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Prostitution, payment for the exchange of sexual services, has long been a source of heated debate—about its morality, legitimacy, and treatment by governments. The controversy stems from deep-seated beliefs about the ethics of sex and of trading sex for money and the consequences for sellers. Calls for action on the “prostitution problem” rise to the level of high politics during historical periods marked by global capitalism, migration, and tensions related to entrenched class, gender and racial inequalities. The current fusing of prostitution and sex trafficking debates has a historical antecedent in earlier stages of capitalism marked by globalization of markets and the international migration of labour. 

A sociological understanding of the issue reveals two main positions that captivate academic thinking: (1) prostitution is principally an institution of hierarchal gender relations that legitimizes the sexual exploitation of prostituted women by male buyers, and (2) prostitution is principally a form of sex work where multiple forms of social inequality (including class, gender, and race) intersect in capitalist societies. The idea that prostitution is sexual exploitation and analogous to sex trafficking has gained popularity in Canada and other countries in recent decades, but my colleagues and I argue that the most robust evidence supports the understanding of prostitution as principally a form of precarious work. I explore these positions below and weigh the empirical evidence, which is discussed in more detail in our full-length article (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10508-018-1276-6).  

Prostitution is Sexual Exploitation 

Those championing the perspective that prostitution is principally an institution of hierarchal gender relations contend that women cannot freely choose to participate in prostitution because they are not autonomous/unsituated subjects within patriarchal capitalist societies. This is the hidden “sexual contract” sustaining modern patriarchy that grants the male buyer autonomous sexual consumption but leaves the female seller objectified. As such, prostitution is seen as an institution of women’s sexual oppression that reinforces their subordination. Those adopting this perspective argue that Marx was wrong when he argued that prostitution is only a peculiar example of the general prostitution of all workers under capitalism. Instead, what is being sold in sex commerce is not the same as the labour power sold by the worker to the capitalist because prostitution alone exploits the seller’s sexual self. 

Adherents to this perspective also claim that prostitution is analogous to sex trafficking or sex slavery. They sometimes draw on feminism and critical race theories to highlight the link between gender, race, slavery, and colonialization and the prostitution of women of colour and Indigenous women. This perspective supports a harm elimination approach and calls upon governments to abolish prostitution using criminal law to ban sex buying and migration and international anti-trafficking laws to eliminate sex trafficking. As a case in point, within Sweden, prostitution and human trafficking are understood as one and the same and their eradication is deemed fundamental to the achievement of an egalitarian, democratic society. The 1998 Sweden’s Sex Purchase Act criminalized buyers who seek out “prostituted women.” Migrant workers who sell sex are targeted under separate legislation. A number of other governments have followed Sweden’s lead, including Canada when it enacted the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act in 2014. 

Prostitution is Sex Work 

Those contending prostitution is fundamentally a problem of intersecting social inequalities note that capitalist market globalization, rapid technological innovation, decline of unions and retraction of welfare state policies have resulted in a substantial increase of precarious work in the personal service sector, including growth of sex work jobs. Recognizing sex work as a commercial activity with workers who sell their labour for economic exchange does not mean they enjoy complete free choice and non-exploitative working conditions. While many sex workers wish for better economic options, their lived reality is one of limited ways to earn a living and taking care of their families. Thus, the social inequalities discernable in sex work indicate that the “prostitution problem” is first and foremost a labour problem.

This perspective also challenges the conflation of voluntary migrants from low-income countries with sex-trafficked victims. In the climate of increasing market globalization, welfare state retractions, and political instability, people are frequently migrating within and across borders for better economic opportunities and sometimes to escape oppressive gender relations at home. Attempts to suppress sex work by imposing criminal code laws and restrictive migration policies are largely ineffective because alternative jobs in the personal service sector, where most sex workers find employment, are usually more poorly paid and have more demanding schedules than sex work jobs. At the same time, criminal code laws and other repressive measures make life even more challenging for sex workers who are economic migrants because of their labelling as illegal migrants. This punitive approach also diverts governments from enacting labour legislation and social welfare policies to improve the individual and collective occupational and social rights of sex workers.

Weighing the Empirical Evidence

I believe that the strongest empirical support is for the second perspective. Based on the preponderance of research, not only do most of those in sex work report they do so primarily because of money, but this is the main basis for their evaluation of the other jobs they do, just as it is for most other precarious workers struggling to make a living in today’s economy. In the last two decades, my colleagues and I have interviewed over 1200 people working in the sex industry in Canada and the United States and the vast majority state the main reason they began and continue to sell sexual services is the desire or need for money. In a recent analysis, we provide a qualitative account of how sex work is viewed alongside past or concurrent jobs with a relatively large and systematically collected heterogeneous sample of adults (N = 218) engaged in sex work in Canada. We asked participants what kept them in sex work and about the features of sex work compared other jobs. The most frequently mentioned jobs by participants were serving food and beverages (45%), preparing food (41%), cashier (33%), retail salesperson (28%), light-duty cleaner (23%), reception (18%) and home childcare (16%). Participants mentioned four overlapping dimensions of job quality: job satisfaction, work autonomy, income, and work prestige, the latter of which was highly influenced by stigma. On the first three dimensions, sex work was evaluated favourably compared to their other kinds of work. For the latter dimension, the opposite was the case. Participants reported that prostitution or “whore” stigma had a negative impact on their work quality and safety. Laws that link prostitution with crime, as is the case for Canada’s 2014 prostitution law, intensify the occupational stigma sex workers face in the workplace and in everyday life. 

Recent studies also call into question the fusing of prostitution and sex trafficking. Researchers have shown that many people who self-identify as selling sexual services, whether migrants from low-income countries moving to high-income countries, or residents of low-income countries where the structures of inequality are intensified, do not see themselves as coerced or forced to sell sexual service. Analysis of interview data from our national study indicates that six percent of participants described themselves as being forced to sell sexual services at any point in their lifetime. 

The singular current focus on the harms of prostitution and sex trafficking and calls on governments to enact more repressive laws to ban both, also leaves undertheorized and understudied instances of other kinds of labour trafficking. This gap in knowledge is disconcerting as only one in four people trafficked according to the International Labor Organization are in forced sexual labour. Instead, all sectors known to be prone to labour trafficking, including domestic work that is performed mainly by women from poor, racial or ethnic minority backgrounds but also farm labour where men and boys predominate, should be investigated alongside the sex sector. 

In conclusion, treating sex workers as victims of others’ wrongdoings negates their agency, deprives them of occupational and social rights, and perpetuates stigma. Full recognition of prostitution as precarious work and of sex workers as deserving of worker and other social rights will require large-scale social and political change that is unlikely to occur unless there is movement toward greater social equality for all precarious workers in liberal democracies. Yet there is much that can be done in the meanwhile to improve the situation of sex workers and legitimize the sex sector, regardless of the current prostitution policy regime. A collaborative governance approach that is inclusive of sex workers and their support organizations and other relevant stakeholders, has the authority to affect change, and embraces open dialogue can result in positive change for sex workers in their local communities.

"Voices of the RSC” is a series of written interventions from Members of the Royal Society of Canada. The articles provide timely looks at matters of importance to Canadians, expressed by the emerging generation of Canada’s academic leadership. Opinions presented are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Royal Society of Canada.