Feminism and prostitution / By: (Sorayya Maknun) (Zohreh Ata’ee Ashtyani)

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Abstract Prostitution is a phenomenon with a very long history. Nowadays, it is classified under the title “sex service” and has turned into a very complicated issue with multiple facets and contradicting views about its being justified. Because of its high profitability, sex industry including lesbianism, pornography, and varieties of sexual exploitation attracts the attention of the imperialist power mongers the world over hence their theoretical and practical justifications for prostitution. Some fractions of feminism support prostitution under the guise of defending women's rights specially the right to own their body and the freedom of choice. Different positions towards prostitution from a feminist perspective are explained and assessed in this paper.
Feminism and prostitution / By: (Sorayya Maknun) (Zohreh Ata’ee Ashtyani)

Feminism and prostitution

By: Sorayya Maknun[1]

Zohreh Ata’ee Ashtyani[2]


Prostitution is a phenomenon with a very long history. Nowadays, it is classified under the title “sex service” and has turned into a very complicated issue with multiple facets and contradicting views about its being justified. Because of its high profitability, sex industry including lesbianism, pornography, and varieties of sexual exploitation attracts the attention of the imperialist power mongers the world over hence their theoretical and practical justifications for prostitution. Some fractions of feminism support prostitution under the guise of defending women's rights specially the right to own their body and the freedom of choice. Different positions towards prostitution from a feminist perspective are explained and assessed in this paper.

Keywords: feminism, prostitution, illegal female human trafficking, radical feminism, obscene act


Recent decades have witnessed both the growth of tendency to morality, spirituality, and religiosity in societies on the one hand, and the development of immoral, materialistic, and consumption-oriented mundane inclinations, especially in developed countries on the other hand. These inclinations have given rise to a variety of social abnormalities such as the spread of prostitution and other different forms of sex abuse through manipulations of human sience channels. The progress of capitalist system and free-market economy depends on consumption increase, reinforcing hedonist tendency, thirst for variety, and in short, creating artificial needs that may even transgress the borders of ethics. A reciprocal correlation has been established between the satisfaction of new artificial pseudo-needs created by modern technology and ever-increasing industrial production as well as further advancement of technology, especially in IT and ITC fields including satellites, TV channels, and the world web. Political systems based on the exploitation of human resources whether on domestic or international level, try to divert the attention of nations form their genuinely important issues to indulgence in pleasures of the flesh and other forms of entertainments that aim to occupy people's mind so much so that there remains no room or interest for anything else. International TV channels promoting sex industry and other efforts in the scientific field, for instance in sociology and psychology, to justify the necessity of sex industry serve the same purpose. A branch of feminism has joined this caravan in spite of false claims by its theorists to defend human dignity and rights of women. In what follows, we shall explain the position of feminist proponents of prostitution and the contradictions they are trapped in as the result.

1. History of prostitution

Historically speaking, prostitution goes back to the early days of human society. In the ancient Greek civilization, prostitutes formed a part of the cultural setup of the society. In France, during Napoleon, prostitutes constituted a strand of educated and skillful women admired by many men who longed to marry them one day. In some other societies, prostitutes were considered as buffers protecting family in the sense that they were needed as prey to be sacrificed in order to safeguard chaste women. According to Mdm. Lerner, prostitution can best be described as “the oldest profession.” She writes, “In Mesopotamia and Babylon civilization, temple workers and guards offered sexual service to gods. These services were often for the sake of reproduction. It seems that the sexual activities of the goddesses and the mail gods were considered by people as sacred and beneficial. Depending on the kind of gods, the place, the time, and the form of the sexual activity varied. Commercial prostitution gradually emerged from this process. In early stages, it was within the temple or in the neighborhood (Lerner, 1986: 125).

Understanding the history of prostitution well requires studying the social structure of societies, the goals and the roles of sexual relationship between men and women and its special setup in different epochs.

“It seems that commercial prostitution started by the formation of social class and direct enslavement of women. Military conquests in the third millennium BC paved the way for enslaving women and their abuse. Later on, slavery took an organized shape. Slave owners rented their female slaves as prostitutes. Gradually, brothels were founded where slave women worked” (ibid, 133).

As we saw, according to Lerner, modern prostitution stems from historic social injustice. Exploitation of women in the form of commercial prostitution as well as looking at free women as a kind of merchandise exchangeable within and without the institution of marriage led to the formation of social classes and the realization of enslavement. Lerner’s view is apparently influenced by Engels’ view about private ownership. Contrary to Lerner, Rubin believes, following the lead of Strauss, that prostitution emerged as the result of an interaction between marriage system and ethnicity. He believes the phenomenon of prostitution emerged throughout the history as the result of the ethnic systems that exchanged women in order to fortify social ties among families. He believes, “When women are considered as gifts, then men are the other party of this exchange. Here, men become shareholders while women are not shareholders but the object of transaction. The transaction takes place between man and man while it is a woman who is affected in this process. The system is so organized that only men can benefit from it. Women's interests are utterly ignored. In fact, women are belittled (Rubin 1975: 174).

Lerner and Rubin hold that prostitution (i.e. woman sexual activity in exchange for money or reward) and illegal trafficking of women (i.e. the exercise of sexual control over women by a third party) are two phenomena with various manifestations and contents in different cultures and historical epochs. In general, the two views about the root of prostitution differ in that one views the “natural historic” factor as prominent and the other takes the “socio-cultural” factor as the main. Contemporary efforts to justify sex transactions and prostitution on the basis of historical factors or cultural development amount to overlooking very important differences between different sex markets, different cultures, and different historical contexts. It is methodologically wrong to investigate into the origin of prostitution and sex transaction in two different contexts without paying attention to differences and cultural, political, and economic varieties.

2. Dimensions of prostitution

Investigation into the phenomenon of prostitution should include three aspects. In the social political aspect, issues like the marginalization of women, insulting, and despising women, preventing women from presence in social groups and in decision-making setups, and finally, confining the position of women to the status of consumable goods must be studied. The cultural aspect of prostitution includes cultural products such as audiovisual productions that pertain to sensual pleasure and promote sex transactions in society. Economic dimension includes organized illegal trafficking of women and girls as commercial material that brings about huge profit.

The sociopolitical dimension

The phrase “sociopolitical repercussions of prostitution” refers to a particular attitude towards women in society. Prostitution may result in social contempt for women who are engaged in prostitution. In the long run, this content becomes social custom. As a result, two opposite reactions will be triggered. First, such women consider themselves to be beneath ordinary people in rank. Second, some of them may react violently in extremist ways. One such reaction is a struggle to obtain absolute equality with men. So, if women submit to the downgraded and imbalanced position forced upon them by society, more injustice and violence will follow, femininity will be abused and instrumentalist attitude to woman will become established. This attitude in turn brings about undesirable cultural and economical repercussions.

Investigations into the consequences of contemptuous attitude towards women in society show that such attitude makes women overlook their capabilities and undermine their potentialities. As the result, they yield to prostitution and let sex brokers take control of their life. We can conclude that when women enjoy appropriate and desirable status in society they would refrain from such activities.

Sex market is nowadays an interesting subject matter for organizations, movements, and schools of thought pertinent to women such as feminism. Answering the question whether sex service market should be considered a threat to women, feminists divide into two groups. One group admits that yielding to sexual activity in exchange for money amounts to waving one's freedom and sexual identity. The second group thinks that sex transaction harms women only because it involves the dichotomy of sexual ethics and negative attitudes towards sex. Feminist theorists concentrate on the two subjects of prostitution and pornography as the two main categories covering all what is classified under the title obscene act.

Global sex market is indicative of the social characteristics of a special group of people who work in it. Outstanding among these features is injustice. It jeopardizes the principle of equal advantage and paves the ground for a market that endorses economic and political discriminations, work conditions based on exploitation and plundering. In dealing with this problem, a group of feminists think that prostitution is not an independent factor. They think challenging old global problems such as inequality in wealth and power are the central issues which must be treated. It is this discrimination that lets prostitution come to exist as the result of poverty that strikes half the population of the world (Sharge, 1996: 41-45).

Some feminists believe that all measures must be taken in order to revive women workers’ potentials, specially, those working in sex industry so that they can be occupied in more decent jobs pursuing higher goals (Kempadoo, 1999: 24).

Another group of feminists give prominence to personal freedom. They think there is a marginal provision in the Constitution for a ‘private zone’ everybody enjoys. Based on this provision, adults should be allowed to perform whatever sex activity they please in their private chambers. Personal freedom is absolute. So far as the person inflicts no damage on others, they have a Constitutional right to do whatever they want to their mind and body. This theory has its roots in John Stuart Mill’s radical philosophy of profit.

Cultural dimension

All subject matters pertinent to prostitution relevant to making alterations in attitudes toward sexual relationship and sex stimulation fall under cultural dimension. Nowadays, cultural products have so many different shapes and such widespread effects absolutely unprecedented thanks to technological development. One branch of this development is seen in pornography. It started in the 19th century and as a sort of cultural activity accompanied by mass production of written materials. Contemporary European historians believe that pornography is as old as the modern democratic states. It has developed along with the growth of industrial economy and capitalism in the West (Hunt, 1993).

Pornography is condemned by proponents of morality whether religious or secular because of its diverse effects on public health and children's sexual ethics, and because it is void of any scientific value or artistic worth or political advantage (Miller, 1973). Despite this fact, pornography has advanced and developed thanks to technology so much so that no organization or institution can control it anymore. By mid 1990, Internet was a central host of pornography and related advertisements. By early September 1995, there existed as many advertisement Centers as 101908, of which 26055 centers had come to exist only two months earlier and 72706 centers were approximately 9 months old. These sites focused on sex industry advertisement more than anything else (Strangelove, 1995).

It is good to mention here that CDs, magazines, video tapes, and other communication means and media containing pornography are far more expensive than those containing any others things. This huge profit guarantees the growth of sex industry.

In 1996, Americans spent more than $1 billion for video shows, live shows, satellite programs, magazines, CDs, and DVDs containing pornography. According to the report by the nongovernmental organization “war on want,” this amount exceeds the money needed to pay all the debts of 20 poor countries. By the end of 1997, sex industry in the United States of America made an annual profit of a billion dollar via 10,000 Internet sites (Internet Week Magazine).

Internet sites engaged in attracting users to sex industry annually make 50 to 80% profit. A normal Internet site with daily 50,000 users and $20,000 income reports, “We know that, at least, three sites in America make more than one hundred million dollar profit every year. There are hundreds of such sites” (Forster research, 1998).

In addition to the huge profit this industry makes, the undesirable consequences and repercussions of this activity have now become common and widespread. From March to September 1998, as many as 118987 cases of child pornography have been reported by National Center for the Missing and Exploited Children.

Coalition against trafficking in women in Asia Pacific reports, “Nowadays, we live in a culture of pornography where far-reaching corruption in recent decades is seen in production transaction and consumption of sex industry. Sex has become the central focal point in different forms of pornography and prostitution. The effect of this on women's dignity needs be seriously studied.”

Pornography constitutes one central issue the second generation of active feminists concentrates upon. These feminists protest against cultural discrimination, rape, and all forms of violence against women. They believe that phonographic magazines and films disseminate sex trauma, torture, contempt, abuse, and exploitation of women. As to whether pornography is merely a reflection of sexual culture or it is also a factor contributing to sexual violence against women, feminists disagree among them. Some feminist theorists believe that pornography involves sexual insolence against women because it is a means of exercising violence against them. “In pornography, men and women are shown doing certain things in a manner that portrays women demoted from human rank,” (Langino, 1980: 45).

Some feminist theorists believe that resistance and struggle against injustice and for sex equality is necessary in order to set legal and social limits for pornography. But there are feminists who disagree with criticizing pornography. Madam Garry was the first feminist who doubted the role of pornography in the spread of sex discrimination and sex violence against women. Many of her early papers dealt with casual properties, sexual objectification, and legal suppression; “Investigations about the effects of pornography show that all the effects positive and negative are transient” (Garry, 1979: 132 the).

“We cannot say that looking at women as objects is always evil. It is because users of pornography take it for granted, in advance, that sexual activity by a woman is dangerous, pornography does inflict some damage on women. Feminists, however, should be encouraged to support nonsexual products other than condemn pornography” (ibid. 136).

Positions taken by feminists about pornography can be divided into three majors groups. The common view says pornography is a masculine cultural medium inflicting harm, injustice, violence, and insolence on women. This view opposes pornography particularly on specialized level and accuses those women who agree with pornography or work in the field of being brainwashed by male-dominated ruling system for justification of pornography (Leidholdt, 1990).

More liberal feminists take a position mingling “the right to freedom of speech” with “the right of every woman to her body” slightly defending pornography stating that they disagree, and everybody has the right to use pictures and words in any way they please. We can say that this group of feminists takes no position against or for pornography.

Pro-sex feminists are staunch proponents of pornography. They say pornography is beneficial to women. It is beneficial to women because it implies the right of women to choose to participate in such activities considered as a sort of transaction (Mcelory, 1998).

Feminist proponents of pornography argue that feminism and pornography have the same history; they manifest the call to emancipating “sex rights” from the limitations imposed by society. At the same time, they think that watching pornographic scenes by men reduces their inclination to violence against women considerably. Consequently, pornography should not be seen as a reaction to sexism or male rule alone. It rather strengthens sexism as a part of the key mechanism for the dating male rule (Langino, 1980: 58).

Pornography is spreading all over the world now in complicated and organized forms with an increasing role in the promotion of a particular culture.

Economic dimension

All issues pertinent to prostitution and relevant to profit are classified on the economic dimension. Prominent among them are trafficking women and children, which can be called modern slavery, selling and buying women and children and other forms of transaction.

The term human trafficking is nowadays used to refer to a certain form of commerce. This happens despite the fact that, since one century back, much effort has been put into the abolition of slavery, so many international documents have been ratified banning any transactions of human beings within a country or between countries and so many laws have been enacted on national level to uproot this phenomenon. Still, so many women and children are enslaved annually through covered activities involving sex service, exploitation, and trafficking.

In the UN Transnational Organized Crime Protocol to Prevent and Suppress Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, human trafficking is defined as “any activity aiming at profit raising or presuming upon or exchanging that involves exploiting, transiting, giving shelter to and transporting human beings forcefully or under threat or by any other tyrannical methods such as bribing, cheating, or taking advantage of their being victimized.”

Notwithstanding international law aimed at combating prostitution, the number of women exploited for sex service or hard work is on the increase. These women are mentally and physically controlled by employers who pay them either no wage or a very slim one virtually plundering them.

Illegal woman trafficking is, in fact, a multibillion-dollar market with an unknown number of victims. This huge profit is gained by multinational networks of brokers who choose their victims from among women seeking job. The activities of these networks threaten the sociopolitical status of women and even the security of nations somehow involved in these transactions. For instance, the ex-Soviet Union hosted a covered economy that actually placed government-controlled economy’s functions (Israel prostitution ring targeted, 1998). This shadow economy started growing as immigration of Russian Jews to Israel began. Today, over 800,000 Russian emigrants live in Israel. Russian and Ukrainian smugglers transit thousands of women to Israel for sex service annually. Since then, the profitability of Israeli sex industry has reached 450 million dollars annually (ibid).

Menahem Amir, an expert in organized crime in Israel, announced in the Hebrew University that 70% of working prostitutes in Tel Aviv come from the ex-Soviet Union (Menahem Amir, 1997). Every Russian or Ukrainian woman can make a wealth of $50,000-$100,000 annually. However, they cannot own except a very small percentage of this money because they are in the position of “female slaves.” They can retain their freedom only through police raids against prostitution centers at the end of which they are deported home.

Ukrainian women constitute the biggest group among foreign prostitutes working in different countries such as Turkey. They are the second largest group of foreign prostitutes centered around US military bases in South Korea (personal application, 1999).

The transnational women transactions between exporting and importing countries take place on the basis of demand and supply. Importing countries host sex industries so they produce demand. The countries where brokers can employ women easily are considered as supply market. For decades, Thailand and Philippines were major exporting countries in Asia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, millions of women joined the market from countries such as Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania. These three countries soon became famous as main exporters of female sex slaves. Today, Russian and Ukrainian women are the most celebrated and valuable in the world sex industry market.

Combating this phenomenon is difficult because correct and reliable statistics of the victims and the profits gained through human trafficking is not available. The systematic and comparative scientific investigations into distribution networks have not been carried out successfully. The exact number of working prostitutes in the US is yet unknown partly because definitions of prostitution are so different. Only statistics on the number of arrests nationwide indicate hundred thousand per year. National task force on prostitution in the United States of America declared that the number of prostitutes exceeds 1 million, that is, 1% of the populace (Alexander, 1987: 188). The percentage of women prostitutes to men prostitutes vary from city to city. For example, in San Francisco, 20-30% of prostitutes are men. In the meantime, the profit gained in this industry is not usually declared. UN estimate of the profit of illegal human trafficking amounts to seven to ten billion dollars a year for the smugglers. This estimate is approximate. Human trafficking occupies the third place after drug trafficking and arm trafficking as most profitable (trafficking in persons report, 2002).

The huge profit companies gain from sex industry motivates some countries to think about legalization of prostitution as a business and legal way of strengthening women economically. In 1995, this industry produced a profit of 18-21.6 billion dollars which is more than half of the annual budget of the state of Thailand and equal to the military expenditure in Japan.

Human trafficking is easier, more profitable, and less risky than drug or arm trafficking. It is easier to transit people through border than to transit narcotics and weapons. Even in the case of police arrests, the same victims can be bought back and exported again.

According to reports, in 1980s, the average expense of arrest and trial of prostitutes was about $2000 per case. To combat prostitution, $23 million are expended in New York and $1 million in Memphis. The average annual expenditure amounts to $7.5 million (Pearl, 1987: 769).

In some countries especially in Africa, poor families in rural areas are prepared to sell their children to smugglers. World Bank investigations about Benin indicated that other external factors including TV advertisements coming from developed nations leave undeniable effects on selling children and women and on human trafficking. There are, of course, important internal elements such as need to cheap and available labor, the unofficial economy in Africa and increasing demand for children for sex services. Women are smuggled to Europe for commercial sex industry mainly from West Africa.

Foreign women are smuggled into South Africa for sexual abuse and for commercial purposes in the framework of sex tourism by organized criminal gangs stationed in Bulgaria, Russia, Thailand, China, and Nigeria (the trafficking of women into the South African, 2002).

The International Labor Organization estimates the number of children smuggled to the West or Central Africa for forced and cheap labor as well as sex abuse around 200,000 to 300,000 annually (trust trafficking in West Central Africa, 2001).

It is worthwhile to mention here that prostitution market is run by a range of women of different incentives the majority of whom are forced into the process by smugglers. A Small percent of prostitutes voluntarily choose this profession. The majority of prostitutes risk their safety and health. In general, prostitutes can be divided into the following groups:

- women who yield to prostitution under economic pressure and endure its difficulties till they find a better job

- women born in poor families who suffer illiteracy and poverty

- women forced to prostitution

- Women who voluntarily choose this profession and accept violent treatment and social exploitation because of their personality complexes. The majority of these women underestimate their skills and intelligence. Therefore, they fall prey to smugglers.

- Women with miserable childhood who have experienced failures in competition with others and lack of attention and support by parents, teachers, and employers.

- Women of low intelligence or mental or physical problems who consider prostitution as a gateway to society. Smugglers usually do not prefer this class of women.

- Women who consider prostitution natural and acceptable. This group includes prostitutes who have received this profession from their ancestors and pass it to their children. This group enjoys a considerable self-esteem and can stand in the face of problems and threats.

- Beautiful and intelligent women who opt for wealthy and influential customers in order to gain enormous income. This group constitutes the smallest fraction of prostitutes. Their power to choose their partner gives them an exclusive capability to avoid problems peculiar to prostitution.

- Women of strong personality who assume the role of social activists trying to break taboos and overcome political, cultural, and social barriers in order to enlighten people and correct the mentality of society . This group includes some artists, poets, authors, and radical political activists.

Smuggling networks aim the first five groups and neglect the rest because of their special personal characteristics or idealistic purposes. In addition to the victims of human trafficking being mostly women, the population of the vulnerable who are affected by human trafficking is also on the increase. The vulnerable include immigrants with economic purposes and political asylum seekers. This group is comprised of people who have lost their jobs, homes, and families as the result of natural catastrophes, civil wars, political instability, famines, diseases, and economic setbacks and seek a better life. They are probable targets of human smugglers.

The development of shadow economy and transnational criminal networks as a consequence of globalization leaves negative effects on newborn states and is a result of the expansion of transnational economic, social, and political relations beyond the control of established states. The transnational networks walking within immigrant communities are controlled and led by members of criminal organizations.

Privatization and economic liberalization is booming thanks to cyber technology. Free trade opportunities beyond imagination are now available worldwide rendering financial exchanges increasingly more complicated at the international level. Under these circumstances, criminal networks and unofficial economy too find opportunities to expand and hide their activities effectively. As a result, sex industry, for example, recruits more and more women every day producing a clausal turnover.

Generally speaking, the first glance at the present state of world trade and modern slavery shows that the main factor in increased exploitation of women and children is economy and the main goal in economy is augmentation of capital the world over. In this process, many human beings are naturally sacrificed at the altar of profit.

3. Feminism and prostitution

In the early 18th century, the British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft declared that street prostitution is more respectable than marriage is and marriage is no more than legalized prostitution (Wollstonecraft, 1797). Hundred years later, the socialist American feminist Emma Goldman said about prostitution that “the question is solely about the extent to which the woman sells her body; to one or many men within or without the framework of marriage” (Goldman 1913: 14).

Feminists’ combat against contempt for prostitutes began in 19th century. In an article titled “History Never Repeats Itself,” Gail Peterson reflects on the theory used by the British extremist of 19th century Butler. Gail writes, “Butler warned his political colleagues in 1897… that they should take care of chaste workers for they are prepared to tolerate any amount of pressure, force, and contemptuous behavior exercised on their fellows; it is possible to make man behave morally by force” (Peterson, 1996: 30).

Existentialist feminism

The existentialist feminism was founded by Simone de Beauvoir. Her slogan was, “It is not true that women are always powerless; women do not indeed depend on man.” She believed that prostitution is a way to set women free from dependence on men; a way in which women are empowered and not victimized,” (De Beauvoir, 1998: 191).

From an existentialist feminist perspective, the ideal state is the absolute equality of the two sexes in freedom and rights. Till this ideal state is realized, however, a sort of immediate liberty is needed and reasonable which can be reached in prostitution. She holds that women possess the capability to explore their inner power in the form of feminine spirit which is exclusively theirs, instead of trying to achieve the illusionary ability to compete men. Women wronged as the result of sex discrimination can find a remedy in economic means that give them further strength.

Carol Pateman, a staunch proponent of this view, writes about the role of a woman as a prostitute, “Man may think that he owns the woman but his sexual attachments are no more than delusions because, in fact, it is the woman who owns the man. … Woman is not indeed possessed because she is paid for the service she renders. This approach to prostitution is far better than that bitter approach adopted by Marxism in which prostitution is seen as a sort of exploitation. A prostitute is not a prey. She is the gist of “emancipated woman” (Jaggar, 1996:191).

Liberal feminism

According to Liberal feminism, prostitution is a contract for some sort of private transaction. Woman enters into this contract or refrains from doing so voluntarily. Unlike radicals who evaluate this relationship on the basis of personality hence consider it as a form of exploitation of woman, the liberal feminists believe that when somebody needs a particular service, be it medical, mechanical, or physical like plumbing, what matters is the  service to be rendered rather than the person who renders the service (Pateman, 1995: 211).

In Pateman’s book titled Sex Contract, it is said, “The prostitute is not a laborer with fixed wage; rather, she is a party to an independent contract she can abort at any moment she wants; the other party to the contract is a customer rather than a master” (ibid. 202).

Liberal feminists believe that personal rights are prior to public interest. The basis of their ideology originates in the political philosophy advocated by John Stuart Mill who holds, “State should not interfere in personal affairs of citizens” (Walkowitz, 1996: 189).

The liberal feminist theory partly resembles existentialism. The liberals consider roles given exclusively to women a kind of sex discrimination and invite women to give up these tyrannical roles. The existentialist seeks freedom and legal equality for women. The difference between them comes up when liberals consider women's right to opt for prostitution as a profession as a political and inner right while existentialist feminists consider it a means for economic strength.

Liberals’ attitude towards prostitution is multifaceted. Traditional liberals adhere to the motto “woman has the right to her body.” They defend prostitution considering it as “a crime with no victim” committed by reasonable mature adults. From their point of view, all efforts against prostitution are motivated by excessive sensitivity to moral prejudices of the third party i.e. onlookers. They are, therefore, criminal acts. Liberals invite society to tolerate prostitution.

Liberal feminist defense of prostitution as a framework of adults’ exercising private rights is based on the principle of “self ownership.” From the same principle comes the idea that free mature adults have the right to perform any sexual activity voluntarily. In their view, prostitution is different from rape. In the case of rape, a woman's body is used against her will. In prostitution, the woman acts freely and, sometimes, initiates. They think society must recognize the right woman enjoys saying “yes” to invitations to sexual contact in the same way and for the same reason that she has the right to say “no.” It should be borne in mind that there is a difference between prostitution and voluntary sex contact. The former is an economic transaction.

Liberal feminists defend free-market from an individualist point of view. Prostitution is an amalgamation of free sexual contact and free-market both of which are considered as special advantages for capitalism. To deny either one amounts to denying the other as well. In such a social setup, a woman can control her sexual instinct; prostitutes rein in the situation by defining the price, the time, and place of sexual affair. Therefore, the prostitute does not fall prey to men. She rather conquers them.

According to liberals, the problem prostitution faces is the result of double standards society adopts. The attitude towards prostitutes as second-hand citizens resembles the attitude of settlers towards indigenous inhabitants of the territory they have conquered. On the one hand, society promotes marriage and portrays it as a way a woman gains a man with whatever he owns. On the other hand, it depicts sexual relationship as one form of transaction. Therefore, the legislations against prostitution do not accord with society’s view.

Liberals do not include a provision that guarantees women prostitutes security and immunity to possible dangers. So, the exercise of their right to freedom of choice may endanger them while they are left unprotected and unsupported. Liberals seem to evade their responsibility to show a way to protect women from possible harms prostitution causes them by claiming that they do not defend or advocate prostitution but just defend women’s right of choice.

Marxist Feminists

Following Carl Marx, Marxist feminists pay attention to social issues. Every political act or social situation involving the expectation of women that serves the interests of men should be condemned from their point of view. In prostitution, a woman is exploited though she is paid for the services she renders. Marx once said, “Prostitution is only one form of the general exploitation of the labor class” (Pateman, 1995: 201).

According to Marxist feminists, prostitution is wrong because of global policies. Prostitutes may imagine that they freely opt for this profession. But looking at the scene in close-up, we realize the cultural and economic situation is so administered by capitalist systems that they are forced into this unjust role unconsciously. In “sex contract,” Pateman says, “prostitutes are not laborers but parties to an independent contract.” People protesting against prostitution because it involves harming and belittling a woman as a result of commercial transportation fail to realize that “it is not the prostitute’s body that is sold on the market but certain services she freely offers in a contract”(Ibid.,191).

The Marxist philosopher Robert Nozick believes that “people have the right to freely think about what harms them. Everybody has the right to give their body even to slavery” (Nozick 1981).

Marxist feminism and radical feminism meet at certain common points. Simon Weil criticizes, “In capitalism, man is gradually distanced from the spiritual features of life to become a part of a machine. Therefore, it is not appropriate to entertain a mechanical approach to prostitutes neglecting their mental characteristics,” (Weil, 1955: 41.) About Marxism, he writes, “This view is wanting not only in theory but also in practice. This is correct about the description of economic growth mechanisms as well. The main purpose in Marxism is labor distribution. In this respect, it resembles capitalism. Marxist feminists base the criteria of moral good and bad on the system of payment which is, in fact, an embodiment of class discrimination. They think it is a form of injustice to workers to exploit the working power in exchange for fixed wage because it involves depriving them from learning skills and eventually enslave them”(ibid., 61).

Social feminism

Social feminism is like Marxist feminism in general features except for replacing psychological social conditions for compulsory yielding economic system as the main base of unjust relationship in society (Tong, 1989). Their concern for women exceeds politics. They concentrate on people more than on economic benefit.

According to socialist feminists, a prostitute is the prey to a corrupt society ruled by discrimination and class divides. In a materialist society, class injustice takes the shape of contempt for some classes of society. People are considered as ingredients of a huge system in which their place can easily be changed. Socialists and Marxists do not advocate prostitution but do not present legal ways to eliminate it either. In their view, prostitution is a structural problem in society. So, it should be treated structurally only.

Radical feminism

Radical feminists protest against prostitution and consider it as belittling women and a way to increase masculine political power. They believe that “injustice against women constitutes the most foundational sort of injustice and a model for other forms of injustice” (Wheleham, 1995: 71). Prostitutes are deprived of the right to choose. They are prey to a shrewd and direct force. Human mentality is so corrupted that injustice cannot be abolished via structural transformation of society. Male mentality too must be changed in order that equality in power between men and women is realized. They think that prostitution will disappear as soon as the structural reform of society guarantees complete equality between man and woman in rights. Radicals and liberals diverge on some fundamental principles. Liberal feminists emphasize political and emotional axis. Radical feminists emphasize cultural awareness in order to face specialized challenges.

According to radical feminists, there is no difference between prostitution and rape. Prostitution is not a harmless private transaction. Rather, it strengthens contempt for women and makes their exploitation a normal reality (Jaggar, 1996: 242). Female prostitution is unjust not because of the pain inflicted on women but because of the organized profession that begets a uniform belief in society facilitating women’s degradation (Sharge, the 9574).

Radical feminists believe that these problems stem from two imaginary concepts about male sex historically fortified in masculine mentality that men need sexual relationship more than women do and that men are genetically stronger so dominant in sexual relations. Allison Jagar defines radical feminists’ fundamental mentality in this way: “almost in all relations between men and women, there is hidden a sexual illusionary tinge; all these relations are principally established in order to fortify man's sexual domination” (Jaggae, 2002: 270).

The common view says that men enjoy strong sexual instinct that should be satisfied in one way or another. Otherwise, it can be transformed into a driving force for aggression against women. Radical feminists, however, disagree with this picture. They think man's sexual desires are more cultural than biological. Modern biological theories about the development of human society highlighting the role of culture in comparison to genetic inheritance somehow confirm this view. “According to radical feminists, the notion of man's strong sexual desires and precept that these desires should be satisfied are two common beliefs held by society. The outcome of such a belief is that women should realize these needs. Society has taught women to comply with a particular definition of womanhood” (Weisburg, 1996: 194).

When radicals speak about contempt for women, they do not speak ethically. They rather refer to social phenomenon. They mean every activity women perform for man from work at home to tolerating sexual insults that fortifies masculine domination.

Parallel to some biological theories confirming some feminist views, sociological and ethical studies support these views in a more understandable fashion too. Radical feminists, therefore, invoke these views. For example, exploiting people is immoral and condemnable. If a man gets used to put people under pressure to take decisions beneficial to his company, he gradually gets used to lying and teasing people. This becomes his characteristic trait after a while. He may behave at home and under the influence of this trait. By extension, we may say that power, influence, lying, and teasing may result in insulting women. Hence, immoral atmosphere may be observed not only in the life and activities of a prostitute but everywhere in society.

In radicals’ perspective, prostitution is not a crime without a victim. It is a branch of political power ruling over social relationship between men and women. Prostitutes are no more than weak links in this chain. “Men look at women as sex objects which can be manipulated for sexual purposes. So they exercise pressure on them in order to satisfy their sexual desires” (Freeman, 1996: 242).

Radical feminists simplify prostitution very much reducing it to a political issue. They think that instead of approaching prostitutes, the male-oriented society formed by patrimonial capitalism should be blamed. Their theory, therefore, fails to understand women prostitutes and prescribe a way to restore their rights. The only thing their theory does is to call to eliminating all phenomena that contribute to patrimonial dominance and violence against women as a class.

Prostitution helps legalize a degrading social attitude towards woman. It is important, therefore, to encourage prostitutes to undertake a political and moral commitment to avoid selling their body because it attributes to the deterioration of the cultural mentality of lower class society that tends to harm women easily. In his article titled Prostitution in Contemporary American Society, Juvan Miller writes, “Prostitution is based on compulsion and abuse. It is composed of the gender-biased exploitation of the female by the male because of the latter’s superior social status inflicting pain and damage to the former” (Miller, 1991).

Susan Brown Miller writes in her book Against the Will, “Refusing prostitution by a streetwalker is a fundamental move in combating aggression. If the majority of liberal-minded people fail to understand this point, we should doubt there is political understanding and their concern for women’s rights” (Brown Miller, 1993: 390).

Excessive simplification of the subject matter by radicals may help them justify their political stance but cannot properly explain the political cultural and economical repercussions of the multifaceted and complicated issue of prostitution. That is why radical feminists introduce different conflicting reasons for prostitution in theory but fail to calculate the corrupting consequences of this behavior from various dimensions. They admit that prostitution causes degradation of women but conclude that other social evils play similar roles. Hence, a comprehensive analysis of the subject is necessary.

Since radical feminists fail to see the connection between brokers in prostitution and the theory of male dominance, they simplify the phenomenon of prostitution and reduce social dynamism to a sexual injustice. They make it the focus of man-woman relationship in order to skip classical moral theories in the field. In order to deny that prostitution is a profession, they highlight the necessity of a political platform for crusade against the injustice inflicted on prostitutes. It goes without saying that the ethical approach to the solution of this problem is far easier than the political approach based on sex injustice because the moral approach is more widely welcome. The wider the range of the human experiences explained by theory is, the stronger and more successful that theory is supposed to be. Theory of limited capability for accounting for scientific data and theoretical views enjoys less popularity. Since radical feminists neglect the domain of morality, their solutions for the problem of prostitution suffer severe limitations.

Legalization of prostitution

From a legal perspective, there are two approaches to the question of sex transactions. In one approach, prostitution defined as “sex service in exchange for money” is banned and criminal code is responsible to prevent it. This kind of prostitution is called “non free prostitution” in international law (Barry et al, 1995). It is defined in the UN protocol concerning organized regional crimes as “to own women and children for economic profit, sex, brokers’ domination, brothel owners, or customers.” From this point of view, voluntary prostitution cannot be conceived, all forms of human exploitation should be abolished and all agents involved in such exploitation should be punished. There is no difference between forced prostitution and slavery. “If we refrain to count forced prostitution as enslavement, we should admit that half of the black population in the South [of America] in 1850 were not slaves” (Katyal, 1998).

The other approach considers prostitution as a form of free and voluntary activity that prostitutes opt for. The theoretical differences between these two approaches practically leave no significant effect on the reality of sex abuse which victim women fall prey to. This can be observed in Germany where prostitution is legal for European citizens and illegal for others. As a result, transnational organizations involved in human trafficking as well as the brokers running brothels freely conduct these activities while the illegal immigrant women prostitutes suffer because they are not citizens and because they are prey to smuggling. Around one fourth of prostitutes in Germany whose number range between 200,000-400,000 are smuggled in from East Europe (Irena Omelaniuk, 1993).

Feminists disagree among them about the legal status of prostitution. Some of them emphasize the necessity of implementing anti smuggling regulations on national and international levels (Jeffryes, 1998) while some others vote for prosecution of women who practice prostitution as a profession as well as sex brokers forcing women to prostitution (Satz, 1995: 68).

Radical feminists draw distinctions between the three concepts “abolition,” “legalization,” and “decriminalization” of prostitution. They oppose abolition of prostitution arguing that personal freedom includes the right of using one's body in ways one finds suitable which involves prostitutes’ right to their body (Alemdavar, 2002). This is an attitude towards woman’s status in society based on gender prejudice. Feminists hold that women enter this market because of their need and poverty. So, the luckier exploit the less lucky. Since women are not welcome in other professions on the market, prostitution looks satisfactory (O’cannell, 1998: 75).

Reasons for legalization of prostitution

Advocates of legalization argue that prostitution is like any other forms of economic exchange the fundamental condition of which is mutual consent of the parties to the contract. From their point of view, there is no difference between sex transaction in the form of marriage and other forms. They refer to the United States Constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech, religion, and commerce. The first two rights are particularly protected by the Constitution. Ban on any form of “relationship between mature wise adults” amounts to breach of the clauses in the Constitution that guarantee these rights. The state is designed in United States in a way that guarantees people's administration of the state. Hence, setting limits and controls directly challenges modern liberalism. More conservative fractions of the US state oppose radical feminists’ struggle for more freedoms in economic, political, and cultural fields of little significance. As to major social issues such as religious tendencies and groups struggling for justice but considered to be queer, measures limiting personal and social freedoms are taken with consensus of majority to counter them.

Another reason advocates of legalization of prostitution present is that in general, ban incites resistance and in this particular case, leads to the spread of underground prostitution. They argue that ban on alcoholic beverage in America during 1920 to 1933 only resulted in the increase of alcohol consumption, increase of home production, the creation of black market and underground business (Nixon, 2003). Legalization of prostitution helps decrease expenditures on combating this profession and prosecuting the people involved in it in circumstances under which these people go back to black market after they are fined or otherwise punished.

Legalization of prostitution helps organize this profession and prevent organized criminal gangs and greedy brokers to exploit this particular demand in society to augment their profit at the cost of others’ rights, health, and freedom. In the absence of legalization, what happens is not an end to prostitution but a chance for a very small number of people to manipulate other people through establishing black market and utilizing their human preys in unhealthy and unsafe conditions. Under such circumstances, it is very difficult to combat underage prostitution too.

Countering the criticism that prostitutes bring about insecurity, advocates of utilization reply: the feeling of insecurity is not created or spread by prostitutes conducting their professional job but to male tendency to violence against women not only in the streets but also at home. Violence against women is not confined to prostitutes. Legal wives too are subject to such violence.

Anti-prostitution regulations work discriminatively against women. For, prostitutes are scared and refrain from presenting their complaints to the police. Even in rare cases of complaints submitted, women become subjects to aggression or insult. A report indicates that of the total number of the cases of violence against prostitutes, 20% belong to brokers and other prostitutes, 20% belong to the police, and 60% to customers (Margo, 1984).

Anti-prostitution regulations historically wronged women because they set restrictions to sex industry affecting women alone. These regulations imposed no limitations on the behavior of men as customers. Legalization can prevent general problems prostitutes may face. The commonest problem comes from the presence of children whose future mental and emotional health may be jeopardized.

Consequences of legalization

The opponents of legalization of prostitution argue that such legalization winds up in imposing rules on women forcing them to choose prostitution as a profession. Some countries make special preparations for legalization of prostitution. However, the international coalition against trafficking in women warns that such legalization not only represents prostitution as a profession but also contributes to the growth of sex industry with all its repercussions.

The international coalition against trafficking in women declares that prostitutes should not be condemned as criminals for harming themselves. But, smugglers, owners of brothels, and all those involved in sex establishments should be prosecuted.

As a champion of anti-smuggling policies, the Netherlands consulted European Supreme Court about the question of legalizing prostitution as an economic activity in 2000. The purpose was to issue permits to women from the ex-Soviet bloc to walk in the Netherland’s sex industry. A government report in Budapest shows that 80% of prostitutes in brothels have been smuggled in (Budapest group, 1999).

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports that 70% of these women are illegal immigrants from East and Central Europe. Germany declared prostitution legal in January, 2002. Since then, brothels have been legal. In 1993, it was known that 75% of women working in sex industry in that country came from Latin American countries such as Argentine, Paraguay, Uruguay, and the like (Altink Sietske, 1995: 33). After the Berlin wall collapsed, owners of sex centers in Germany reported that 90% of women working in the industry were from East Germany or other parts of the ex-Soviet Union.

Contrary to the claim that legalization of prostitution helps control sex industry, statistics show that the legalization contributed to the growth of the industry. In the Netherlands, sex industry constitutes 5% of this country's economy (Daley, 2002). In 1990, prostitution broking was legalized, and in 2000, sex centers were decriminalized. A 20% increase in the size of the industry was the result. Sex exploitation in other forms such as cabarets, pornography, and nightclubs developed and became more profitable (Sullivan et al., 2001).

In the Australian state of Victoria, legalization of prostitution led to a gigantic growth of sex industry. While in 1989, there were only 40 official sex centers, this number increased to 94 in 1999.

A few years after prostitution was half legalized in Switzerland, the number of brothels was doubled. Most of these places do not pay tax. In 1999, Blick newspaper circulated in Zürich claimed that Switzerland hosts the greatest number of brothels in Europe. In general, demand for sex slavery and illegal human trafficking for sex purposes increases sharply when prostitution is legalized or socially accepted (Malarek, 2004).

It was expected that the streetwalkers disappear after legalization of prostitution. But this expectation remains unmet because many women prostitutes dislike registering officially and undergoing medical examinations. In addition, the majority of prostitutes preferred to work for themselves. They dislike being controlled or manipulated by brokers and the owners of sex centers.

The number of brothels in Australia increased from 400 to 500 in 1999. The majority of these brothels worked without license. To put an end to corruption in police headquarters, the task of stopping illegal prostitution was transferred from the police to city councils. But these councils proved inefficient due to financial problems.

Legalization of prostitution in countries such as the Netherland failed to put an end to child prostitution. It has been in the increase since 1990. An Amsterdam-based child right organization declared that the number of these children increased from 4000 in 1996 to 15,000 in 2001. In the Australian state of Victoria too, child prostitution has increased alarmingly. In 1998, a study was carried out by End Child Prostitution and Trafficking Organization providing ample evidence for organized abuse of children in some Australian provinces where prostitution is legalized.

The legalization of prostitution contributed to the increase of man's tendency to “buy” women for sex purposes in far wider range accompanied by social acknowledgment. Many men did not dare to opt for the choice which sex industry banned; after legalization, however, the obstacle was removed. The social and moral barriers condemning the attitude towards women as sex commodity were gradually removed as well. The new generation of men and boys received the signal that prostitution is an entertainment and women are sex devices.

Gigantic advertisements on walls and highways in the Australian city of Victoria put in the head of the new generation of boys that they can treat women with contempt. Businessmen and entrepreneurs are encouraged once more to convene their official meetings in clubs where sex service is rendered rather than in their offices. The owner of a brothel in Melbourne, Australia, says customers go there during daytime and go back to their family at night. They are mostly well-educated experts. The women who seek closer and equal relation with these men soon realize that educated men commute to these clubs for short periods of time. These women should accept that men buy women for sex only. They should not show any curiosity about their profession or education. Otherwise, their spouses will cut all relations with them (Sullivan et al., 2001).

In Sweden, sex business is banned and people accused of such businesses would be prosecuted. The government has concluded that “after the ban on sex transaction, combat against prostitution and its repercussions proved more efficient.” The law stresses that “prostitution is not a desirable social phenomenon” but has emerged as “an obstacle to equality of women and men” (Olson, 2001:2).

Legalized prostitution establishes systems of healthcare and medical examinations and professional ID schemes for prostitutes- not for customers. This is discrimination. Women are not protected against the diseases. Health regulations implemented in brothels harm women prostitutes more than male customers. Sixty percent of these women report that customers are prohibited from teasing them yet they feel unsafe (Raymond et al., 2002).

The majority of women interviewed in CATW study said that they entered sex industry involuntarily. It has been their only choice. Sixty seven percent of law enforcement agents interviewed by CATW thought that women do not go for prostitution on their own. Seventy two percent of social welfare agents believed that women do not choose sex industry (Raymond et al., 2002).

The report of 1998 by the International Labor Organization refused the idea that legalization of sex industry is an economic issue: “prostitution is one of the most deviated forms of occupation for studies carried out in four countries indicate that women engaged in this profession feel unsatisfied and forced to the job. They develop a negative attitude towards themselves .Their conscience is hurt. Most of them would leave the profession as soon as they could (Lim, 1998: 213).

The Ford Foundation conducted a study in five countries about sex smuggling. This study showed that the majority of women interviewed opposed legalization of prostitution because of the damage it inflicts on them which is far greater than what they suffer now as the result of customers’ violence. “Prostitution is not a profession by any means. It is rather an insult and violence against women at the hands of men,” (ibid. 215).


Nowadays, sex industry is one of very efficient modes of cultural transformation the world over. It is also an important ingredient of globalization as capitalism understands and promotes. The strongest reaction to this phenomenon has come during recent decades from feminism. Feminists, whether for or against prostitution, work with notions such as equal social rights for the two sexes, active presence of women in decision-making on national and international levels, and the personal right to one's body everyone enjoys. There are inconsistent ingredients in feminist theories despite their ceaseless effort to portray feminism as a comprehensive school of thought that aims to present solutions to women’s problems and propose liberal definitions of the rights and the status of women globally. As a whole, feminism suffers, nowadays, lack of consistency and comprehensiveness. It suffers important conceptual confusions about major notions such as limits of freedom and the difference between will and choice in social and personal affairs.

Various trends in feminism agree on central issues such as equality for men and women and jointly work hard to achieve these goals in national and international arenas through activity in international and nongovernmental organizations. Despite this crusade, the cultural attitude towards women and their social political status has not improved. Quantitative equality has not stopped tyranny, violence, insult, and contempt against women informed of modern slavery, sex abuse, human trafficking, and human exploitation in the forms of pornography and womanizing.

As to the phenomenon of prostitution, feminists look in two directions. First, they show compassion for prostitutes and try to enhance their living standard. Second, they defend prostitution as a job. They promote the idea that people are free to do whatever they like to their body. This approach undermines the physical and mental damages inflicted on women via prostitution. Therefore, the question may be asked how personal freedom of choice is to be defined and limited. Is it conceivable that some choices made freely may leave adverse effect on women's collective free choices? If the answer is positive, how can we defend such features under the guise of protecting women's rights?

In regard to personal rights including sexual rights, Liberal humanist schools hold the following theses:

  1. every woman has the right to own and control her body

According to liberal ethics, men and women enjoy this right equally. It is up to the person to decide how to use their body. Addiction to drugs, alcohol, LSD, or attempt at abortion, lesbianism, prostitution and the like all fall within the range of human free choice. One's right of ownership of one's body allows one to conduct any act even if it is irrational, harmful, and even fatal. They have the right to suicide. There are slight differences of opinion on minute details.

Feminism diverges from Islam on the question of the right to one's body. Islam believes that people are not allowed to harm their body. In some cases of harming one's body, penalty is enforced. Self harm involves harming others or damage to the interests of other people. Since society is one real entity the components of which are human individuals, when a person voluntarily inflicts damage on their body or terminates their life, they, at the same time, prevent other people from exercising their rights in which the life or health of this person plays a role.

  1. Every act is permissible if it is consented to

According to this principle, in personal affairs, it is the consent of the parties to a contract that makes it lawful. In social affairs, the vote of the majority legalizes an action. For example, every two individuals can have sex freely if they choose to. Otherwise, if one party to the sex experience does not consent, then that experience will be marked as aggression.

From an Islamic perspective, there is a difference between realities and rights. Realities do not change according to the consent of an individual or a majority. For example, it is absurd to say that in a referendum people decide that the Mount Everest is the highest on the Earth. Collective consent of people changes no reality. Moral truths are realities independent of people's minds and wishes. So, ethics may not depend on the consent of people.

  1. Profit is valuable

Some feminist proponents of prostitution defend this profession on the basis of the profit women prostitutes can gain from it. They even consider prostitution as a means of economic empowerment of women. It is worthwhile to mention here that if profit is important to such extent, other ways must have been explored for empowering women economically in a way their health and security remain protected.

It goes without saying that sexual relationship in human beings is not the physical contact alone; it is rather a contact of bodies and souls. In women particularly, sexual behavior is more a psychological issue than a physical. In prostitution, this psychological aspect is undermined. Therefore, the pleasure supposed to be derived is tarred. In sex industry, usually women are treated as sex commodity. They are to produce the pleasure others experience. The profit gained in prostitution mainly goes to capitalists.

  1. Ban incites resistance

About this proposition, we should mention that ban incites resistance in the absence of faith and human values such as dignity. Moreover, free prostitution has not decreased prostitution. So, banning is a useful means in the case of prostitution.

  1. Legalization

Statistics show that neither legalization nor criminalization of prostitution affected the phenomenon of prostitution notably. Nowadays, prostitution is not confined in brothels or sex shops. So, it is not easy to tackle it. Prostitution is now connected to world economy, global market, global culture, global politics, and the universal outlook to human life and honor. In Islamic countries where prostitution is considered as abnormal and contrary to Sharia, this phenomenon should be examined from all dimensions. Short term solutions based on local treatment fail. In every comprehensive treatment of the phenomenon, the elevation of the religious culture and national values should be taken into account so that general culture and morality develop in the right direction.


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- In, America's night side race and the American experience, Cornel West, IPI, world Congress, Boston, 2000




[1]. PhD graduate of pedagogy and research fellow at Center for Research in Humanities.

[2]. Expert at the Center for Research in Humanity.

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