Is Prostitution Inherently Problematic?

In Cambodia, some say it's the better option compared to demoralizing factory work.

woman taking off bra before sex
(Image credit: Image Source)

Over the weekend, I happened to be talking to a friend about prostitution. I mentioned an article I'd written about a former sex worker named Rachel Lloyd who founded a groupcalled Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, or GEMS. Through her organization, she helps hundreds of young girls — many of them younger than 12 — get off the streets every year. She is a woman who is truly devoted to helping kids who really want a way out of the bad situations they're in. "Until I wrote that piece," I told my friend, "I'd never really thought much about prostitution. It never occurred to me that, hey, maybe this isn't exactly a career choice for most people — but rather something they feel forced into, because of poverty or because of a manipulative or abusive pimp."

My friend responded by telling me a friend of his — a woman with a college education, who'd come from a middle class family and had a decent relationship with her parents, who had chosen to become a prostitute. He couldn't explain what exactly it was that appealed to her about that line of work — but he told me that she thought prostitution should be legal, and she was annoyed by people who thought that every woman who worked as a prostitute was somehow being taken advantage of.

I was given even more to consider after reading a piece in Slate about sex workers in Cambodia. Slate contributor Ken Silverstein pointed out that over there, most young women don't have many employment options beyond working for apparel companies and working in the sex industry — and that many of them seem to think the latter is the better option.

"So how does pay for factory work compare with pay for sex work?" he writes. "Textile workers earn about 33 cents per hour, lower than anywhere except Bangladesh. Even with significant overtime, monthly pay rarely tops $80. [Workers] commute in, sometimes from villages hours away, or live four and five to a room in shanties outside the factory gates. A study by two International Labor Organization specialists said that apparel workers were rarely able to save any money... Apparel workers are on their feet all day, other than for a short lunch break, and they work such long hours that they see little sunlight. The plants are hot and noisy, with the steady drone of the machines making conversation impossible. They are subject to strict workplace rules (i.e., asking permission to go to the bathroom), are pressured to meet high quotas, and, despite Cambodia's 'sweatshop-free' reputation, growing numbers work on short-term contracts that deprive them of basic labor rights."

Then there's sex work: "Hostesses [who work at brothel-like drink bars] also work long hours — typically late afternoon until 2 a.m. — but they usually eat at least one meal at work, hang out with friends, and watch television when business is slow. Some but by no means all of the hostesses whom I spoke with had sex with customers, and they were free to decline offers (though accepting clearly increases pay)."

Silverstein goes on to note that he's not trying to argue sex work is a simply wonderful option for Cambodian women. "HIV is an obvious risk, and prostitutes are subject to violence by customers, police, and at 'rehabilitation centers.' Sex work is just as much of a dead-end job as apparel work. When women get older, they either find something else to do or move from clubs and bars to the street... Are sex workers exploited? Absolutely. But so are textile workers. When I was in Cambodia in 2009 to report on the apparel industry, I obtained the 'company profile' of a firm that produced T-shirts, trousers, and skirts for companies like Aeropostale and JCPenney. It said the plant's 1,000 workers produced 7.8 million pieces annually. Taking a rough estimate of $25 per piece retail, each employee generated approximately $195,000 in retail sales annually, for which she received about $750 in pay, factoring in typical overtime rates."

A labor-rights activist from Cambodia tells Silverstein, "A lot of women no longer want apparel jobs. When prostitution offers a better life, our factory owners need to think about more than their profit margins.'"

Indeed — and, of course, his story isn't lauding prostitution as a fabulous career option but rather pointing out that factory work can be very dehumanizing and, in a way, a more deadening and depressing way to make money.

Reading the story, I couldn't help but think about the question of sex work. Does the idea of it bother many of us because we are projecting our own pruderies onto the people who do it? If it were legal — which would mean workers could be protected from violence, and patrons would also be forced to practice safe sex — would it be a different story?

I wonder what you all think about this, and if you have strong feelings one way or the other. If the potential for violence were removed, and regulations were in place to ensure that the sex was safe — big conditionals, I know — would we have a different opinion about it? In other words, under the right circumstances, do you think prostitution would not necessarily be a bad thing? Or do you think that sex work is inherently problematic — for reasons above and beyond those of physical safety, above and beyond those of legality and exploitation? If so, why?