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What should the legal status of prostitution be?
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Prostitution and marginalisation

The least advantaged people in society are the ones most likely to enter prostitution.


Sex workers as a demographic have a high proportion of marginalised people.[1] In particular, prostitution is heavily raced and classed.

The Argument

Those in society who are the most vulnerable are the ones who are most likely to enter into prostitution. The prostitution industry perpetuates race- and class-based inequalities. The involvement of so many disadvantaged people in prostitution obscures the exploitation and lack of choice that is often involved.[2] As Catharine MacKinnon points out, "if prostitution is a free choice, why are the women with the least choices most often found doing it?"[3] Finances are a significant driver of women into prostitution. This means, naturally, that working class women are more likely to enter into prostitution. Sex workers are often homeless, have mental health problems or are addicted to drugs.[4] Entering into and staying in prostitution is not a choice, but a matter of economic survival or a reaction to a difficult circumstance. Migrants often make up a significant proportion of sex workers (roughly 37 per cent in the UK).[5] This is a particularly vulnerable population whose marginalisation is exploited by the prostitution industry. Migrants may not have support systems in the country they have immigrated to, be unable to speak English or be under additional pressure to send money back to their families in their home countries. Migrant sex workers are also especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation due to their immigration status which is often precarious.[6] Decriminalisation of prostitution makes sex work seem like a viable choice to migrants, which can lead to significant harms. With regards to race, a disproportionate amount of women of colour enter into prostitution.[7] Already marginalised with less opportunities than their white counterparts, their marginalisation is compounded through this. People of colour who enter into prostitution are often heavily fetishised and stereotyped, separating them further from any sense of personhood.[8] For instance, a study of online advertisements for Asian sex workers conducted by the Asian Women for Equality Society found that 90 per cent of advertisements portrayed Asian women as "submissive, exotic, newly immigrated, fresh off the boat, young and inexperienced".[9] People of colour have long suffered sexual exploitation at the hands of white people, as well as their existing marginalisation.[7] By allowing a system in which white men are able to buy and abuse women of colour, we are perpetuating a paradigm of racism and colonialism. The overwhelming amount of sex workers that come from marginalised populations should signal that it is not a viable or free choice. Society has a responsibility to curb prostitution as much as possible, to prevent these marginalised populations from worsening their circumstances.

Counter arguments

To help those who are marginalised, the state should not take away choices for sex workers. This makes life far more difficult for those marginalised peoples in prostitution, especially if they have limited other options. Prostitution does not worsen the situation of marginalised people - it reflects it. Continued austerity policies in the UK Government have made it more and more difficult for marginalised people to survive, and the majority of cuts in spending included in austerity policies have fallen on women.[10] One sex worker in a study conducted by the University of Bristol stated that "under austerity, [prostitution] is the only job that pays enough".[11] Other marginalised people (such as those with disabilities) may find that prostitution is the only job they can do for short periods of time and still expect to make enough money to live off of. [11] Making what many marginalised people see as a tool to help ease the disadvantages caused by the marginalisation illegal is not a practical way to help marginalised communities. If the government wanted to help marginalised people, the way to do so would be to make it as safe as possible and ensure society at large is well-placed to offer vulnerable communities alternative courses of action. Having prostitution as an illegal act drives these marginalised populations into the shadows, where they have even minimal mobility and access to help. The racism found in prostitution reflects the racial fetishism that exists in wider society. Racial fetishism is a society-wide issue. For instance, Wilson, Valera and Carballo-Diéguez found that stereotypes of black, Asian and hispanic men were all extremely strong in the gay community,[12] and Asian women have been repeatedly found to be victims of sexual stereotyping leading to anything from fetishism (such as The Bloodhound Gang song "Yellow Fever"[13]) to sexual violence.[14] These practices serve to 'other' those who are not white,[15] working under the same model of white supremacy that underpins the structural racism of society as a whole. Even if prostitution was entirely eradicated, these harmful ideas would still exist. Society needs to work towards challenging racist ideas in every instance, rather than using prostitution as a scapegoat as if it is the one area that racism exists in. The race-based fetishisation in prostitution is harmful to marginalised people, but it is a symptom, not the cause. While those who are marginalised are most likely to enter prostitution, they should be offered support rather than marginalised further by the law. Their work should be decriminalised so that they can safely advocate for their own rights.[1] The answer to a lack of choice for marginalised women is not taking choice away or making it more dangerous. Rather, the emphasis should be on opening other choices for these women.



[P1] The most marginalised people in society are often the ones who enter prostitution. [P2] For women of colour, prostitution can also serve to reinforce harmful racial dynamics. [P3] The state should not decriminalise and therefore condone the perpetuation of these dynamics

Rejecting the premises

[Rejecting P3] By making prostitution illegal, the state is simply increasing the vulnerability of people in prostitution rather than helping those who are marginalised.


This page was last edited on Thursday, 9 Jan 2020 at 17:02 UTC

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