February 29, 2024

Is prostitution harmful? Nope, says Journal of Medical Ethics

Among the hot topics in bioethics, prostitution does not rank highly. A quick search of the ETHXWeb bioethics database at Georgetown University yielded ten times as many articles on surrogacy than on prostitution, even though it could be argued that they are related. However, bioethics is an ever-expanding field, as one of the latest on-line-first articles in the taboo-busting Journal of Medical Ethics demonstrates. It bears the provocative title “Is Prostitution Harmful?”

Unsurprisingly, Norwegian academic Ole Martin Moen says No. “More and more of us, however, believe that sexual encounters need not be deeply personal and emotional in order to be acceptable—we believe in the acceptability of casual sex. In this paper I argue that if casual sex is acceptable, then we have few or no reasons to reject prostitution.”

Dr Moen demolishes, or attempts to demolish, nine objections to legalised prostitution, from danger and exploitation to selling one’s body and selling one’s soul. But perhaps most interesting from a bioethical standpoint are his assumptions. Of these there seem to be three. First, that sex is, or often is, casual and lacking in significance. If it has no special value, it is unlikely that arguments against selling it will stand.

Second, that a utilitarian calculus is the best way to determine the ethics of prostitution. For instance, he mentions en passant that “One benefit of prostitution is that it renders it possible for young people—who are the ones most likely to be poor—to earn a significant income without education and without investment costs, and to do so while keeping substantial parts of their spare time free to pursue other goals.”

Third, that contemporary attitudes towards homosexuality are appropriate precedents for assessing the moral value of prostitution. Back in the 20s and 30s, homosexuality was deemed to cause people severe psychological problems. But we now know that this was due to social stigma. Homosexuality was also associated with disease, drug use and violence. But we now know that this was due to social and legal oppression. Similarly, Dr Moen suggests, if we destigmatise and liberate prostitution, these issues will disappear among prostitutes as well.

Dr Moen concludes that “we should approach prostitution in a similar manner [to homosexuality], and be open for the possibility that prostitutes are harmed, not because prostitution is harmful, but because society at present seriously wrongs prostitutes.” 

Michael Cook
Creative commons