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What should the legal status of prostitution be?
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Economic coercion into prostitution

Sex workers do not want to enter prostitution, but are forced to due to circumstance.


Many people who enter into prostitution come from poverty.[1] This is especially true of women who may have to support families and see an opportunity to make more money from prostitution than from jobs paying minimum wage.

The Argument

The overwhelming proportion of people in sex work that come from poverty demonstrates that it is not something that workers freely desire. Instead, it is done as a last resort for survival. Sex workers suffer from 'economic coercion': being forced into a highly undesirable circumstance due to financial need. Finances are a core reason people enter prostitution and the majority of sex workers are struggling to pay off debts.[2] Women are especially vulnerable, and female head-of-households who are in poverty make up a large proportion of those who work in illegal sectors.[3] The idea of 'survival sex', a form of prostitution in which people in desperate situations exchange sex for monetary help, shelter or protection, further demonstrates the relationship between prostitution and economic coercion. For women who are homeless or otherwise in situations of extreme need, sexuality is often the only resource they have to exchange.[4] Survival sex is more common among young populations, particularly those who are homeless, and is more common among African-American and LGBT youth.[5] Unless prostitution is illegal, the state is actively condoning the exploitation of youth in vulnerable positions. People entering into sex work do not have the economic freedom to be able to ‘choose’ prostitution; rather, they are coerced by their circumstances. Society should not and does not condone any form of income simply because it serves to provide money for an individual in desperate need. For instance, as Banyard states, "commercial exchanges that people may agree to participate in without a gun being held to their head – such as sales of human organs, voting rights, bonded labour contracts – are nonetheless deemed legally off limits."[6] Fundamentally, a 'choice' made under duress is not a choice. Because of this, prostitution - done under economic duress - is not a freely made choice. The state has the responsibility to protect the most vulnerable, and to ensure that certain types of work are not held as valid options for income.

Counter arguments

Blanket statements that everyone entering into sex work has been coerced is not supported by statistics.[7] There are many women who choose sex work and their choices should be respected. Additionally, many sex workers treat prostitution as a viable path out of poverty or towards economic independence.[8] A study conducted by the University of Otago in New Zealand, where prostitution is legal, found that the vast majority of sex workers did enter prostitution for financial reasons.[7] However, the study found that for the majority of sex workers this paid off. The majority of sex workers in the study reported having been able to save money, travel, and repay debts because of prostitution. For these people, sex work has been a successful opportunity to gain freedom and economic mobility. The University of Otago study also found that many sex workers were mothers who needed a job that offered flexibility for childcare, and found that other work did not offer this.[7] Rather than criminalising prostitution, there needs to be more structural change in order to help women vulnerable to coercion and to support those who are economically vulnerable. For instance, the introduction and mandate of a living wage and childcare assistance for parents would put far fewer people in the position where prostitution is the best option. As one sex worker in a study conducted by the University of Bristol states, "if government is very serious about limiting the number of people selling sex, then it needs to look at root causes of sex work which are poverty, lack of economic opportunities, high costs of housing and education etc… Prostitution is not driven by ‘demand’ but by the economic needs of people."[9] Women who want to leave prostitution would benefit from Government support, especially in terms of housing, benefits and employment, rather than being criminalised.[2] For some, prostitution is treated as a path out of poverty. For some, it is a lifeline. Having prostitution as an illegal act does not help the women involved or give them more economic freedom; it only serves to take options away.



[P1] A large amount of people in prostitution come from poverty. [P2] People entering sex work due to poverty cannot be said to be choosing it of their own volition and are vulnerable to being coerced into it. [P3] Prostitution should be illegal as it traps people vulnerable through coercion.

Rejecting the premises

[Rejecting P3] Making prostitution illegal will not help vulnerable people.


This page was last edited on Friday, 10 Jan 2020 at 12:36 UTC

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