Prostitution Essay

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Prostitution, known as the world’s oldest profession, exists in all countries and cultures, and is as old as recorded history. Prostitution consists of male or female exchange of sex or sexual intimacy for money or resources such as food, shelter, or clothing. It can take the form of street prostitution, escort prostitution, sex tourism, and a host of other varied forms. Prostitutes solicit customers at street corners or provide sexual services at the customers’ residences, in hotel rooms, or in brothels. A new and growing form of prostitution involves sexual services in developing countries for wealthy tourists from developed countries.

Feminists’ Views on Prostitution

Since most prostitutes are women, prostitution is a highly controversial issue in feminist thought and activism. Generally speaking, there are five camps of feminists who express their strong views on prostitution.

The first camp is anti-sex feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. Proponents of this view claim that the very meaning of sex is male domination and that the nature of prostitution involves male power and female subjugation. According to Dworkin and MacKinnon, the act of sex, created by and for male supremacy, turns women into no more than objects.

The second camp, made up of pro-sex feminists, is anti-prostitution, arguing that prostitution robs women of control in sex acts and the ability to experience sexual intimacy outside of work. Selling sex acts and illusions of sexual desires leads to an impoverished sexual and emotional life that deprives women of the ability to experience sex in a non-instrumental way.

The third camp is romanticist feminists who argue that prostitution corrupts and undermines positive sex based on love. Prostitution, to them, is the antithesis of positive sex because sex should only be associated with love, intimacy, and affection. Feminists such as Kathleen Barry argue that positive sex can only emerge with trust and sharing rather than with cash and contracts. Prostitution encourages violence against women, thereby jeopardizing positive sexual experiences and contaminating the society like a virus. They thus advocate cleansing the society through abolishing prostitution.

The fourth camp is libertarian feminists who argue that it is women who have complete control in prostitution. The fact that men have to buy women’s attention with money is a confession of men’s weakness rather than a sign of their power. In other words, men feel powerless facing women’s sexual power. To them, prostitution is the source of women’s power rather than the root of oppression.

Feminists in the fifth camp represent a variation on the libertarian view. They argue that prostitutes threaten patriarchal control over women’s sexuality and invoke sexual subversion through prostitution. They contend that the state regulates and punishes women’s bodies by criminalizing non-procreative sex and restricting access to birth control and abortion. Prostitution is a terrain of struggle where women, far from being passive sexual objects, exhibit sexual agency and challenge the existing sexual order.

State Policies

Generally speaking, four types of official policies toward prostitution currently exist.

The United States, with the exception of the state of Nevada, represents the prohibitionist policy, making the buying and selling of sexual services illegal. Some feminists argue that in this system, law enforcement targets prostitutes rather than those who profit from their income and morally condemns women who choose prostitution. According to these feminists, illegality drives prostitutes underground and makes prostitutes totally reliant upon pimps and police officers.

A regulatory policy exists in such countries as Germany, the Netherlands, and Senegal. These countries legalize and regulate prostitution through registration, collection of taxes, and regular physical tests. Prostitutes by law must register with the police and have regular tests for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and they face penalties if they fail to do so. Some women choose not to register to avoid the accompanying stigma.

Some European countries, such as Sweden, the United Kingdom, and France, have an abolitionist policy. This policy rejects the state’s regulation of prostitutes but makes it illegal for third parties such as brothel keepers or pimps to be involved with prostitution. This view holds it immoral and unethical for the state to regulate prostitutes, recognizing them as victims of social and economic hardships. By making third parties illegal, it pursues a policy of discouraging prostitution while not prosecuting prostitutes themselves, who are considered victims.

A fourth policy, adopted by New South Wales, Australia, and New Zealand, is to legalize prostitution but leave it totally unregulated. This decriminalization policy acknowledges that women have the right to determine their lives and choose their profession. This policy is favored by many organizations in full support and protection of prostitutes’ rights, believing that criminalization of prostitution can only lead to exploitation, violence, and abuse. Thus exploitation and trafficking in women cannot be stopped unless the law recognizes and protects prostitutes’ legal and social rights.

Prostitution in Western Europe

Prostitution is legal in most of Western Europe, although most countries have restrictions against streetwalking and brothels. In Germany, hundreds of thousands of women from Russia and Ukraine are sex workers in escort agencies, apartments, houses, or clubs such as sauna clubs, massage services, and bars. Their income is taxed, and they are free to advertise their services in public media. Although the law does not require physical examinations for prostitutes, many brothels do require them.

In Western Europe generally, women are trafficked from Africa, Asia, South America, Iran, and the Caribbean. In Italy, for instance, 60 percent of all prostitutes are trafficked from Nigeria; in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Italy, Iranian women account for 10-15 percent of the prostitutes. In Amsterdam, even though non-European prostitutes without parents in residence are illegal, foreign women make up almost 90 percent of the prostitutes who are displayed in windows in the red light district. While this law is obviously not enforced, its intent is to provide economic protection for the Dutch prostitutes.

Prostitution in the United States

Prostitution is illegal in the United States except for the state of Nevada. In 12 counties of Nevada, there are more than 30 licensed brothels, and mandatory physical examinations are required of these registered prostitutes. Despite the prohibitionist policy, prostitution is common throughout the rest of the United States. Prostitutes may work alone, may be controlled by pimps, or may be associated with escort agencies. A common cause of prostitution is drug addiction. Escort prostitutes masquerade as entertainers or companion hostesses in escort agencies, bars, chiropractic offices, and massage parlors. A relatively new source of prostitutes in the United States is foreign-born women who are trafficked around the globe each year. An estimated 20 percent of the 1 million-plus females trafficked worldwide are smuggled into the United States to work in brothels.

Prostitution in Developing Countries

Many prostitutes in developing countries choose the profession to support their children, siblings, and parents, or because they are divorced or disowned by their families. Some children are even sold into prostitution by poor parents. In many developing countries, young girls between the ages of 10 and 16 are in high demand by clients. Many of these countries are both the source and destination for trafficking of women. For instance, women may be trafficked from Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and China to Bangkok, Thailand; from Nepal to East and South Asia, and the Gulf; and from Thailand and China to South Africa.

Because prostitution is illegal in many developing countries, it occurs in brothels camouflaged as massage parlors, hostess bars, karaoke bars, nightclubs, or teahouses. Prostitutes are subject to police harassment, incarceration, and HIV infection. Condom use is inconsistent among sex workers due to cultural norms, financial concerns, and the power hierarchy between sex workers and clients. While HIV prevention programs have been quite successful in countries such as Thailand and Uganda, most developing countries are experiencing an increase in HIV/AIDS infection due to the secret nature of sex work and political inertia.


  1. Chapkis, Wendy. 1997. Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor. New York: Routledge.
  2. Perkins, Roberta. 1991. Working Girls: Prostitutes, Their Life and Social Control. Canberra, Australia: Australian Institute of Criminology.
  3. Ringdal, Nils Johan. 2005. Love for Sale: A World History of Prostitution. Reprinted ed. New York: Grove.
  4. Thorbeck, Susanne and Bandana Pattanaik, eds. 2003. Prostitution in a Global Context: Changing Patterns. London: Zed.

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