Flat White

Don’t moralise about sex work

1 July 2021

3:01 PM

1 July 2021

3:01 PM

There are a lot of myths surrounding prostitution. Chief among them is the claim that sex workers are virtual slaves, unable to escape from a degrading situation which they hate.  

Those responsible for propagating these myths disapprove of prostitution. To them, it is inconceivable that any woman or man would voluntarily agree to have sex for money with a person they don’t know. And because they find it inconceivable, they assume it could only occur as a result of coercion or, as Rachel Wong wrote recently, male exploitation.  

They are dead wrong. While there are heinous examples of forced prostitution, such as the comfort women of the Japanese military during WWII, these instances are rare. Overwhelmingly, prostitution occurs because there are willing buyers and willing sellers of sex.  

That is not to deny some people find it morally reprehensible. Sexual intercourse, for most people, is something that occurs within a relationship. Not so long ago it was only considered legitimate between married couples for the purpose of reproduction. Even allowing for modern attitudes and reliable contraception, sex other than in particular circumstances is still viewed with disapproval by many.  

And yet prostitution, as they say, is the world’s oldest profession. Indeed, it is likely there has never been a civilisation in which prostitution was not found. There were certainly prostitutes in Roman times, more than 2,000 years ago, whilst in ancient Aztec society prostitutes held near-sacred status. 

Regulatory approaches to prostitution have varied enormously, from complete prohibition to various forms of restriction, to regulation with the lightest touch. And yet every prohibition and restriction has been motivated by moral judgement. The world is full of people who, when they don’t like something, are obsessed with stopping other people from doing it.  


Their attitudes are apparent from what they say about it.  

Prostitution is immoral, they say, assuming this gives them the right to impose their morals on others who do not share them.  

They say prostitution is degrading, ignoring the fact that those who engage in it may disagree. Thus they seek to ‘save’ sex workers from this degradation.  

They say prostitution threatens the sanctity of marriage, ignoring the fact that plenty of women and men do not believe marriage warrants such sanctity.    

Free societies are characterised by their adherence to the harm principle, described by John Stuart Mill as:  “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” 

In other words, unless it is to prevent harm to others, the government should not intervene in the decisions we make. Disapproval, and whether those decisions are wise or what others would make, ought to be irrelevant.  

Australia has come a long way from the days when prostitution was illegal everywhere. While regulation varies quite a lot between the states, none pretends prostitution does not occur. In more enlightened jurisdictions, NSW for example, regulation is directed at ensuring it is as safe as possible for both the sex workers and their customers.  

That means promoting the use of condoms to prevent transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, and facilitating the establishment of brothels so that sex workers are safe and can enjoy the protections available at any other workplace. Brothels also ensure that those who do not like prostitution can avoid coming into contact with it.  

Legal restrictions on prostitution are slow to change, not because they are well founded, but because there is still a prudish avoidance of any public discussion about sex and sex work.  The more we make public discussion of sex and sex work a normal thing, the easier it will be to finally remove the last unwarranted restrictions from the oldest profession of all. 

And for those who don’t like prostitution, there is an easy answer: don’t be a prostitute, and don’t be a customer.  It’s not difficult. 

David Leyonhjelm is a former senator for the Liberal Democrats. 

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