To begin our discussion of prostitution, which is, no matter how exploitative, a form of work, let’s take a look at the work of Karl Marx and Immanuel Kant.


Karl Marx was trained as a philosopher, but he wrote about politics, economics, and eventually communism.  While he wrote extensively about how society needs to move beyond capitalism in order for human beings to flourish, his theory about alienation seems relevant to our discussion about prostitution.

Marx’s theory of alienation is described in an interesting way by Arlie Hochschild (1983) in The Managed Heart.   Hochschild discusses a section in Marx’s work Das Kapital that is entitled “The Working Day.”  This chapter is a piece that Marx submitted to the Children’s Employment Commission in England in 1863 to argue against child labor.  Marx reports that a mother speaking to the commission stated about her son, “When he was seven years old I used to carry him [to work] on my back to and fro through the snow, and he used to work 16 hours a day…I have often knelt down to feed him, as he stood by the machine, for he could not leave it or stop” (Hochschild, 1983, p. 3).  This child, writes Hochschild, was an “instrument of labor.”  Marx was concerned with the human cost of becoming an “instrument of labor” not just for children, but for adults too.  Some of the costs were to the person as a human being, to his or her potential, and to the individual connectedness to him or herself through the body.  Marx believed that when a person’s body is put to use in a way that is similar to a cog in a machine, he or she feels alienation from his or her own desires and physical self.  Another cost to the person was as a member of human community.  Through this kind of work, Marx believed that an individual feels alienated from other human beings and misses out on sustaining and important relationships with others.  Marx didn’t think of alienation as just a feeling of being confused or out of it, but said that a person could become merely “a plaything of alien forces.”  By this he meant that people doing this type of work were influenced by forces that were not within their control.

Arlie Hochschild compares this boy that Marx described, carried to and from work on his mother’s back, to a flight attendant who is required to smile and appear to love her job.  She argues that there’s a cost to doing this kind of work; she claims that a “worker can become estranged or alienated from an aspect of self – estranged from either her own body or the ‘margins of the soul’ – that is used to do the work” (p. 7).  Hochschild calls this job of flight attendants “emotional labor” and she argues that most of us have jobs that require some handling of other people’s feelings.  But she speculates that women have more jobs that require that kind of work, and she thinks that’s perhaps unfair.

Consider cheerleading, which is now considered a sport in many schools.  If cheerleading is a sport, and a sport that mostly girls participate in, it might be significant that it’s one of the only sports that requires a smile during strenuous physical activity.  What do you think?

Hochschild (1983) writes that any functioning society makes use of people’s emotional labor.  So what’s the problem?  The problem comes when we examine the exploitation of individuals at the bottom of the social hierarchy by members at the top.  Exploitation depends on who benefits from this emotional labor.

When we consider prostitution through this lens we need to consider the following:

  • Most prostitutes do not experience sexual pleasure when performing sex, and many really dislike the men they are servicing.  How does this information affect our perception of prostitution?
  • What does it mean to be alienated from one’s own body?
  • What does it matter that prostitutes generally are very poor?
  • What would indicate exploitation vs. choice in this matter?

Kant: No Person Should Be Treated as a Means; All People Are Ends

According to Kant, the capacity to act freely is what gives us our humanity.  Our autonomy is the most precious thing about us.  What is autonomy?  According to Kant, it is the capacity to choose freely and to aim for goals for their own sake and not for any other person or outside reason.  In his second formulation of what is called the “categorical imperative,” Kant states:

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end” (Gregor, 1998, p. 36).

This means that a person should never treat him or herself as a means to some other end and shouldn’t use other people as a means to an end.  This is a powerful argument against slavery.

Kant described autonomy as freedom.  When a person acts autonomously she is acting freely.  But acting freely isn’t always the same as acting morally. To decide the moral worth of an action, one needs to think about whether someone is doing it because it’s right, out of a sense of duty and obligation to do what’s right.  Kant wrote:

“The altruist is NOT moral because we do not really know what her motive is.  Maybe she gives money because she feels good about herself after.  However, we know that the bitter misanthrope does not feel better after giving money, but does it out of a sense of duty.  Therefore, the misanthrope IS acting morally.”

Get it?  The person who hates people but gives money to help people out because it’s his duty to do so is more moral than the person who loves people and gives money because it makes her feel good about herself.  In other words, this is not a consequentialist argument.  The moral worth of the act isn’t judged by whether someone got help or money.  It’s judged by the motives of the actor.  Morality is duty.

Thus, there are two of Kant’s arguments that are related to our discussion of prostitution.  If we respect people as ends and not means, and if we really believe in people as autonomous beings, then we would not interfere with their right to make autonomous choices.  And that includes giving them the freedom to choose to prostitute themselves.

Is it possible that one person paying another person for sex is an example of two autonomous beings making a contract?  Kant argues we should never treat another person as a means and only as an end, and that we should never treat ourselves that way either.  From Kant’s perspective, is the prostitute treating herself as a means to an end, the end being money?  Is she ignoring her own autonomy and capabilities?  Is the person who pays the prostitute for money ignoring her humanity and/or dignity?  And treating her as a means to an end (sexual pleasure)?

The answer for some may lie in whether or not the prostitute is being exploited or has the autonomy and freedom to freely choose this as a job.

Some people have argued that prostitution is like any other job and that it can occur in circumstances that are non-exploitative, where women (or men) are paid well, get health care and dental benefits, can choose their own hours, and more.  Like child labor in sweatshops, labor that entails long hours, low pay, and poor working conditions is definitely exploitative.  Making sneakers is not in and of itself an act that steals one’s humanity, is it?  It’s the working conditions and the way it’s done—exploitatively.  Some have argued that making prostitution legal would then free prostitutes from the risk of disease, the risk of physical abuse, and the risk of exploitation by customers and by pimps.  What do you think?

Marshall (1999) takes this argument further.  This author wonders, if we regulate prostitution and make it a viable career choice, then should we offer training programs for high school drop outs?  Should prostitution be a career option like cosmetology?  And should there be licenses for prostitutes whereby they have to take a test to show that they know how to have safe sex and how to perform their job in a satisfactory way?  (There are licenses for cosmetologists, physical therapists, etc.)  Should there be complaint bureaus so that a customer can complain if he or she doesn’t feel satisfied with the service provided?

Why do these questions sound ridiculous?  It’s because we don’t think of sex in the same way that we think of other products people sells or services they provide.

Marshall writes, “The moral debate about prostitution is a debate about how we should relate to other people as embodied sexual beings” (p. 143).  If it wasn’t about human beings, then a robot could do it.  How well do you think robotic prostitute services would do as a business?  Probably not very well.

So we see that there’s something about sex that requires two human beings and a bit of mutuality.  In prostitution, the client is engaged with a living breathing human being, not a machine.  And to not treat another person as a means, and only as an end, it seems important that that other human being is treated with as much humanity as ourselves.

Martha Nussbaum (1999) thinks that prostitution can be permitted in a way that does respect the prostitute.  She outlines seven common arguments against prostitution:

  1. It involves excessive risks;
  2. The prostitute has little autonomy;
  3. It violates a prostitute’s bodily integrity;
  4. It has a destructive effect on noncommercial intimate relationships;
  5. It violates a person’s inalienable right to her sexual labor;
  6. It contributes to a male dominated social order; and
  7. It relies on the economic coercion of workers.

Nussbaum, however, argues that a lot of other social practices—including marriage—also carry these problems.  Others who agree with Nussbaum discuss how poverty and barriers to economic freedom are the real issues that interfere with a woman’s ability to choose freely.

In an ideal society in which all women were economically able to choose freely between jobs that would be fulfilling, how many do you think would choose prostitution?  Perhaps a few still would, and we should protect their autonomy to do so.  But until then, the proper response to prostitution is not to punish prostitutes or make it illegal, but to find ways to give all women enough economic security to enable them to freely choose to work as prostitutes.

This argument is rooted in Liberalism.  It values the autonomy of individuals and says that any woman or man is free to choose the kind of work they want to do.  It also asserts that it’s important for a society to make sure that a person’s choice is really free.  By improving the conditions under which women or men can choose to become prostitutes, we preserve their autonomy and value their ability to make rational choices that are free from outside pressures.

Is Sex Special ?

Some philosophers have argued that sex is special and that it’s different from other kinds of work.  They say that it’s so central to our beings and our needs as human beings that it should be treated more carefully.  These individuals believe that selling sexual services demeans sex, and that it demeans human beings.

Others have argued that mothering or parenting is central to our needs as human beings and yet we use nannies.  What’s the difference?

But the nanny provides a service.  Pateman (1988) argues that the prostitute doesn’t just sell a service; it’s not as if this service could be separated from her body, and so in reality she is selling her body.  There are laws in the United States against people selling parts of their body.  You can’t sell a kidney, for example, even though you have two of them.  Although people are in great need of kidneys, and one could get paid quite a bit for giving up one of their kidneys and still live a healthy life with just the other one, you’re legally not allowed to sell it.  Why?  Well, it really wouldn’t be fair if poor people were taking such risks with their bodies so that rich people could have better health.  Isn’t health a right that all should have?

Another way to think about this is that maybe it isn’t a prostitute’s body that is being sold.  It’s not as if a prostitute’s client walks away with a piece of her body.  Instead, she is selling the power of command over her body to another person. She sells command over her body, and this makes prostitution a relationship of domination and subordination.

The Problem of Domination

Whether or not you believe that women are still dominated by men in our society, it’s clear that historically this has been the case.  Philosopher Satz (1995) says that prostitution is wrong because it represents women as sexual servants of men.  And this means that if we accept prostitution as moral and legal, we are shaping how women as a whole are seen.  This, Satz argues, would support further abuse and domination.

Prostitution is different from other jobs because the work expresses the inferior social and political status of women.  A woman’s sexuality is viewed differently than that of a man.  It is fairly likely that the whole beginning of commercial prostitution came from enslaving women after wars.  There is evidence that for thousands of years, women who have been taken captive in military conquests have been rented out, used, or sold as sexual slaves.

This argument supports the notion that as a group, men have a social interest in their entitlement to prostitution.  It’s not a question of whether sex workers then have agency, freedom or choice, because this just means that they can negotiate in a situation that’s perceived as inevitable.  Agency should mean that they have the power to transform the practice and transform the society that unequally distributes these rights—the right to sell one’s body and to use another’s body—in ways that preserve domination.

Activity:  NGO’s and Prostitution

Each person or group should research and present one of the following organizations to the class.

  1. Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women
    The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) is an Alliance of more than 80 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from all regions of the world.  The International Secretariat of GAATW based in Bangkok, Thailand, coordinates the activities of the Alliance, collects and disseminates information, and advocates on behalf of the Alliance at regional and international level.
  2. Prostitutes’ Education Network
    The Prostitutes’ Education Network is an information service about legislative and cultural issues that affect prostitutes and other sex workers.  The service is comprised of information for sex workers and activists/educators who study issues of decriminalization, human rights in the context of prostitution, violence against prostitutes and women, sex workers and pornography, and current trends in legislation and social policy in the U.S. and internationally.
  3. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women-International (CATW)
    The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women-International (CATW) is a non-governmental organization that promotes women’s human rights by working internationally to combat sexual exploitation in all its forms.  Founded in 1988, CATW was the first international non-governmental organization to focus on human trafficking, especially sex trafficking of women and girls.  CATW obtained Category II Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council in 1989.
  4. Network of Sex Work Projects
    In 1991, an informal alliance of sex workers and organizations that provide services to sex workers merged and became the Network of Sex Work Projects.  NSWP is a legally constituted international organization for promoting sex workers’ health and human rights.  000With member organizations in more than 40 countries, the Network develops partnerships with technical support agencies to work on independently-financed projects.
  5. SAGE Project (Standing Against Global Prostitution)
    SAGE Online is the online center for The SAGE Project—Standing Against Global Exploitation. SAGE Online is the primary web resource for information about commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) of both children and adults, and the efforts to end it.  SAGE Online also includes information for CSE survivors and their families. The SAGE Project is one of the few organizations that is survivor-centric: it was founded by a CSE survivor, is designed for and run predominantly by survivors, and offers legislators, law enforcement, and others interested in CSE information a valuable survivor-oriented perspective.

Activity: The John School

Read each of these two articles from the San Francisco Chronicle.  Whose view do you agree with more and why?  What are the best points in each article?

Reading 1:  John school takes a bite out of prostitution

Reading 2:  John school unfair to sex trade, critic says

Exercise:  Pretty Woman: Myth or reality?

Read the following movie review of Pretty Woman.  Then discuss the questions that follow.

Note: The class does not have to watch “Pretty Woman” in order to comment on it.  It is still a popular movie, so many will have seen it anyway. The reviews will help the students to get the gist of what the movie is about if they have not seen it.

Movie Review of Pretty Woman: High-Rolling Boy Meets Streetwalking Girl


  1. The “sidekicks” in a movie are often characters invented to be able to be or show things that the lead characters are not, thus making the lead characters more pure and identifiable.  How are these two lead characters depicted and what does their depiction do for our feelings about the lead characters?
  2. Janet Maslin makes the point that the movie is really about money.  What effect does it have on the viewer to see the extravagance of the rich?  What effect might this have on one’s view of prostitution?
  3. What position or positions does the movie take with regard to prostitution?
  4. How is the “dignity” of the prostitute as a real person preserved?
  5. What position does the movie take on “true love”?
  6. Are these positions damaging at all?


Berton, J. (2008).  John school takes a bite out of prostitution.  From the San Francisco Chronicle: http://articles.sfgate.com/2008-04-14/news/17145521_1_first-offender-prostitution-program-mission-street-abt-associates

Berton, J. (2008).  John school unfair to sex trade, critics say.  From the San Francisco Chronicle: http://articles.sfgate.com/2008-04-14/news/17145533_1_first-offender-prostitute-program-deterrent-carol-leigh

Gregor, E. (Ed.), (1998). Kant, I.  Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals.  Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Hochschild, A. R. (1983).  The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling.  Berkeley and Los Angeles,  CA: University of California Press.

Marshall, S. E. (1999).  Bodyshopping: The case of prostitution.  Journal of Applied Philosophy, 16(2), 139-150.

Maslin, J. (1990).  Pretty Woman (1990) Review/Film; High-rolling boy meets streetwalking girl.  From the New York Times: http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9C0CE2DD143EF930A15750C0A966958260

Moore, S., & Aveling, E. (Trans.) (2008). Marx, K. (1876).  Das kapital.  From mobilereference.com.

Nussbaum, M. C. (1999).  The fragility of goodness: Luck and ethics in Greek tragedy and philosophy.  New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Pateman, C. (1988).  The sexual contract.  Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Satz, D.  (1995).  Markets in women’s sexual labor.  Ethics, 106, 63-85.

One thought on “Lesson 12: Prostitution

  1. I was interested to read the section on the ethics of prostitution, which I thought omitted a couple of important points.

    Firstly, the emphasis is on clients renting prostitutes’ bodies. While I’m sure such transactions occur, another common model is paying for a prostitutes time, where the prostitute is in control of what he or she is willing to do.

    Secondly, no mention is made of whether prostitutes are exploiting their clients. Is faking affection to extract money from lonely people a nice thing to do?

    Finally, it would be better to make the terms gender neutral. Far more men may use the services of prostitutes than women, but that’s not to say that there are no examples of women using the services of prostitutes.

    Some links that may be of interest:

    Personality Characteristics of Male Clients of Female Commercial Sex Workers in Australia. Luke Xantidis and Marita P. McCabe


    The characteristics and experiences of clients of prostitutes:


    An example of a woman paying for sex with a male prostitute:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>