People in favour of the legalisation of prostitution often argue that sex work is an inevitability. They say that legalisation could better protect women’s safety and clamp down on pimping and people trafficking.
Prostitution is an option to women in a way that it is not for men (in a heterosexual context). That’s because of the physical workings of sexual intercourse: men are (in the literal sense) active; women, passive. Male sexuality is more direct and manifest than female. Female sexuality is something that a man can take from a woman. It surely always runs the risk of being commodified – a form of labour for barter and purchase. Whether we like it or not, due to the nature of our physical workings and interactions, prostitution is surely an inevitability.
Even if buying of sex is inevitable, does that warrant legalisation? There’s a similar pro-legalisation argument for recreational drugs. From a purely pragmatic perspective, it must be easier to reduce exploitation and harm to women if the ‘trade’ is controlled. But what about morality? While the act of taking recreational drugs does not cause direct harm, the case of prostitution is not so clean cut.
Of course there will be women who, as long as they are not in danger, do not mind, or even enjoy, sex work. There will also be women who do it with kindness, offering intimacy to people who struggle to find a partner or find themselves stigmatised for whatever reason. We all know that this is a minority.
On the whole, prostitution is not something a woman wants to do; it is something she does out of desperation. Many women still choose to sell sex, even though it is illegal. Legal status will do nothing to remedy this desperation that draws a woman to sell sex – that’s about societal equality, opportunity and support.
Let’s consider what it means for a man to actually go to a prostitute. It takes a certain self-assurance/conviction to let someone serve your sexual needs simply because you have money and they will take it. It suggest that either you do not recognise, or are happy to put to the back of your mind, the fact that she is a real/complete person, at once multifaceted and ordinary.
This is dysfunctional. And it is objectification. It may not be misogynistic or ill-intended. Objectification doesn’t necessarily denote disrespect. It can just be a short-sightedness; an insular focus on one’s own needs and insecurities. We are all susceptible to objectification to some degree. Perhaps it is even a natural element of attraction itself? Or when we are dazzled by looks or status, or expect a partner to conform to our stereotypes and ideals.
But if you can purchase the ‘object’ of your desire for your gratification, that’s a whole different thing. It’s not healthy. It could become a habit, holding men back from seeing the person behind any woman; stopping them from discovering fulfilling, equal relationships.
Though prostitution might be an inevitability, it is hard to imagine that it would ever be normalised or mainstream. It will doubtless remain a marginal activity, just like other forms of societal ‘deviance’ and anomaly. It is something done by men who have some problem relating to women, for whatever reason. Ideally, we should all be working towards the recognition that though our bodies are gendered, we are people first, operating within those bodies.
Prostitution results when two issues collide: desperation and dysfunctionality. The solutions to these problems are far broader than the legalisation vs. criminalisation debate. Considering the commodification of female sexuality is always a possibility, and considering the fact men and women are willing to partake in the buying/selling of sex even when it’s illegal, we would probably serve both parties better if everything was a bit more out in the open.