completely agree with you in terms of the disparity of wealth ,domestically and internationally, as being an important element in the reduction of prostitution.But ‘choice’ of work to earn income is always somewhat of an illusory concept when a person is at the bottom of the social pyramid.So a person’s decision to sell sex (if they’re at ease with themselves about that) should carry no more stigma than the person working two jobs to make the same money – same destination,different routes.

    Giving legal rights to people that sell sex is not mutually exclusive to providing genuine proper exit strategies to those who want/need to exit prostitution.Nor is it mutually exclusive to hitting very hard on third party coercive exploitation. All three are needed to provide a comprehensive social policy on prostitution in this country.
    And the starting point for that policy is the need for a full,transparent,inclusive and rational debate on the issue here in Ireland – something that is perpetually obstructed by those who view prostitution in purely ideologically grounds to the point where evidence must be relegated in favour of spin and misdirection.

    Thanks again for your previous reply Jason ,
    John

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  5. Hi Helen,
    the entire central plank of the claims of Swedish Model success DEPENDS on the assertions that prostitution & trafficking have been successfully arrested . The Swedish government have militantly being telling the international community of its success (eg RoI, NI & Canadian governments) when we know that internally, their police tell a different story. But since one of the aims of the law originally was to market it a success (gender-equality grounds) ,the Swedes cannot afford to tell of neither its quantative nor qualitative failures. The fact that they and their adherents cover up these failures cannot but remind one of the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-up of child abuse whilst holding the highest moral ground.

    Any law which deteriorates the r/ship between the poice and the ostracised cannot by definition , be considered a success.
    And we see this most clearly in MoJ Frances Fitzgerald’s to double the fine of sex sellers to €1,000 and/or jail time. And where is the outrage by TORL? Nothing but silence as TORL welcomed the Bill..
    This is because ,women in prostitution (routinely portrayed as ‘victims that had to be helped’) were only the pawns to be used by TORL to criminalise the purchase of sex . Once MoJ included the criminalisation of clients , then those women in prostitution were expendable .
    After all ,exactly how does the criminalisation of sex sellers (or indeed sex purchasers) actually help these women?

    Prostitution will always exist because there will always be heterosexual attraction and there will always be no-strings-attached sex . The only way to reduce prostitution is provide proper alternatives to those who need money to survive and who want to leave prostitution . Criminalisation of clients does nothing to address those needs.
    However,we also need to recognise that there are many people who are comfortable at selling sex and those people should have proper legal rights to operate in an environment that they want.
    In yesteryear, porn actresses were dismissed as ‘victims of child abuse’ ‘ – a trope used to explain why these women would appear “on screen for all to see degrading themselves” because ,apparently ,no self-respecting woman would do THAT for a living. She must be a ‘broken’ woman in some way .
    Until the internet came along, amateur pornography became mainstream and blew that theory away.

    The equation of ‘slavery’ and ‘prostitution’ is the usual non-sequiter applied by abolitionists – slavery involved the utter absence of any legal rights of people who were legally ‘owned’ by others as chattel. Those who advocate legal rights for those in prostitution ,centre on those people who WISH to participate in same . Advocating those legal rights are not mutually exclusive to providing proper,effective exit strategies for those who wish or need to leave .

    The same parameters applied to the slavery example – those who wish to continue to work on plantations would be given full legal ,autonomous rights as an individual and working conditions including pay rates , enforceable by law. Those who wished to leave plantations were free to do so with proper exit and education facilities.
    After all ,those of us who must work for a living to survive are in fact , slaves with legally enfiorceable rights to protect us from our employers.

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  6. The difference between ‘prostitution’ and ‘sex work’ is choice. I choose to call myself a ‘sex worker’ because I do not fulfill the brief of prostitute as in the dictionary. The dictionary states that this is sexual services without discrimination and many sex workers like myself discriminate with whom we will work with. This may be based on age, attitude or the service required.

    Also you talk about ‘stop gaps’ and ‘solutions to poverty’ with regards to the type of law that is taken with regards to prostitution and forgetting that prostitution/sex work very often is the solution and not just short term. Many people who start from a position of poverty are able to not just secure themselves financial security, but are able to use that money to progress their education and increase their ability to find work in other areas at a later point. However if the law insists on making us criminals for working safely in pairs, where a 12 month prison sentence could be inflicted, then that qualification becomes worthless. The only method that can prevent that is decriminalization.

    Lastly, you mention the courtesan and the poverty stricken, but there is also a middle ground and these are generally well rounded people, who through divorce, education or the recession find themselves unable to cope with their normal financial responsibilities. They may already have employment, but just not earning enough. They may need time for studies or to be parents that don’t allow a full-time job, but due to being a home-owner not make them eligible for government support. For these people this is also a very viable choice of work. People that society would deem to be highly functional, educated and able, yet they too are being treated like they must be inferior, nymphomaniacs and needing basic skills help. All we really want is the option to work as we wish to enable us to bridge the gap and work things out for ourselves.

    People that are poverty stricken are also not necessarily brainless dimwits who are unable to do anything else, or hooked on drugs and alcohol and yet any help there is out there for them is about rehabilitation, basic skills or as one friend of mine told me, after she had told Ruhama she had been raped and was scared to work, she was offered a nice ‘massage’. Why anyone would think a woman who had been violated would want anyone to give her bodily skin to skin contact as a form of relaxation God only knows. Maybe counselling or help to create a C.V. and interview skills might be more useful?

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    1. I am glad that you agree with me, Kate, that the distinction is choice. The overwhelming majority of people in prostitution globally are where they are because of a lack of choice. One serious element of poverty – which is not to be reduced to ‘destitution’ alone – is the limitation of choice. Those people who choose prostitution, having the means, opportunity, and financial freedom to do otherwise, are not the subject of this discussion. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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  7. If it was only that clear cut Jason. The problem is when people try to implement changes they are not considering those that choose to be sex-workers. They put us all in the same box and interfere with all our lives to the point where those that do have choice no longer have a choice and are then unable to leave sex work, slipping them into the ‘prostitute’ status. Nothing is black and white, as those with choice and those without in a situation where we are all living under the same label and being treated in the same way. In the eyes of the law all sex workers in Sweden (as an example) are being raped. There is no such thing as consent when money is involved. How can that be right?

    The lack of choice for some are with regards to trafficking and coercion, which are already illegal, although for those involved in these crimes the penalties are so low, it is hardly worth bothering to call it a crime. The law should put more emphasis on those that take people against their will and prostitute them and let those that ‘choose’ to work and are exercising their right to consent get on with their lives.

    Also trafficking should mean taken against the persons will and not just given a lift or assisted. Many people who are classed as trafficked in Ireland are assisted and know exactly what they are doing and are doing it with consent.

    If it makes you feel happy to make life so difficult for those that are using sex work to make their lives better, pay off debts, pay the mortgage and bring up their children due to crap laws that are not enforced, please go ahead. I’ll likely see you on the street when I’m made homeless and be in the process of being picked up and imprisoned for 12 months for soliciting due to my choices being narrowed down to the no choice pint. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for advocating this idea.

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    1. Thanks for getting back. Firstly I ought to be clear that I am neither advocating the criminalisation nor the decriminalisation or legalisation of prostitution/sex work. One problem that we have is that we have no accurate numbers pertaining to those who choose to sell sex (without coercion, poverty, or servitude as a result of enslavement through trafficking). My own interest is the social justice issue of poverty, and the social and economic conditions that make poverty a reality. In a utopia without poverty there may indeed be people like yourself who still choose to sell sex, and so ‘my problem’ is not with this.

      From the outset my issue has been with the cruel reality of people who are prostituted because of the lack of choice forced on them by poverty. No one should have to trade their intimacy in order to pay bills, and it frustrates me that the world in which we live makes this a necessity for hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

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